A CHALLENGE TO UPAASF

Luis Ma. Calingo Ph.D
Executive Vice President
Dominican University

Induction Speech on November 21, 2010

Good afternoon, everybody, and thank you, Gil, for that generous introduction. I also want to recognize my wife Gem for, without her love and support over the past 29 years, I would not be where I am today.

Let me begin by congratulating the incoming officers of the UP Alumni Association of San Francisco and also recognizing them for responding to the call to service in behalf of their fellow alumni. Thanks also to the outgoing officers of the Association for the unselfish leadership that they have provided during their tenure.

Nearly all of us here share at least one thing in common. We all graduated from the best university in the Philippines. I entered UP as a high school student and left UP with two degrees eleven years later. Like you, I have been told countless times that we are the cream of the crop, the crème de la crème, or the people's scholars. Like you, I am an expatriate, a self-exile in this country which I have called home for thirty years now. Like all UP alumni, we share a moral and ethical obligation to give back to the people who invested in our education.

Many of us here celebrate the Sabbath today. In keeping with it, please allow me to briefly share with you one of my life's inspirations-the Parable of the Talents, which is recorded in Chapter 24 of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. In this parable, the master gave each of his servants a specified number of talents. Although the word "talents" in the story refers literally to money, you can obviously extend the meaning to other areas. At the day of reckoning, the servants who invested those talents wisely were rewarded, while the one servant who hid his one talent was physically thrown out to where there is "weeping and gnashing of teeth." The gifts and talents that we possess come from one source. Therefore, there is no cause for us to brag about our individual talents because they did not come from us. Likewise, there is no cause to brag about charitable contributions that we make because they are simply the fruits of gifts that we have been endowed with. We are simply trustees or stewards of everything that we own. Our talents are entrusted to us, like a master putting money into the care of his servants. Everything that we have allows us to participate in God's continuing work of creation and these gifts and talents come with the expectation that we would use them in the service of humanity. "And for whom much is given, much is required" (Luke 12:48).

Let me now go back to my original message of giving back as an "iskolar ng bayan." How can we give our gifts and talents back to the Philippines when we live and work in America, a country which is not our homeland? Let me share with you an idea. But before I do so, let me share with you some statistics about Filipinos in America. I must warn you that the data do not paint a pretty picture, but please do not shoot the messenger. The Filipino-American community, which is estimated at four million, is the second largest Asian-American group in the United States. In terms of educational attainment, however, studies have shown that Fil-Am high school students have one of the highest dropout rates in the country. A study released by the National Federation of Filipino-American Associations in 2008 found that Fil-Am public high school students in the city of San Francisco had the highest dropout rate among other Asians. Those who stayed in school barely passed. In Los Angeles County, the dropout numbers for Fil-Am students represented 56 percent of all dropouts in the county. Other studies found that Fil-Am students have substantially lower college graduation rates compared to U.S.-born Chinese, Japanese, and Koreans. At the University of California Berkeley and Los Angeles, institutions in this state where Filipinos comprise the largest Asian-American ethnic group, Fil-Ams have the lowest college admission rate among all racial or ethnic groups. In terms of socioeconomic status, Filipino-Americans generally have lower status than other Asian-Americans and their levels of educational attainment yield the lowest socioeconomic returns with respect to jobs and salary levels among all racial or ethnic groups. Let me offer an explanation. The mother and the father in most Fil-Am households are employed, with some even holding down two jobs or needing to work overtime. This allows little time for parental supervision of the children's progress in school. Also, with a few notable exceptions, Filipino parents tend not to get involved in the public school system. The 2008 study also reported that Fil-Am public high school students focused their energies more on working so as to be able to buy expensive clothes and cars. They were much more into dancing and singing than studying and earning academic awards. Becoming less academically achieving and if this trend is not reversed, young Filipino- Americans will soon be caught in the insidious cycle of poverty, having become permanent members of the low-educated and low-skilled group vying for low-paying jobs.

The question is: How can we as UP alumni in the United States, as achievers in and of ourselves, become more inspiring to the future generation of Filipino-Americans? I would find it hard to believe that our diligence and dedication when we were students at UP are absent when it comes to the education of our children and our youth at large. I would find it harder to believe that we are hungrier or more passionate about achieving the American dream than our own children and our youth, who have never known deprivation of the scope and scale that we had when we were growing up.

It is not easy to be a young person in America these days. Fewer young people are growing up in homes with two parents. I am one of those people who did not grow up as a teenager with two parents in a household. Nowadays, parents are working longer hours, and they have less time to spend with their children. Many of our youth do not have the advantage of living in those tightly-knit neighborhoods that many of us grew up in, where people looked out for each other and for each other's children.

