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What Makes Ateneans Excel

by Dr. Queena N. Lee-Chua, Ph.D

(Adapted from her Commencement Speech at the Ateneo Grade School, March 22, 2007)


One: The ideal Atenean goes beyond his comfort zone. Life is difficult, and we cannot always do only what we want all the time. For instance, you may have told yourself something like this, “I don’t like math, so in college, I will take the course with the fewest math subjects!”


Let me tell you a secret: in the Ateneo de Manila University, many of the courses are interdisciplinary - thus it is difficult to escape math. So what do you do? Venture outside your comfort zone. Challenge yourself. And when I say challenge, I do not necessarily mean physical challenges, such as beating your swimming record. Challenge yourself mentally and emotionally as well.


Take Martin Villanueva, a sophomore in my creative writing class a few years ago. Martin is majoring in Fine Arts. He loves to write stories and poetry, and his dream is to be a writer. In fact, all the students in my writing class felt that their strength lay in the humanities, social science, or management. There was no science major.


On the first day of class, I told my students that aside from the usual writing exercises (doing a character sketch, a movie review, a descriptive scene), I would require them to do a science essay. And not just any science essay - it had to be a topic interesting to the layperson. The class was silent. Oh and by the way, it had to be 10 to 25 pages long, double-spaced. You could hear the gasps. Someone asked why. “Because the page requirement is the same as that of the Palanca Awards.”


Palanca Awards? Many students just smiled. A science essay from a non-science writer for the Palanca Awards? They were only undergraduates. They were also into literature, not science. Some students had articles published in school magazines, but no one had an article published nationally. The Palanca Awards? You must be kidding.


I wasn’t kidding. I lectured on techniques (metaphor, points of view, dialogue, etc.). Then I gave the students time to choose a topic they were interested in. For one month, I guided them in doing research (not just on the Internet, but in journals and conducting interviews of experts as well). I remember one student who chose to do a paper on insulin resistance. She attempted to read a medical paper many times, but could not understand the jargon. She was about to give up when the class encouraged her to go on.


Then the students did the first draft, and everyone had to critique each other’s work. They had to strengthen the strengths and delete the weaknesses.Then they had to revise their draft. Writing---at least good writing---is not an instant process. The result? In February 2006, the School of Science and Engineering hosted a competition on creative science writing. The three winners came from that class. Afterwards, I challenged everyone to submit their works to the Palanca Awards.


I did not expect any of them to listen to me. But Martin Villanueva took the challenge to heart. He revised his science essay (on cancer and chemotherapy) one more time, and submitted it. I am so proud to tell you now that Martin won Third Place in the English Essay Category of the 2006 Palanca Awards - he won the first time he entered the competition, besting many more seasoned writers, including perhaps some of his professors.


After his victory, Martin shifted out from Fiction Writing and decided to make his mark in Non-Fiction (including Science) Writing. The next school year, he became the Associate Editor of the Ateneo newsmagazine Katipunan. He was also chosen for the prestigious Silliman Writers’ Workshop, and right before graduation, he won the Dean’s Awards for Writing. How did Martin achieve all this? He ventured out of his comfort zone.


Two: The ideal Atenean knows that no excuses are allowed. One thing that irritates me is when students who don’t do well give a lot of excuses. “I flunked the quiz because my tutor taught me the wrong thing.” Or “I could not submit the paper because the printer broke down.” Or “I cannot concentrate because the weather is too hot.”


Let me tell you about Von Sinence, my student in freshman algebra. When Von was five years old, their family business went bankrupt, and the family had to go south to Lanao del Norte to live with a friend of Von’s father. Von said, “First grade was difficult. My parents woke up early to cook foods for the canteen, and boil two pouches of pancit canton for my daily breakfast.Since I did not have extra uniforms, sometimes, I would go to school in ‘casual’ clothes, and pay the one-peso fine. Even if the school was the one nearest our house, I still had to walk a kilometer to reach it. Often, I could not afford to buy supplies.There was also no assurance of a baon every day. Since I was new in town, I did not have friends.To top it off, all my classmates were Muslim and only spoke Maranao, which I did not understand.” Imagine this boy, lonely, hungry and scared. But Von did not succumb to excuses. With the help of his family, Von did his best. A few years later, he graduated valedictorian from Baloi Central Elementary School.


