As an alumnus of the Ateneo, I can’t help but wonder about what’s really going on in the heads of the members of what is arguably the most elite academic community in the Philippines. Indeed, the Ateneo is so elite that even Ateneans aspire to de-elitisize themselves as soon as they step out of its campuses. Coming “down from the hill” is our rallying cry even as, in all actual fact, most Ateneans will see it as a personal failure and a waste of their parents’ backbreaking work to cough up school fees for years if they don’t get to a career summit that eclipses that “hill” by the time they are in their 30s.
I owe much of what I achieved as a professional and as a person to the Ateneo. And I owe the privilege of being part of that community to my parents who sacrificed a lot to make all that happen for me and my siblings. It is, after all, a sensible investment. The money invested in matriculation created a lifelong asset — a mind molded by a Jesuit education and a rock-solid personal branding foundation.
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More importantly, Ateneans come to know the right people. The academic creds are one thing. The real crown jewel of an Ateneo education, however, is the social network. If one’s social worth in the Philippines were likened to a Saturn V rocket, the main booster that launches an Atenean into the “real world” is the wealth of business connections that he will have gained even just at the time of his graduation. The second stage — his academic knowledge — only need fire following that initial boost when friends and family ties had done much of the work getting him to the stratosphere.
Proof of this counterintuitive take on what is really behind Ateneans’ general success in the business world is my own humbling experience being a first-year student at the University of the Philippines’ Diliman campus after 12 years spent up that Hill. After being constantly reminded that we were “the best” and the “future leaders” of the land, the “men for others” upon whose shoulders rests the immense expectations the academic brand brings to bear, it was quite the reality check to get your ass kicked in academic performance by the vastly more brilliant kids from Philippine and Manila Science High Schools, the “Chinese Mafia” from Chiang Kai-shek College, and the equally-competent elite grads of exceptional schools — many of them public — that do the rest of the country outside of Imperial Manila proud.
In short, at the UP where I pursued higher education “down from the Hill” (ironic, right?), the unbearable lightness of being Atenean was put into real but, as I’d find out later in life, useful perspective.
The useful perspective I mentioned I’d go on to gain later is quite important and brings us back to that Saturn V analogy. In the Philippines, one is an Atenean first before one is a “smart guy”. You get hired or are welcomed through otherwise locked doors because you are an Atenean first. You get thrust before important people early in life because ears perk up the minute your Arrrneeow accent rings across a room full of people.
But are Ateneans generally smart? I believed then (and conditionally still do) that we are — because we aren’t merely intelligent, we are socially equipped and raised to capitalise on our elite education. All things being equal, we (both Ateneo alumni and all the rest) slogged through our math and science courses at the UP and earned our engineering degrees fair and square. But put an Atenean and a Philippine Science alumnus before a CEO or investor to pitch a business case and one couldn’t be blamed for betting serious money on the earlier getting right into that CEO’s or investor’s head.
That of course is not a story that holds true over entire lifetimes, but at the earliest, most competitive, and most energetic phases of one’s life, even the smallest advantages make every difference. Imagine, then, the enormous early advantage of being an Atenean.
Perhaps it is time Ateneans — including those kiddies still in the process of earning that brand — take stock of what it means to gallivant around town wearing blue and signalling their pedigree on social media. Are you representing the Ateneo fairly? Do you wear with pride (1) what the Blue Eagle represents socially or (2) the person and the professional the school molded you into?
I do hope many who read this can look into a mirror and honestly tell themselves that it is the latter of the two — the person staring back — that they are proud of. If one could, hand to heart, choose the second, then one need not wear blue to be regarded as a real Atenean.
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