Ms. Gemma Nemenzo speaks at UPAASV Gala Night

by Ms. Gemma Nemenzo

Ms. Gemma Nemenzo, author,editor and journalist, was the guest speaker at the University of the Philippines Alumni Association Sacramento and Vicinity (UPAASV) Gala Dinner on September 22 Saturday at the Red Lion In Hotel in Saramento. In attendance and well represented were officers, board members and friends of UPAA San Francisco namely Ed and Jean Damasco, Drs. Pan and Julie Belo, Dr. Manuel and May Gaspay, Dr. Isagani Sarmiento, Manolo Banzon, Boy and Irma Ramos, Eric and Lita Punzalan, Gene and Genny Samson, Ding and Julie Cavestany, Ernie Tremor, Bong Beredo, Col. Irwin Ver, Gabby Moraleda and Cyril Abiog.

Gemma, as she is lovingly called. spoke on the state of education in UP. She was introduced by Dr. Alex Castillo.

Ms. Gemma Nemnzo's UPAASV Speech

Dr. and Mrs. Felix, officers of the UP Alumni Association of Sacramento and Vicinity, fellow UP alumni, mga kababayan at kaibigan. Magandang gabi po sa inyong lahat, good evening.

Thank you for inviting me tonight. It is certainly an honor and an unexpected one. I was admittedly quite shocked when I got Beep's email a few months ago asking me to be the keynote speaker. My first reaction was "is this a hoax?" I think it took a couple of follow-up emails from Beep before I responded, and even then I was hesitant. As a journalist, I'm used to being the observer, not the observed. And as the daughter and the baby sister of some former UP bigwigs, I was used to staying in the background while they talked about our beloved university. So, standing here tonight is an unusual role for me.

Beep was pretty insistent so I had to seriously think about it. I finally said yes after my life partner asked me, what are you scared of, you will be among friends. Oh yes, that's right, I would be among friends. UP folks after all are who I grew up with and being here tonight, with all of you, is really just coming home to my roots.

So let me begin by taking you on a nostalgia trip across the Pacific Ocean. But first let me ask: who among you here went to UP Diliman? And who among you have visited the Diliman campus in the last, say, 4 years?

Allow me to jog your memory a bit so we can all be in a UP state of mind tonight.

I grew up in the UP Diliman campus, just like Alex Castillo, who was our neighbor in area 2. Alex and I belonged to the first generation of campus brats, whose parents decided to brave what was then a remote, isolated swampland when the campus moved from Padre Faura in 1949.

We lived in quonset huts left over by American troops from World War II, with sawali walls that creaked with the wind, tin roofs that leaked when it rained, and wooden floors that had holes that swallowed our marbles and our pick-up-sticks when we weren't paying attention.

Cogon grass taller than the average person surrounded the residential areas, snakes slithered underneath our houses, unasphalted roads broke coeds' heels and permanently scarred our knees because we were constantly stumbling over rough stones.

At night, fireflies, cockroaches and lizards were everywhere; at daytime, bees and grasshoppers enjoyed, just as we did, the fragrance and colors of the camia, the sampaguita, the rosal, the kalachuchi, and all the other flowers that bloomed all over the campus year-round.

In our childhood memories, the sky was big and blue, the torrential rains a source of intense pleasure, and the fruit trees -- the aratilis, guavas, mangoes, duhat, santol and balimbing -- all were alternately welcoming and mysterious. We learned to climb those trees to pick the ripe fruits, oblivious to the concepts of ownership and boundaries because we considered the entire campus our playground.

In the summer, when the college students left for their home provinces, we had the place to ourselves. That's when we were able to explore every nook and cranny of our shared universe --we discovered where the water in the open canals flowed, where lovers trysted, where the winds swirled perfectly for kite flying.And most important of all, we discovered places to hide where we could not be found when it was time for our piano lessons.

There were plenty of other thrills in the campus paradise of our childhood. There was the Carillon that woke us up each morning at 7 and sent us home at 5 in the afternoon. It posed a challenge to the more adventurous among us because climbing its narrow winding stairs wasn't for the faint of heart.

Do you remember those beautiful fire trees that lined the street between the Engineering building and the Arts and Sciences building? One May afternoon, a group of us went to shake down some of its tangerine flowers for our Flores de Mayo offering, but the beautiful blooms came with its share of higad, those nasty, hairy little worms that made our skin itch all over. We learned a valuable lesson that day -- that beautiful things can bring with them intense misery.

There was Fr. John P. Delaney, the well-loved and controversial Catholic priest whose room at the old UP Chapel had two humongous tin bins filled with candy, from which we were allowed to scoop a handful if we dressed up as angels for the procession around the block.

