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UP Diliman Commencement Exercises

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					Reynaldo B. Vea, Ph.D.
Commencement Speech
University of the Philippines at Diliman
April 22, 2007

                            STAY GRATEFUL

A thousand life and career trajectories; a common origin

From hereon out you will all be flying off in career and life trajectories as many as there
are of you here this afternoon. If a commencement speaker had to prescribe formulae for
success without lapsing into platitudes, I say I would not know how to do that. And this
is because you each would have a different measure of success. Is it how big a fortune I
will be able to amass? Is it how comfortable and quiet a life I will be able to secure? Is it
how beautiful a family I will be able to raise? Is it how much happiness and fulfillment I
will be able to derive from my work and creation? Is it how full a life of the mind I will
be able to live? Is it how well I will be able to be of service to my countrymen, to
humanity, to God? Or is it some combination of the above?

While I cannot offer formulae, I can, however, share some lessons and attempt to impart
perspective. With your indulgence I will show one specific trajectory, namely, mine. I
will also paint you a picture of the world today as I see it. I hope these will help you plot
your own trajectory


Dimensions of a UP education: the maelstrom and the gauntlet

When I entered UP in 1969, a war was raging in a neighboring country, Vietnam. A so-
called Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, then not yet known to be bloody, was in full
swing in another neighboring country, bamboo-curtained China. The battlecry “make love
not war” reverberated in US campuses. Barricades were once again sprouting up in the
storied streets of Paris. Bearded, cigar-chomping romantic figures were leading Latin
American revolutions.

Closer to home, the intellectual ferment and the academic debates between the so-called
progressives and reactionaries in UP were rising fever pitch to the plane of action, helped
along by the increasingly violent actions of a nascent dictatorship and by now-iconic
images of the times that were clearly “a-changing”, as Bob Dylan puts it,

The hottest bed of clamors for change was UP, and it was hard not to be swept into the
maelstrom. Stark poverty in rural and urban communities tugged at still-properly-placed
young hearts. Blatant corruption in high places tested the limits of forbearance. Brazen
violation of civil liberties provoked the loss of political meekness. And wave upon wave
of mass actions made it easy to find a way to get involved.
This was the gust of historical wind that buffeted several batches of students of UP and
other schools who, coming out of high school, mistakenly thought that their lives would
follow the straight and narrow as had those who had gone before them. They were not
passive elements, to be sure. They huffed and they puffed and got tossed around, too.
They made history as much as experienced it.

Although one could not find it in the curriculum, this experience on the streets I consider
to be a part of my UP education. Students of other schools could likewise claim it to be
part of their education. The classroom simply spilled onto the street. And vice-versa.
Revisiting the past and examining the present in the classrooms led to attempts at the
reshaping of the future on the streets. Dramatic events on the streets in turn enlivened and
enriched what otherwise would have been staid, less-than-relevant classroom discourse. It
was simply an expression of UP education at the time. It taught me politics and the
historical process like nothing could.

These lessons indeed came at a very steep price, including lives lost, lives of close friends
even. We are proud of what we did. The regret would have been if we had not answered
the call of the times. But it is nothing to crow about. A previous generation suffered a
shooting war. My own mother, here with us this afternoon, was on the Death March for 3
days from Cabcaben to Balanga, Bataan. It is also something not to be wished upon any
other generation. We certainly did not wish tumultuous times upon our own kids when
they were in College. Young people should be able to concentrate on scholarly pursuit to
better serve the nation and humanity later.

Was I glad and am I ever grateful that this great University, which has seen its fair share
of rebellious students over the decades, took me back into its fold after my 20-month
incarceration. This afforded me a chance to experience the other dimensions of
University life and to finish what I had set out to do years before.

Academic life at the College of Engineering was tough. First there was the gauntlet of
departmental exams in the engineering sciences that one had to go through. Then came
the professional courses in which the faculty basically gave no quarters in upholding
standards. What was “so UP” about it all, I believe, was the time spent in studying the
underlying principles of and in deriving formulae to represent physical phenomena. This
deep understanding enabled one to work from first principles when there were no sample
problems and solutions to bank on. It has always served me well as a practicing engineer
and as an academic.


Drinking from the fireman’s hose; standing at the frontiers of knowledge

Nothing boosts the trajectory of an academic career like a graduate degree. My UP
credentials and the good work of UP alumni who studied before me helped me get
admitted to the best engineering schools in the world. My faculty position at UP also
certainly helped me obtain the scholarships I needed to afford my studies.
Getting an education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology is, as they say, “like
drinking from a fireman’s hose!” One is simply bombarded with too much content.
These educational materials all come from a body of knowledge that people working
across continents and across time have assembled. When Isaac Newton said figuratively
that he was able to see as far as he did because he was standing on the “shoulders of
giants,” he was referring to this fund of knowledge. Eventually, in one’s own field, one
gets to appreciate the shape and form of this fund of knowledge and to understand the
process by which it grows. Eventually, too, one gets to intimately see the envelope of
this body of knowledge beyond which nobody knows anything anymore. To an academic
no experience could be more exhilarating. To be given a chance to push this envelope
even in the minutest degree felt almost like a privilege.

