Dearest UP Freshie

You’ve passed the entrance exam for the top state university in the Philippines. Congratulations! Without wanting to burst your bubble, however, it is my moral obligation to inform you that a popular running joke here goes: The easiest thing in UP is getting accepted into it. Not everyone makes it out in one piece.

I’m not a good student, but I am a veteran student – having been in UP for more years than I care to count. I write not to give you advice on how to ace your subjects, but to give you bits of wisdom that four or five years from now – if you’re lucky not to get delayed – you will look back on fondly. UP will mess with you one way or another; nevertheless let’s do our best to prepare you for the challenges that lie ahead.

Lesson #1: It is important to be industrious, but it is more important to know your priorities.
In UP the social hierarchy is not always based on who has the best clothes or has the most friends. Sometimes it is the smartest person whom everyone looks up to. Sometimes it is the most polite. Sometimes it is the most brotherly, the most motherly, or the most edgy. Always, however, there is a special rung on the ladder of social standing for the person who is doing so much that she or he only gets two hours of sleep every night. And why not? UP puts great value on productivity, after all.

The thing about being busy, however, is that it is so easy to mistake having lots of things to do for being productive. The era of online networking has taught us to glorify eye bags and applaud ranting about how stressful your life is because you’re wanted everywhere. But pause for a moment and think: Everything that civilization has given us today, was it discovered by a generation that was expected to sing well, ace every exam, look picture-perfect, maintain great relationships, and party at the same time?

Unless you are superhuman, you will have to prioritize one aspect of your life over another. So know what matters most to you, and what you can deal without. If you would prefer to have a rocking social life at the cost of not having enough time to study, go ahead and party. Just always, always be ready for the consequences of your actions. They will always catch up to you, so don’t even try to think that they won’t.

Lesson #2: Someone will always be better than you. Get over yourself.
I once attended an orientation in UP where the speaker asked the freshmen in the crowd to raise their hands if they were class valedictorian in high school. Many did, and they were subsequently told that their standing in high school did not matter anymore – everyone here was someone wherever they came from. The point being that UP students, even as individuals, are tough customers. The good news is that no one is out to get you, because everyone’s too busy struggling to survive.

If you’re the type who thrives on rivalry, then congratulations for having the ability to feed on stress as a substitute for nutrients. For the rest of us who would like to promote harmonious living, however, it may be advisable to avoid pitting yourself against certain individuals – even if it’s just inside your head. That’s easier said than done though, so I’ll share an exercise that I’ve been hooked into recently.

Whenever you start feeling envious that a peer is so much smarter, friendlier or more organized than you are, focus on what trait you find most engaging about them and adapt it. Turn potential rivals into teachers. Turn potential energy wasted on envy into kinetic energy spent on trying to acquire skills and attitudes for a better life. It will not always work, but hey, it’s better than spending hours scrolling down someone’s Facebook wall, wailing about how she or he earned a full scholarship in for something awesome she or he accomplished that you technically can’t replicate.

Lesson #3: College is about finding yourself. Achieving that does not always come from community.
I was part of six organizations in UP Diliman, each of which I love for the special memories and teachings they have imparted on me. Being part of a student organization can be a rewarding experience, but one that would be best appreciated if engaged in after much planning and consideration.

You see, being in a student organization is comparable to being in a romantic relationship. It will not do to simply sign a membership application form and pay your dues. You must invest time, effort, and emotions into your organization in order to experience it more fully. As with any relationship, however, getting into an organization for fun can have negative repercussions. Just as it is difficult to separate oneself from an abusive relationship that is doing nothing to help you grow, it is also difficult to sever ties with a toxic organization through which you have friends, places to go to on Friday nights, and discounts from stores that accept your members’ privilege card.

It is always more important to know yourself first, so I suggest you spend at least one semester without an organization. (Do not let upperclassmen pressure you into joining one. They often look after their own interests, simply because they are adequately-functioning members of modern society.) Then, when you are ready to join a community and find your niche there – when you have shopped around for which organization you feel will best help you become a better person – throw yourself into it wholeheartedly. Firstly, you have to know what it is you want. And when you do, commit to it and tread carefully, because affiliation with an organization in UP is an association you will carry forever.

Lesson #4: Your teachers were not put on this planet to torture you. Repeat to self one more time.
The funny thing about college professors is that no matter how they demand too many requirements of you, no matter how they sometimes arrive late or never at all, they should always be important to you because they have been where you are right now. Mankind moves forward because we have developed the extremely helpful habit of passing on what we have learned to future generations. The noble mission of teaching came to be for that purpose, so before we pick our brains out trying to solve a problem someone else has already solved millennia before, it may be more efficient to listen to our teachers once in a while.

One endeavor that is worth giving time and attention to is choosing a mentor from your faculty. This is not an official post, and I’m not telling you to walk up to your favorite professor to inform her or him that you’ve chosen them to be your academic godparent. All I’m saying is that it may be good for you to have someone from UP whom you can consult with regarding your career path and life plans, especially if you’re planning to do something involving the academe.

Mentorship is sadly not a popular practice in the UP undergraduate levels, most especially if you’re just an average-performing student. But you’ll go far if you aim to become close to a particular teacher, particularly if you make it a point to let them know that you genuinely care about what they think and it would be nice if they gave you a piece of their mind once in a while.

Lesson #5: You will be both your worst enemy and your best friend. Strategize for both possibilities.
It may seem that most of what I have written here is a contradiction of several popular beliefs and therefore a probable excuse to be lazy. That may be the case, but I wouldn’t know for sure because my goal in sharing this is to let you know that it’s okay not to be perfect. You have to learn to forgive yourself. If you got into UP, then you definitely have high standards, and the problem with having high standards is that it is relatively easier to forgive others than to forgive yourself. Aiming high is great, but there should always be allowances to your expectations.

When you mess up, strive to do better, but remember that it’s not the end of the world. UP will screw you over in more ways than one, and I cannot emphasize that more than enough because that is the one thing that I am sure will happen to everyone who gets inside this university. UP will hurt you on a regular basis, but since it’s already going through all the trouble of making your life miserable, why would you punish yourself even more? Give yourself a hug, remember that you’re human, and instead of trying to stand out, simply aim to execute all your endeavors to the best of your ability.

Remember, UP’s gift is an investment in the future you. Everything you do in this institution should have a payback later in life, whether it be a wider perspective, more LinkedIn contacts, or the expertise needed for the career of your dreams. It is completely valid to want more from UP, to want everything from it. And if you play your cards right, if you stick to the path that you’ve decided for yourself, then UP will definitely give you more than you ever expected it would. Only don’t forget to say thanks.

PS Take note that TBA does not mean ‘The Bahay ng Alumni’. It is short for ‘To Be Announced’. To find your classroom, check the department of that class before school starts. Definitely don’t let bored upperclassmen fool you into thinking TBA is somewhere north of Fairview. That is not TBA; that is Bulacan.

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