How UP education helps VP Concepcion carry out the mission, vision and passion of her life

On 25 June 2015, Vice President for Academic Affairs Gisela Concepcion spoke before the graduates of the University of the Philippines Baguio. Her words of advice and reflection drew from a well of memories – from that child captivated by the natural beauty of Baguio on family holidays, to the student who survived UP during the turbulent Martial Law years, and finally to the academic whose character was shaped not only by the rigors of science but also by the freedom offered by the arts and humanities.

Gisela P. Concepcion
25 June 2015

Greetings to everyone! First of all, thank you to the administration of UP Baguio led by Chancellor Raymundo Rovillos for graciously inviting me to speak today before our graduates. It is an honor and privilege to be here.

To our dear 2015 graduates of UP Baguio:

We feel your joy. We know the trials you went through. And now we share your pride in your success. You are yet so young in years, but already so accomplished. Look at you, such wellsprings of youth, with gleaming eyes and bright smiling faces, with outpouring of great optimism and enthusiasm, for the exciting life ahead of you. Who knows what tomorrow brings.

But oh, can we proudly say, you are ready to embrace the future, you having grown in knowledge and fortitude, molded to become of sterner stuff, through the challenging years you learned to live, the life of a scholar – a joyful lover of learning – in UP Baguio, the great national university – amidst the inspiring, awesome beauty of these highlands – in the North of our country!

On behalf of our President Alfredo E. Pascual, I congratulate the 2015 Graduating Class of UP Baguio. Indeed, it is your day of recognition and celebration! We honor you and your parents, grandparents, older siblings, uncles and aunts, guardians, teachers, mentors, and benefactors, and from whose bosom we all blossomed, Mother Earth, the land of our youth and birth, providing us the bounty of air, food and drink – all who collectively contributed to your “Nature and Nurture” – your extended family – who helped bring you to the culmination of who you are here today.

We mark this special occasion that may last us memories of a lifetime, because we find special meaning in it.  In any speech that I listen to, I long to hear from the speaker just one or two memorable, overpowering thoughts that I have never heard before! At this crossroad, dear graduates, we ask: Where to (“Quo Vadis”)? What for? And how much more self-giving? What is the meaning and purpose of your life today? Can I offer to help you with some answers?

To best capture how you feel, searching through the depths of my being, I imagined myself as you, and reflected on the time when I was a UP student. In those tumultuous Martial Law years in UP Diliman, the learning environment was not ideal and I had to learn by myself to survive, and moreso, to excel. But oh, such learning! I cannot forget the grade I got for every course I took, many disappointing ones, with just a few standout unos. Those were tough, uncertain, insecure times for me. I recall the bluebooks with scores that almost didn’t make it to passing, and the “terror” teachers who trained me to labor and “suffer”, deliberately or not, to become stronger, sterner stuff.

Inspite of or because of all these hardships, I learned the rigors of chemistry, and became convinced that it was the most important fundamental science to explain the material world and natural phenomena. (I am biased here – but it’s true!). I learned to love chemistry. Then I learned biochemistry and evolutionary biology, the most important time-tested proof that chemistry “works”, from which I draw my major scientific questions and insights as a researcher, and which drive the passion that I hold, for marine biodiversity and drug discovery research, a wondrous though inexhaustible quest to understand Nature, that I continue to pursue to this day.  

Sponge, the earliest metazoans, the first multicelleular animals at the trunk of the phylogenetic tree – my ancestor – I stand in awe of you, I respect and wish to conserve you! I isolate bioactive compounds useful to humans from your chemical arsenal, though I will never fully understand or unravel the secrets of your success that you’ve kept deep in the oceans for hundreds of millions of years!

But, I will tell you in truth what I cherish most about my UP education – it was GE or general education. From GE, I grew self-confidence and learned to be less silent and shy, I learned to use language to express myself and communicate better. In GE, I learned to think on the “high ground”, philosophically, independently, integratively, creatively, “out of the box”, from imbibing the numerous, greatest works of all time, in the arts, music, literature, and the humanities, of social and political thought and philosophy; works of artists and writers both from the West and the East, including those of our own national hero Jose Rizal. I experienced a broadening, heightening, deepening of my life’s perceptions, and a quickening of my life’s decisions and actions, mentored by UP Diliman’s GE champion of that time.

And I created what I call an enriched interior life of the mind … and of the heart – my interior being, my valued, treasured internal space and time. I pondered the unsolved mysteries, the unanswered questions, of our existence, such as “Who is responsible for the suffering of the innocents?” or “Who is responsible for the earth?” I learned to spend quiet time for myself, by myself – alone – to self-reflect on the meaning and purpose of my life. I was in torment, but I also found inner joy. And so my dear 2015 graduates of UP Baguio, I hope that you continue to imbibe and treasure dearly the substance of your GE courses, for the rest of your lives!

Moreso today, I count on these deep resources from my UP education to carry out the “M-V-P” (mission, vision and passion) of my life. When offered the opportunity by President Pascual to serve as Vice President for Academic Affairs of the UP System, I drew on my UP “knowings” and experiences as a student, professor and researcher. OVPAA is to lead in the transformation of UP’s academics to that of a globally competitive, ASEAN-ready, research-intensive university, and certainly, global readiness and competitiveness cannot be achieved without sustaining inclusive growth within our nation.