At Cal Berkeley, I was able to make a bigger but still humble contribution. While a
master’s degree may in general require only the solution of a nontrivial problem, which
leads to a minor contribution, a doctoral degree requires original work, which by its very
nature should be more significant. As a newly-minted PhD, one can, for a second, stand
at the frontiers of knowledge, arms akimbo, knowing that he knows more about a
particular subject than anybody else in the world, past and present.


The generation of new knowledge: the need for it and the freedom to do it

I stand in awe of the capability that MIT and UC Berkeley have built over the years in
generating new knowledge and new technologies. I marvel at how they have wielded the
principles of academic freedom, collegiality and tenure as instruments to further
individual and institutional excellence.

The fact that the best US schools were so far ahead of us in this regard did not bother me
any. The heights they had attained simply felt so out of reach of Philippine schools.

What bothered me a lot in the early 90’s, though, was how the schools in neighboring
countries had charged so far ahead of us in this respect while we were still reeling from
the debilitating effects of a long period of misrule. And these schools have sustained their
momentum to the present, despite the hiccup of the 1997 Asian financial crisis, while we
are still bogged down and unable to get our politics right.

It is important for us to learn how to generate and manage knowledge because knowledge
is the coin of present-day economies.

The field of chemistry bloomed in the 19th century. Multi-awarded writer John Horgan of
the Scientific American states that by the 1930’s Linus Pauling had shown that all
chemical reactions could be explained in terms of quantum mechanics. Yet a lot has to be
learned in applied chemistry. Physics was the science of the 20th century. Stephen
Hawking declared in his book A Brief History of Time that physics is on the verge of
putting together a unified theory of the basic forces of nature that could unlock the secrets
of the origins of the universe. There are still basic questions to be answered and the field
of applied physics is wide, wide open. According to UC Berkeley biologist Gunther
Stent, Watson and Crick’s discovery of the DNA in 1953 has left three unanswered
questions for biology: how life began, how a single fertilized egg develops into a
multicellular organism and how the central nervous system processes information.
Getting answers to these basic questions should keep scientists very busy in the 21st
century, which many say will be the century of biology.

Out of what some people term as the “explosion” in basic and applied scientific research
have been developed technologies that have become the enablers of global businesses and
national economies. As early as 1957, MIT economist Robert Solow calculated and
showed that technology is responsible for about 80% of growth. New York University’s
Professor Lev notes that in the manufacturing economy of the 1970’s the market-to-book
ratio of Standard and Poor’s 500 corporations ran at about 1:1. At the turn of the century
it was at about 6:1. High flyers like Microsoft at one point came in at about 25:1. The
books were not showing value that the markets knew about! This value that goes
unreported in traditional accounting methods is attributed to so-called intellectual capital,
some of it ingrained in corporate culture and much of it embedded in technology.
According to Fortune magazine, when the Pentium chip came out, ounce for ounce, it
was about 40 times more expensive than gold. It was not due to the material because the
chip was mainly just plain silicon, one of the most abundant materials on earth. Rather, it
was the technology and the knowledge embodied in the chip that made it so valuable.

We have upon us a knowledge-based economy and in such an economy nothing could be
of greater strategic value to a country than the capability to generate new knowledge and
technologies. In his book Building Wealth Lester Thurow of the Sloan School of
Management states that one of the more robust conclusions of economics is the high
social returns of R & D spending, which for the U.S. has been estimated at 66%.

 If we are not content to be the modern-day equivalents of “hewers of wood and bearers
of water”, then not having R & D capability is not an option. I hope that some of you out
there would feel challenged enough to be part of such a big endeavor to develop R & D
capability. It could be a good career trajectory.


It is a good time to be a graduate, a tough time to be “nationalistic”

As surely as the intangible world of knowledge has dramatically expanded so has the
physical world rapidly shrunk.

Transportation, information and communications technologies have so battered down the
constraints of time and space that business operations on a global scale have become
commonplace. Businesses naturally seek places where it is cheapest to produce and
markets where it generates the most profits. If one company would not do it then some
other competitor company will. If one country would not find a way to participate in the
interest of its own people then some other competitor country will. The very logic of the
situation makes globalization inexorable. One can stem the tide no more than one can
keep this venerable University from turning 100 next year.

But there are concerns. A basic one is that there is yet to develop a global political and
regulatory system to tame such a galloping economic phenomenon. In an earlier period,
technological developments had enabled local and regional economies to become
national in scale. By and large, the development of national governments has been able
to cope with such economic upscaling.