After elementary, Von uprooted himself again to study in Parang High School. In high school, he faced another set of problems. “Despite my good grade school performance, I was not confident of my abilities. I believed that Manila was different. I thought that it was a harder world. During the first week, not enough chairs were available in the classroom, so I had to sit on the floor. I also did not participate much in class because everyone spoke English, which I found difficult. Being in the star section terrified me.”


Von did not give excuses. He did not give up. He tried his best in all aspects - academically, artistically, socially. He did jingles and rap. He represented his school in math and science contests. He ran for the student council in his first year, and to his shock, he got elected. He thought no one knew who he was. Four years later, Von graduated valedictorian.


In my college freshman algebra class, Von got perfect in the first exam. He got perfect again in the second exam. At first I did not know where Parang High School was. Von made a joke: “Ma’am, yes, sabi nga nila Parang High School lang kami, hindi totoong paaralan.” Whether it was parang high school or not, Von got the highest in my class, better than the students from exclusive private or Filipino-Chinese schools. Von, a Communications Technology major, is a consistent Dean’s Lister. For the past few years, Von has also been serving as a role model for other public high school students.


For Von, poverty is no excuse. Cultural differences, financial difficulties, hardships - all of these are no excuse. Von has high expectations for himself and he continues to do everything he can to fulfill them.


Three: The ideal Atenean never gives up. Edison famously said, “Genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration.” Perspire all you have to, but never lose heart. Go the distance. In my Calculus II class a few years back, I asked my students, “Do you remember limits, derivatives, continuity and integrals from last year? Well, we will do them again, but this time, we won’t do them on the plane. We will do them in space. Instead of 2-D, now it’s 3-D.” The students groaned.


“Review your notes from last year. Study hard. In fact, study harder than you did last year. Since the topics now are more complex, you need more time to understand them. If you spent one hour a day studying last year and got a D, you need to spend two hours a day now to get the same grade. If you want a C, you need to study a lot more.” Thankfully, the class buckled down to work. Many students started to see me regularly during consultation hours. But let me focus on Anton. To tell you the truth (and I have Anton’s permission to tell you this), Anton was one of the students who was in danger---he got a D in Calculus I. I was worried about him. But Anton did not give up. Here is what he did: he started by answering almost every single question in the book (even those which were not assigned). Then he would give me his answer sheets and I would go through them one by one. If he did not understand something, he would consult me at once.


Then Anton rearranged his schedule so that he could listen to my lectures twice. How? Aside from the ME class, I was also handling another Calculus II class for computer science majors - right before the ME class. Anton would sit in my computer science class and take notes, and then he would sit-in again in the second class, with his ME batchmates. Anton’s diligence paid off. His confidence in his math ability grew, and of course, so did his grades. In the first test, Anton got a B. He was ecstatic, and so was I. In the second (and tougher) exam, he got another B. In the tough departmental midterms, not only did he get a high B, but he also was in the top 10 list in the class!


When the semester was about to end, I asked Anton to announce to the class the secret of his success. Anton’s simple reply: “I studied like I never studied before. Walang gimik.” The class applauded.


How did Anton achieve? He did not give up. He did not let a lousy grade stop him from doing better the next time around. I am happy to tell you that with hard work and perseverance, Anton managed to remain in the course he wanted. He recently graduated as a bonafide Management Engineering major.


Martin Villanueva, Von Sinence, Anton Andres. They come from different backgrounds, they have various interests, they have different strengths. But in their own ways, they have striven to be the best they can be. They have tried to achieve their potential, and in doing so, they are on their way to serving God and others.



Dr. Queena N. Lee-Chua teaches Math and Psychology at the Ateneo. Aside from being a multi-awarded professor, she is also an author of a number of books and a columnist for the Philippine Daily Inquirer.


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