We have also seen a rise of a popular culture that does not exactly celebrate diligence and self-discipline, but instead, sends a message that you can be rich and famous without doing any work and simply by looking good, that your ticket to success is only through rapping or basketball or being a star on reality television. Many young people do not have anyone in their lives to counteract that message, to tell them that gratification that comes instantaneously usually disappears just as quickly and that real success in life comes from commitment, persistence, effort, and hard work.

I know something about the impact these factors can have in the life of a teenager. When I was 12 years old, my mother died; I am the eldest of six siblings and my father never remarried. We were lucky to have loving paternal grandparents who poured everything they had into helping my father take care of us. When I graduated from high school, my grandparents went back to the province and I then started feeling the weight of my mother's absence.

I entered college as a UP-Government Scholar. I enjoyed my newly found freedom as a college student and I literally took advantage of UP's optional class attendance policies. I was definitely not always focused in school the way I should have been. I did some things that I am not proud of, like cutting classes and earning more than my fair share of Fs, leading me to lose my scholarship. After I joined my fraternity as an engineering pre-junior, I got in more trouble than I should have and almost got dismissed from UP Diliman. Without the emergence of a father-figure at the UP College of Engineering and a whole lot of luck, my life could have taken easily a turn for the worse.

That father-figure was the late Professor Dom Ilio, my first mentor. When I was on the verge of working myself out of UP, he pulled me aside and reminded me that the people of the Philippines were paying for my studies. He then asked me to organize a questions committee for a new quiz show that our fraternity was organizing for UP's college freshmen. He probably remembered that, during my initiation a few months earlier, I received less paddles because I easily answered all the general information questions that I was asked. Questions like, "What's the full name of the founder of the Boy Scouts?" When my mother was still alive, my favorite pastime was reading the five-volume Columbia Encyclopedia-and little did I know that I would one day put that to good use. My work on the questions committee brought me back to the habit of studying in the library and inspired me to resume being a serious student. I received another scholarship for my last two years in college, and I was a College Scholar during my last semester. That freshman quiz show BLOCKBOOSTER is now on its 36th year.

But many young people, let alone Fil-Am youth, are not as lucky today. They have a much smaller margin for error. If you did not finish college or if you only had a high school diploma a generation ago, you could still make a pretty decent living. That is no longer the case today. More than ever, success in life depends on success in school. And nowadays, a bachelor's degree is not even enough. And young people who start down the wrong path and do not have anybody to steer them straight are not just consigning themselves to a life of financial hardship; they are consigning all of us to an economy that will be less competitive and a nation that does not fulfill its promise. Equally importantly, our Fil-Am youth will be consigning all of us to a country that might brand Filipino-Americans as underachievers and, therefore, less worthy of empowerment in society.

So I challenge each UP alumnus in this room to be a mentor to a young Filipino-American. You might have already provided adequate educational guidance to your own children, but I am certain that you can identify a nephew, a niece, or another young relative or friend who needs a mentor. We know the difference a responsible, caring adult can make in a young person's life: buck them up when they are discouraged; provide tough love when they veer off track; being that person in their lives who does not want to let them down and that they do not want to let down; and refusing to give up on them, even when they want to give up on themselves. UP's motto, "Honor and Excellence," is not relevant only to UP students and alumni. It is also an appropriate ideal to pursue for our Fil-Am youth.

Studies have shown that young people in mentoring relationships get better grades in school; they are less likely to drink and they are less likely to do drugs. If you ask any successful person how they got to where they are today, chances are they will tell you about a mentor they had somewhere along the way.

The great poet and author Maya Angelou did not discover poetry until her mentor took her to the tiny library at her school and challenged her to read every book in the room. Steven Jobs of Apple was an incorrigible troublemaker until his fourth-grade teacher took him under her wing and convinced him to focus on mathematics instead of mischief. He turned out pretty OK. Ray Charles first discovered his gift for music when, at the age of 3, his next-door neighbor taught him how to play the piano.

So there is no doubt about the need for mentoring our youth. Before I end, let me share with you the origin of the word "mentor." In Greek mythology, before Odysseus went to fight in the Trojan Wars, he entrusted his son Telemachus and his family home to his old friend Mentor. To mentor is to become a parent-figure to a mentee or a telemachus, thereby making a difference in that person's life. There is no doubt about the tremendous need for mentors in this country, in our case starting with the youth of the Filipino-American community. What we need now is for committed adults to step forward and help us meet that need. Will you accept that challenge?

Thank you very much.