And then there was Little Quiapo, which I'm sure most of you remember with fondness. It was the only privately owned refreshment parlor on campus and it served the best halo-halo ever. At that time, eating out for most families surviving on a meager UP salary was a luxury indulged in only during birthdays and graduations. But LQ was our monthly treat, as eagerly awaited as the Magnolia carts with their ringing bells that plied our streets every afternoon peddling twin popsicles for 10 centavos and pinipig crunch for 20 centavos.

The biggest regular excitement for the campus brats however was the coming of the truck that spewed massive amounts of DDT twice a week to fumigate against the giant mosquitoes that proliferated in the former swampland.

We would run after the truck, gleefully inhaling the smoke that we savored as our version of fog. How we survived that poison is beyond me. But ask any kid who grew up in the UP campus then and I'm very sure he would wax nostalgic about our regular DDT high.

At this point, let me take a break from my narration so I can bring you deeper into this time travel to our past and the present UP by showing you some photos.

[run powerpoint, annotate]

As we've seen from the pictures, UP has changed so much from when some of us were there. The university is actually a living, breathing organism that doesn't stop growing, despite budgetary shortfalls, political turmoil and natural disasters.

Consider these: from a student population of about 18,000 in the mid-60s, the UP system 2011 figures show more than 52,000 enrollees. Interestingly, of those 52,000, 62 percent or about 32,000 are females while 20,000 or 38 percent are males. Why the discrepancy? Perhaps females are more intelligent?

Since its founding in 1908 until its centennial year in 2008, our alma mater has graduated and helped shape the future of 220,000 young Filipinos.

From its origins in Padre Faura, the UP system now has seven campuses, also called constituent universities, situated in strategic locations in the archipelago.

There are now 657 course programs being offered, 248 of which are for undergrads, and 409 in the graduate school.

The university budget has of course ballooned and along with it, the problems. But current president Fred Pascual wants you to know that the Department of Management and Budget has proposed a 60% hike in the UP budget for 2013.

It is a common among us alumni to compare UP now to UP as we knew it. "During our time..." and "when we were there..." are phrases that we use when we start lamenting the so-called deterioration of standards and status of our beloved university.

And it's true, if we take the numbers at face value. Among universities in Asia, UP was once among the top 5, now it ranks 68th out of 300.

In any international listing, UP would be the lone Philippine university cited. Now Ateneo, La Salle, UST and even Mindanao State would also make the list, many notches below UP but still there.

During our time, it wasn't really news if UP graduates top the bar and the medical board; the bigger news would be if they didn't. Or if some graduates actually failed. Now UP grads are often outscored by those from other schools; it would be big news if the topnotcher -- and especially if several in the top 10 -- are from UP. And there would be several who actually wouldn't make it.

What happened? Has our university become mediocre?

Well, as we journalists would put it - there are always multiple sides to a story.

There are more universities competing in the international arena now, many of them better endowed by their governments and their alumni. While UP was once the only state university of the Philippines, there are now at least 133 competing for the same slice of the Philippine government's education budget.

Until the last few years, UP faculty were way underpaid compared to their counterparts in private schools. Thus many of them had to move to greener pastures or forced to split their day teaching in UP and doing consultancies to be able to make ends meet.

The old UP charter, which worked in the mid-20th century was hopelessly outdated at the turn of the 21st. For one thing, it required the university to follow the payscale of civil service employees, even if the professors' skills and qualifications surpassed those of senators and congressmen.

When my brother was president from 1999-2005, he and his staff spent an inordinate amount of time lobbying Congress to pass the new Charter. They were twice successful in the House, thanks to the help of UP alumni there. But in the Senate, unfortunately, a powerful then-senator from our home province thwarted the effort because of a personal vendetta against our family, which he took out on my brother.

But that's just a piece of historical chismis now; the new UP charter was finally passed in 2008, ensuring, among many other provisions, that all the university's income and assets are tax-exempt and are plowed back into the university's coffers, not to the national government. Though its passage has not solved UP's problems altogether, it has at least given President Fred Pascual a freer hand in making life better for UP faculty and employees, and has stemmed the exodus of the best and the brightest among them.

We can talk endlessly about the state of our beloved university and what we can do to help. I'm sure the UP Alumni Association mother chapter hasn't been remiss in informing you about professional chairs that need funding, building repairs that have to be done, projects that have to be undertaken. From the letter Beep sent me I saw that the UP Alumni Association of Sacramento and Vicinity has been actively doing its part in keeping the alumni flames burning by its providing loans to deserving students in 5 UP campuses.

I also note with admiration that your group is applying the principle of good citizenship that we learned in UP, by doing things that benefit various communities in the Philippines and here. You have also been responsive to the needs of the disadvantaged in Quezon City and in Sacramento. Your going beyond the boundaries of our homeland with your good deeds is living proof that the UP spirit is alive and well in you, far though you wander.

