Thursday, January 27, 2011

Sapientia Edificat?

We were in 4th year college when St. Louis University (SLU) celebrated its 75th founding anniversary during the school year 1985-86. Young as we were then, it was one celebration that we were mighty proud of. Twenty five years after we left SLU to face life in the real world, we were beckoned again to relive those happy memories - this time to celebrate the SLU Centennial. One hundred years is definitely worth a grand celebration, and I would not miss it for the world.

So off to Baguio I went together with 4 other college friends. I have not been to the SLU campus since I graduated 25 years ago, even if I have been back to Baguio a couple of times after graduation. The organizers did a good job in hyping up the event. It was supposed to be a grand celebration – after all, we would have to wait another 100 years to be able to have a celebration of such grand scale again. I was excited to see my former teachers and schoolmates. I wanted to see what had changed, what had the seeds of activism and reawakening we sowed during the waning years of martial law had grown into. We were looking at almost 300 kilometers of grueling land travel, trekking through dark winding roads enveloped in fog and mist. But we were undaunted.

We left rain-soaked Manila around 9 in the evening of Friday, and it was almost 3 in the morning of Saturday when we arrived at the guest house where we stayed. We knew we had to be up early so we can join the morning activities, but we can’t seem to sleep at all. We were conjuring up images of thousands of SLU alumni crowding Session Road, of hotels and inns enjoying brisk business with the influx of visitors. We felt lucky to have traveled at the most unholy hour so we can avoid the traffic. It will be a grand celebration just as they said it will be.

Disappointed - that is the most charitable word that I can think of to describe how it felt when we finally went to SLU early Saturday morning for what was supposed to be the first day of the 2-day Grand SLU Centennial Alumni Homecoming. It was anything but grand. Where were the happy, excited alumni who would fill the streets leading to SLU? We were late for the first event, the Centennial Mass at the SLU Chapel, so we parked at the Baguio Cathedral thinking that the campus grounds would be full of cars as there must be thousands of alumni coming for this once-in-a-hundred-years event. We would not want to be stuck in traffic and be late for the events.

We then walked through the Boys High compound and exited to Assumption Road so we can enter the SLU Campus through the Sacred Heart Hospital. This was our regular route when we were young students on a shoestring budget. It was therefore so strange to see very few people on the road and on the campus itself. People were going about their business as if there was nothing special happening that day. I was even joking with my friends that maybe we got the dates wrong. Surely, there should have been a more festive atmosphere. We went to the chapel and caught the tail-end of the Centennial Mass - where only a handful of people attended. I felt bad, but consoled myself with the thought that people might have traveled far like us and they will be late. Or maybe they skipped the Mass and were already waiting in the gym for the program to start so they can get better seats. Maybe... hopefully...

After the Mass, we went up to the Burgos Gym, passing the grandstand by the parking lot where we held many protest actions which eventually led to the rebirth of the Student Council and an independent student publication in the early 80's. It felt good standing on those historical steps, reliving the days when there was more idealism, when we were willing to risk our dreams and aspirations to fight for what we believe was right and just. Unfortunately, when we reached the homecoming venue, our elation and nostalgic trip back to our younger days easily turned into disappointment and frustration. There were very few people in the cavernous hall of the gym, and not a few people were turning away and leaving. Where were the alumni? The Facebook site said almost 600 have signed up. I was pretty sure there are a lot of SLU faculty and employees who are alumni themselves. Baguio City and Northern Luzon is SLU country, so where were the Louisians?

When I first heard that the registration fee was ONE THOUSAND PESOS, I thought it was a big joke. Surely, the organizers would want to have as many alumni to be able to attend this momentous event. They would not keep them away with such an expensive registration fee. When it dawned upon us that we would really have to cough out 2-days worth of minimum wage to be able to become part of this important milestone, it became clear to us why there were so very few alumni who actually came despite the historical significance of this event. Yes, all 5 of us may be able to afford the thousand-peso registration fee – but it was just so WRONG. It simply means that those who cannot part with their hard-earned thousand bucks are not welcome. Obviously, the event was meant for those who have the money to spare. The 2-day Centennial feast that the organizers prepared for the Alumni requires a P1,000.00 fee on the first day, and another P2,500.00 fee if you want to play golf on the 2nd day. Only the Centennial Mass did not involve a fee - and we missed it. We decided to skip the event altogether and joined the others who left disappointed.

What did the organizers hope to achieve with this event? Isn’t it to gather the alumni to commemorate this historical and momentous milestone, regardless of what had become of them since they left SLU? Or is it to raise funds even if it means the exclusion of those who will not be able to afford to shell out the registration fees? And since the election of the officers was done during this exclusive event, what happened to the principles of democratic participation when only those who can afford the one thousand pesos registration fee were able to cast their votes? This is like saying only those who pay their taxes can vote during elections. Would it have been better to have an Alumni Homecoming that welcomes everyone, and then have a separate fund-raising event for those who can afford and who want to help the association’s projects?

The Organizers squandered a golden opportunity to gather together the school’s alumni wherever they may be now, or whatever they may have achieved in life. The homecoming should not have been just for those who have succeeded and made good in life and can afford to financially help the Alumni Association in its projects. SLU was established so that it can be the light that shines for all those who would otherwise find it hard to attain higher education in Manila and other centers of education. SLU provided the golden opportunity for the youth of the Cordilleras and Northern Luzon to have access to quality education. The elitist centennial homecoming was everything that SLU NEVER stood for.

It could have been a defining moment for the Alumni Association, when it could have been the instrument by which SLU can gather as many alumni as possible to celebrate our school’s legacy of education that transforms and builds. It could have been the spark, the catalyst that will inspire the alumni to participate more actively in future activities and projects. We let go of that once in a hundred years chance. But all is not lost. Louisians from all walks of life must come together and reclaim the proud legacy that our Alma Mater has entrusted to us. We are the Alumni of SLU. We are the light that can transform. Let us build again.

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