A Not-So-Valedictory Address

by Jonathan Espejo Sy, Class 2017

When I started out at the University of the Philippines, I did not feel like I had to work hard. I thought that I was smart enough to handle whatever would come my way. In a way, it was good; I never had that much self-esteem before. To be on equal footing with the likes of high school valedictorians and graduates of renowned private and science high schools. But that was just the beginning.

As five years went by and barely met my expectations, it had become clear to me that I did not like the program I had signed up for. I didn’t have the liberty to choose my own sport or foreign language elective. It was an accelerated program into medicine, a British experiment embedded in an American system. I had yet to grasp the notion that it wouldn’t be the college experience I had hoped it would be. The problem was that I let it get in the way of making the most of what little I thought I saw, regardless of the flaws I saw in the system.

Two kinds of regret festered in my mind: that I could have done better and learned more, and that I should have taken a different program elsewhere. I would daydream about what my life could have been taking the train the other way to Katipunan, to Diliman. Just when you thought that getting to the next level would relieve you of that angst and give you a fresh start, you are denied reprieve. You fail a class, and you break down. You hesitate to admit that it was your own fault. You question your own capabilities. You become cynical, quick to dismiss any optimism that could have spared you the brutally painful illusion of torture by regret, the illusion of having control.

I became defensive every time someone questioned me, believing it was aimed to delegitimize my very being, to prove that I did not belong here, that I had no right to vindicate myself while I could. That is not to say that my fear was unfounded. I know colleagues who have a knack for talking about people who did not work the way they wanted them to behind their backs. I’ve heard stories of interns getting the cold shoulder from colleagues and friends for not showing up because they got sick or needed time to cool off.

This probably happens in institutions such as ours more often than we care to admit. I’d never understand why, since we owe it to the people who helped us at our worst to help others at theirs.

I had never written a commencement address before, so I did what any sensible generation-Y millennial would do: look up famous speeches and try your best not to plagiarize them. I chose two from Harvard: Natalie Portman’s to the Class of 2015 and Mark Zuckerberg’s to the Class of 2017. Let me begin this segment with this quote from a classmate in INTARMED who became an archaeologist:

“Was würdest du tun wenn du keine ängst hättest?”
(“What would you do if you were not afraid?”)

We talk about success and finding purpose at graduations all the time. Some talk about the struggle. I cannot easily relate to valedictorians talking about the hardships they faced in medical school, but that doesn’t diminish their right to claim their achievements. We are all here for a reason. No one gets the monopoly on success. I don’t get the monopoly on failure or inexperience.

“The greatest successes come from having the freedom to fail,” said Mark Zuckerberg. Why do some of us deplore failure so much? Isn’t the freedom to fail what fuels research and personal growth?

I came to realize that I will never be the medical student the College of Medicine had in mind, one tainted by immaturity and inexperience. But that should not stop me from pursuing my passions for myself and for others. I honestly believe that my community-oriented medical education, one that taught me what makes communities tick, can augment my interest in politics and foreign affairs, interests rather unexpected for a medical student, to say nothing of the physicians serving as defense ministers and Presidents.

I wasn’t the medical student the University of the Philippines had hoped for. I may not be the doctor the College of Medicine had in mind. Then again, it’s 2017. A college dropout changed the internet and a rich old man who talks like a spoiled brat and can’t spell properly is President of the United States. Anything is possible, and this is just the beginning. But don’t worry, I’ll be a good doctor. I swear.

Thank you very much.
Congratulations to the Class of 2017.