People are always touched by a "rags to riches" story. But this inspiring graduate story puts the spotlight not on the student's road to success, but on the hope that her story becomes the norm instead of the exemption.
On May 31, 2019, Reycel Hyacenth Bendaña, or Hya to her friends, received her college diploma for Bachelor of Arts in Management Economics at Ateneo De Manila University (ADMU). She was the class valedictorian, student council president, and a cum laude. A day before the ceremony, Ateneo published her pre-graduation essay, an answer to the question, "What has Ateneo done for you?"
Reycel, whose father is a jeepney driver, gets straight to the point in her piece. She is grateful for the opportunity to study in one of the country's top universities even if it was a struggle to pay tuition on time. But it wasn't luck that landed her where she is now.
"I worked hard to be here," Reycel wrote. She saw in her father how "to work harder than everyone else —not only because hard work is high dignity but also, while it is no guarantee of success, anything less than that for us would mean complete failure."
She added, "I always worked harder than everyone else to get the same opportunities they had. It's the least I can do to compensate for my lack of privilege."
"My success is an exception, not the norm," Reycel stressed. "It remains beyond the hopes of many of our fellow citizens. It's rare for a child born into poverty to escapes its claw that seems to always pull them back down. What was difficult for me is still unattainable for others, and will remain so, even with Ateneo's most generous efforts," she said.
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"Because generosity is not enough," Bendaña stressed. "The success of one person should not depend on the virtue of another," she added. It still cannot compensate for not being able to "provide fair access to opportunity for all, and a decent path to success" to all.
What our country needs, according to Reycel, is for every student to get the same opportunity, and hard work receives more considerable merit than what their parents' pockets can afford.
"I am grateful for what Ateneo has given me," Reycel wrote. "But as long as Ateneo needs to be generous, it means society has not overcome bigger, deeper problems: social inequality, lack of opportunity, and the concentration of economic and political power in the families of many of my schoolmates," she stressed.
"I envision and hope for a nation where a success story like mine is not an exemption, but the rule," she wrote.
As s young girl, Reycel was a jeepney barker for her father, who took on odd jobs to provide for the family aside from driving a passenger jeepney. Reycel was 7 when she first joined a transport strike that sought to raise the minimum fare. She made headlines for protesting against the phaseout of 15-year-old jeepneys in 2017, one that cost her father's primary source of income.
Reycel knew she got people's attention not only because her father is a jeepney driver but more because of her Atenean education.
"I am more than my poverty. I had a good run as a university student council president. I am a social activist who organizes and leads rallies in the streets on a multitude of advocacies," Reycel wrote on Facebook.
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To say that she's made it to the top honors just because she was poor (with a good background for a story) "disrespects the merit of the scholars who worked hard to be where they are, as if awa lang ng iba ang nagdala samin dito. It invalidates the sacrifices of our parents who share in our victory too," she added.
It's not Ateneo's sympathy that made scholars like me succeed. Nagsikap kami. We had good grades, leadership credentials. WE HAD IMPACT. We deserve to be here.
I hope everyone, esp the media, understands that romanticizing the story is social discrimination in itself (2/2)
With her essay all over the media, she tweeted: "It's not Ateneo's sympathy that made scholars like me succeed. Nagsikap kami. We had good grades, leadership credentials. We had an impact. We deserve to be here."