Global companies have to decide which part of their operations shall be done in-house
and which shall be outsourced, which shall be done onshore and which offshore. They
look upon the world as their source of manpower and of services. On the flipside, a
professional or a service firm in any country can look at the entire world as the source of
job opportunities. It can be said that the market for human resources and for professional
services has by and large gone global. The McKinsey Global Institute, for one, estimates
that 52 % of all engineering jobs are globally resourceable. The corresponding figure for
accounting is 31 %.

What the emergence of a global knowledge-based economy means for young people like
you is that the possibilities for employment and for the establishment of businesses are
vast. There are more kinds of businesses to engage in, businesses the exciting models for
some of which are waiting to be devised by you. There are more types of knowledge-
based jobs to do, jobs for which UP graduates are eminently prepared. There are a lot
more choices of places to work and live in, places which are rendered more accessible by
modern transport systems and in which loneliness is mitigated by the vanishing cost of
communications. The world is figuratively at your doorsteps. Under such a situation, it
is as extremely hard to follow, as it is to give, advice that you should be “nationalistic” by
staying in the Philippines.


The hot button and the cold advice

Now, that is a hot button.

Policy makers and administrators of the Republic are rightfully concerned about a “brain
drain.” If health and IT professionals, engineers, accountants, airline pilots and other
professionals leave in droves, who will be left to serve Philippine needs? In the
engineering sector we are worried enough to want a count of engineers still in the country
and to project how many will still be here in the years to come given the present
graduation and offshore hiring rates. There is after all a projection by McKinsey Global
Institute that if current hiring rates persist there will be a “constraint” in the supply of
suitable or qualified young – meaning 7 years or less out of school - engineers globally
by the year 2015.
For UP administrators there is double the concern because tax money went into its
students’ education. Furthermore, it is always assumed that it is part of UP’s mission to
contribute to national development.

It is not an option for UP and other schools to tailor fit their curricula solely to local
needs because Filipino professionals who stay in the Philippines must also be trained to
international standards. This is because Philippine and Philippine-based companies have
global markets and connections as well. Furthermore, our own people deserve no less
than world-class professional services. And what would a UP education be if it were not
at the highest standards? There simply cannot be a dichotomy of curricular standards.

Albeit highly unlikely, the best thing that could happen is for everyone to stay home
permanently and share the burden in the awesome task of developing Philippine society
so that it becomes a player to reckon with on the global stage and so that eventually the
life chances of the ordinary Filipinos in the Philippines do not become stunted or
stymied.

However, I say that it isn’t fair to ask everyone to permanently stay and work in the
country. But neither is it fair for us, UP alumni, not to give back to the country and the
University that have given us so much.

To those already itching to grab global opportunities, I say work in the country for a
number of years after graduation – heal the sick, help design some urban area, create
some fine works of art, teach the children, do multimedia, help build roads and bridges,
do research on some social issue, engage in some entrepreneurial activities, work in a
bank, show an example of good local governance, do some lawyering, some marketing
etc. I have a feeling that this is already happening anyway. And when you eventually
find yourselves on distant shores, make giving back part of your trajectory. The ways are
many, some of which you yourselves should be able to think of. Share your expertise.
Share your resources. Help build up the University’s endowment fund. Come back and
work here again. Invest in the Philippine economy.

The world is much changed from the one we knew way back when. And in ways that
many, including us, would never have imagined. Dominoes never toppled, and Vietnam
now competes for foreign direct investments. China lifted its bamboo-curtain and rises
quickly not on wings of ideology but of market economics. The mighty-looking Soviet
Union simply crumbled under its own weight. Che Guevara remains a popular, romantic
figure but only innocuously on t-shirts and posters. Only a few years ago there was talk
of a “Pacific Century.” But then came the 1997 financial crisis and the dramatic rise of
India.

As each of you mull over your individual opportunities you no doubt also think about
how the Philippines can get it right. How can there be a national consensus and united
effort to bring the country back to the top of the heap? Each generation of young men
and women faces its own challenges. And the challenges for each generation changes
with its growing influence through the years. The time of being allowed to decry without
being held to resolve problems soon comes to pass. UP graduates are eventually called
upon to give of themselves. One finds that it is just as hard, if not more so, to make a
cusp with one’s hands in which to cradle this society as it is to clench a fist in times of
danger. But give of ourselves and give back we must.

Steve Jobs told Stanford graduates 2 years ago to “Stay hungry!” Although I am certainly
no Steve Jobs, I say to you, “Stay grateful – to the Filipino people who helped see you
through school; to the beloved alma mater which will help see you through your career;
and to your parents and loved ones who have seen you and will continue to see you
through life.”

Stay grateful.

Congratulations and thanks you very much!

				
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