By Jerry R. Yapo
Many of this year’s graduates of the nation’s premier national university, the University of the Philippines, have interesting side stories, but Helbert A. Paat, the summa cum laude from BS Applied Mathematics, probably has the most compelling narrative worth retelling.
The eldest son of a farmer and a saleslady from the small, rural town of Lal-lo in Cagayan province, Helbert navigated his way through the academic jungle of UP Los Baños and topped the class of some 2,419 graduates from various degree programs. With a general weighted average of 1.178, he bested 22 others, finishing as magna cum laude and 201 as cum laude.
From the start of his freshman year at the state university, Helbert’s path to excellence was paved with good intentions. And rightly so, as he distinctly remembered one time when he purposely wrote on a green Post-It Note his short- and long-term goals: To be a university scholar on the first semester and graduate as summa cum laude.
His wish-fulfilling reminder to himself gradually unfolded as a reality through his four-year stay at UPLB.
For some students, getting a 3.0, the passing grade at UP, is good enough as it means meeting exacting academic standards.
To Helbert, however, studying meant imposing upon himself a more methodical way of monitoring his growth and performance as a student. This meant foregoing certain gimmicks or casual diversions that some youth are predisposed to engage in. Not that he did not have a social life—as he certainly enjoyed having one—but his sense of priorities was on the right track.
In most of his classes, everything was taught in a very fast manner, so he had to catch up by switching to a different learning strategy. “Oftentimes, I had to diligently study lessons in advance, review my notes after a lecture, and supplement my learning by consulting other references,” he quipped. There— no cramming, no speed reading, no easy route to excellence.
The early challenges he faced as a UP student were typical of those from the province, promdi, if you may.
Uprooted from the comforts of a bucolic or pastoral life, Helbert had to take quick shifts in his mindscape. For one, he had to contend with the idea that UP is a melting pot of personalities from various demographics. Adjusting to such an environment was less of a struggle for Helbert as he has good interpersonal communication skills. Though calculating in his responses to questions, he can easily warm up through well-meaning conversations. The intellectual rigor of the academe, however, prompted him to exert more effort in studying for his various courses. Having come from a public high school in the province motivated him to do more so as to catch up with his more superior classmates, especially those from science high schools. Any UP campus, needless to say, is likened to a sea of fishes swimming in various directions, some wiser and smarter than others. Graduating as valedictorian both in elementary and high school helped him hurdle the otherwise difficult year of a UP freshman.
On instances when he experienced doubts about his capabilities as a UP student, he would always seek clarity of direction from his treasured Post It Note, as if to remind himself that, despite the temporary setbacks, he should stay the course.
Such setbacks are aplenty at UP, especially during the so-called “hell week, ” where students are caught up in a dizzy mix of requirements. UP faculty are an extremely jealous lot when they demand the same rigor their students would manifest in courses they are enrolled in.
For Helbert, the casualty inflicted by “hell week” on most students was somehow deflected by developing good study habits. No other magic formula had worked for him. The road to excellence and this must be emphasized, has no short cuts.
Despite the competitive atmosphere in the State University, Helbert found solace in the company not only of his academic organization, the UPLB Actuarial Science Society, but also his Christian group, Lakas Angkan Youth Fellowship. His affiliation with them made him realize the value of a purpose-driven life, something that is propelled not only by his excellence in academics but also by a well-nourished spiritual life.
As to academic boredom hitting most students, this happens when they develop a so-called tunnel vision—this meant focusing too much on the depth of their respective fields of specialization and consequently losing track of the interrelationship of things. Helbert’s unique way of countering this was by immersing himself in other disciplines of knowledge.
Helbert’s passion for learning drives him to achieve excellence. To him, excellence comes naturally to somebody who cultivates a passion for learning anything.
As I got to know him more through his manifest interest in various subjects, I was impressed by both the depth and breadth of his brilliance. I have never met somebody as passionate as he is in learning the intricacies of mathematics, but also in using his discipline’s lenses in analyzing everyday phenomena—that I find a quality quite rare among students these days.
He strikes me as a person quite conversant in the other nonscience disciplines like art, literature, religion, and philosophy. With hope, UP’s General Education program, together with his other courses, has contributed to his sense of interdisciplinarity, as most problems today need to be approached from a variety of perspectives drawn from various knowledge disciplines.
Such perspective resonates in the valedictory address he delivered before UPLB’s graduating class on June 22. Fine in form and content, it was eloquently spoken in less than eight minutes.
Helbert’s valedictory address exemplified the keys to successful communication.
His “purpose” was clearly stated in his thesis. He said: “Tonight, I’d like to talk about poverty and the ways we could possibly overcome it.” He then proceeded to define in broad strokes the different forms of poverty affecting the nation: Poverty of resources, poverty of knowledge, and poverty of the soul.
He had a good scoping of his “audience,” his fellow graduates, who, he said, were privileged enough to embody UP’s foundational values: “Honor and Excellence and Service.”
His speech had the tone of dialogism as evident in his propensity for inclusivity. His challenge to the graduates was signified in his use of “We” and “Us” as a rhetorical strategy, expressing the intent that, together, we could overcome the different manifestations of poverty. Helbert spoke, thus:
“My challenge for all of us graduates is clear:
Let us overcome our poverties by applying the lessons we have learned from UP.
By knowing God, trusting Him, and walking in obedience to Him.
Only then can we be honorable and excellent.
Only then can we ser ve this nation!”
HelbertPaat’s persona resonates in his valedictory address. The result is a story worth retelling.
Prof. Jerry R. Yapo is with the Humanities Department of UPLB’s College of Arts and Sciences. He served as 2019 Commencement Rites Director.