And so on this journey with President Pascual and his team in the UP System, and with Chancellor Rovillos and his team in UP Baguio, we’ve reconstructed OVPAA, building on what my predecessors in OVPAA had built before, to serve as your “catalyst” for academic productivity leading to growth and transformation, much like enzymes catalyze all the important metabolic and other functional processes that keep all living things (and also some non-living things!) “alive”. At OVPAA, we’ve conceptualized and implemented new, enabling programs for our faculty, REPS and students, as well as our administrative staff, which I hope are starting to make your lives more exciting and more productive.

Undoubtedly, UP has the greatest concentration of talent in the country; principally our faculty, who are our fountainhead of innovation and creativity, and our students, who are the best and brightest youth, selected through UPCAT, mentored by our faculty, and thus holding the bright promise for the future of our nation! And so collectively, interconnectedly, and through continuity through generations after generations of UP graduates, UP serves as a model microcosm of Philippine society, as we are mandated to do – to lead the country in “stepping up”, leaping or progressing to the next higher level of holistic growth and development.  It is clear that we can only sustain this by increasing and improving what I call the “suprastructure” – the prime agents, prime movers, prime actors, prime constructors, prime progressors in UP and in the country. What good would our investments in infrastructure and cybertructure be if we do not have the more important complement of expert, competent, skilled human resources to make good use of those physical resources, and to train the next generation of experts for continuity and sustainability?

As I come close to the end of my message, my dear 2015 graduates of UP Baguio, I wish you to close your eyes and reflect for a while with me. Bring to your mind the image of our greatest role model, our national hero, Dr. Jose Rizal, who is our quintessential philosophical GE or generalist man, but who was also a specialist – a social treatise writer, a novelist, poet, and polyglot (master of many languages), a sculptor and painter, an opthalmologist and a self-taught engineer. Thus, a genius in every sense of the word, the only true genius that the Malay race has ever produced. An excellent learned man, who championed education as the single, most important transformer of society. But most of all, a man of honor. He was an unconventional, gentle, subtle, soft-spoken leader (He was not a tall man with a loud voice!) whose lasting legacy originated from his scholarly life and works, the power of his mind and his pen! He was a hero who devoted his short life for the greater, higher, long-term good of his country and gave it up for his fellow-men.

How do we live, lead and give like Rizal? We may not each be a genius like Rizal, (then again maybe you just don’t know it yet, but you are!), but by working together, we may collectively, constructively, become many Rizals. In this crossroad, any number of you can decide to follow any of the following paths:

Number 1. Be an academic, continue on to your Masters and/or PhD studies, aim to be a faculty member of UP Baguio or another higher education institution, contribute new knowledge through innovation and creativity, be a teacher, a mentor, a nonbiological parent of limitless children, to generation after generation of students, semester-in, semester-out, instill in them honor and excellence, create that ripple or multiplier effect in higher education that our country direly needs.

Number 2: Join the private sector, as an employee, as an entrepreneur, contribute to private good, contribute to job creation and inclusive growth, develop high-value knowledge-based Filipino products and services, continue to improve your competencies and skills, pursue your Masters, take regular training, upgrading courses, and be the UP-trained social conscience and transformer of the corporate world to commit to social engagement and responsibility.

Number 3: Be an NGO advocate, use knowledge-based interventions and communications to improve the quality and span of human life, hold as paramount the conservation and sustainability of our environment side by side with human progress.

And Number 4: join the rank-and-file of and rise up through the echelons of government, provincial, regional, or national, and uphold the standards we have set for UP in government, implement programs at every level in cooperation with academe, the private sector and NGOs, implement and empower government with knowledge- and SMART-driven systems and operations, and for this you also need to pursue postgraduate studies.

As a child, I often came to Baguio for a vacation with great anticipation of its natural beauty. As a fresh UP graduate, I joined UPLB as an instructor, inspired too by the beauty of its natural surroundings, then off I went to UP Manila to deepen my love for biochemistry, and finally I came back to UP Diliman, my origins, where still I am today, moved every time I see the verdant greenery, the canopies of acacia trees that line our Oval, whose trunks, branches and crowns I would admire from the ground as a walking student, and whose treetops I can now see from the 4th floor of Quezon Hall. Indeed what “high ground”, what vantage point, top-to-bottom and bottom-to-top, I’ve been blessed with in UP.

UP Baguio is special to me. It has its formal niches, but those are obviously flexible. Naturally, Baguio’s highlands attract the social thinkers, the artist creators, especially those who value oneness with Nature, found in the traditional, indigenous knowledge of the people of the Cordilleras; the theoretical modelers and experimental innovators, who need the time and the space away from the maddening crowds, both real and virtual, to reflect on and construct their life and life’s works. That is why UP Baguio is attracting, like a magnet emanating from its rich metal ores, the great talents of faculty, researchers and students, who now lead in integrating with one another ways to help “save” and progress Baguio’s human society and natural riches, through a new holistic, integrated Masters program on Conservation and Restoration Ecology. Indeed, under the leadership of Chancellor Rovillos, we have been growing in UP Baguio, what the important novelist/author Robert Pirsig described as “the high country of the mind”!

Today’s commencement exercises celebrate your lives and your accomplishments.  How I wish you continue to ponder some of the questions and thoughts I shared with you today. I wish you all the best. Mabuhay ang 2015 Graduating Class of UP Baguio! Maraming salamat po.

Vice President for Academic Affairs Gisela Concepcion (5th from left) with UP Baguio officials headed by Chancellor Raymundo Rovillos (4th from left). Photo from Gisela Concepcion