UP indeed has led us to where we are and what we are now. We all entered its halls as young, impressionable kids, and left as grownups armed with enough knowledge, skills and bravado to face the real world. We soon found out that our undergraduate education wasn't enough in many ways. We needed further educating for us to achieve the goals and the success that we set out to do.

But UP, more than any other school in our homeland, gave us the best preparation for tackling the real life issues that would confront and often confound us.

And so in the spirit of celebrating our alma mater, let me share with you my top 10 list of life lessons that we learned from UP. Maybe we have forgotten these, or they have become so second-nature to us that we forget it came from our UP education.

10. UP gave us our first taste of personal freedom. Think about it for a minute - remember your first days as a freshman, when you were now on your own, untethered to the close-in family unit that used to protect you? That was scary at first, but when you got used to it and you started to enjoy the freedom to go where you want, when you want, to eat, sleep and love at your pleasure -- that brought a feeling of headiness that you will always savor, right?

9. UP introduced us to the benefits of diversity. Unlike the elite schools whose demographics are uniformly elite, UP students come from a wide variety of backgrounds, locations and economic status. That makes for some interesting and educational interaction and prepares students to handle the differences in the outside world. I'd like to think UP graduates get along better with people of different races and backgrounds because we've lived with diversity and know how to appreciate it.

8. In UP, we were taught to think independently and be open-minded about the clash of ideas that students have to confront in their studies and in their everyday lives. This is why attempts to funnel UP constituents into one frame of mind - such as what happened during martial law -- was and will always be resisted. Any incursion into freedom of thought is doomed to fail.

7. UP introduced us to the concepts of equality and social justice. The social hierarchy that is so prevalent in the outside world is much less so on campus. There, the rich students are on equal footing with the less privileged in competing for academic glory. And when you come from UP, you develop a sixth sense when it comes to sniffing injustice anywhere. And chances are, you won't let it pass without you doing something about it. UP students and grads are never fence-sitters. We're never afraid to take a stand.

6. The academic setting of UP requires its constituents to be goal-oriented, whether it be to pass the chem exam, to graduate in 4 years, to survive an initiation or to make the varsity basketball team. The healthy competition that emanates from the pursuit of these goals is good preparation for life outside the university.

5. In UP, we have a tradition to uphold. This is an important mind-frame because it pushed us to break boundaries and overcome obstacles. The pressure can be strong long after you've left the university. How many times have you heard someone comment, "Taga UP ka? Siguradong magaling ka." And somehow you feel the obligation to live up to that expectation.

4. UP provided us plenty of opportunities to lead a balanced life. It's never just academics. We have the Lantern Parade, the hayride, organization socials, demonstrations, concerts constantly going on on campus. The annual Oblation Run can only happen in UP. These extra-curricular activities allow students to develop their interests and creativity outside of books. And the camaraderie that comes from participating in these activities is educational in itself.

3. UP made us street-smart. I can't emphasize enough the importance of this survival skill. We're problem-solvers, not just managers. Our decisions are rooted in real-world situations because we have not been shielded from those realities. We know how to negotiate our way out of dicey dilemmas that would faze anyone not used to or not trained to confront them. I've talked to quite a number of hiring managers in the Philippines who said that between a UP graduate with mediocre grades and an elite school honor graduate, they always choose the UP grad precisely because of street-smart and could work their way out of obstacles. Ma-abilidad daw ang Taga UP.

2. Our UP education also taught us humility. You may think that I'm contradicting myself here but I'm really not. Because of the diversity that we've been exposed to, the strong sense of social justice and the street-smarts that we acquired in the university, we are able to recognize and respect others who may be better than us in some ways. This respect carries beyond UP. I so admire the hard work and the accomplishments of successful Filipinos in America, many of whom are not from UP. They are really role models for our children.

1. UP gave us a sense of community. If you look back to your UP days, try to remember all the folks that helped you along: from Mang Vic who willingly gave pineapple pie on credit, to the turon vendors who gave ROTC cadets a cheap panawid-gutom, to Mommie in the basement who listened to our problems while making us the best hamburger sandwich we've ever tasted, to Mang Mike, the ikot driver, who would deviate from his usual route to deliver us to our house late at night; to our professor who mentored us, to our friends who covered for us, to our lovers who gave us valuable lessons in love and heartbreak -- each of us was nurtured and each of us nurtured others. The UP community was one big support system that enabled each of us to achieve our goals and pursue our dreams.

Tonight, in this gathering, I can see that that sense of community that our alma mater has instilled in us is still going strong. Celebrating community is what this gathering is all about, this is what the UP Alumni Association of Sacramento and Vicinity is here for.

We are UP and the UP spirit is something that will live with us wherever we are, whatever our circumstance, forever.

Thank you and good night.