What it means to be outstanding

By: Cris Evert B. Lato-Ruffolo June 15,2019 - 07:12 AM


It has been 12 years since I became part of The Outstanding Students of the Philippines Alumni Community (TOSPAC), a privilege given to me when I made it to the regional search and later in the national round in the year 2007.

Outside of the alumni circle, it is easy to look at the annual  Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines (TOSP) as a search that seeks for the country’s academic achievers, exemplary leaders and socially-responsible individuals. 

But TOSP is more than just awards and honors.

When you’re a finalist of the search, you’re given a rare opportunity to meet other achievers and leaders, who implemented projects for the school or the community with the primary goal of contributing something for nation-building.

As a perky 20-year-old almost graduate of the University of the Philippines Cebu (UP Cebu), I was welcomed in this community, which accepted both my nerdiness for history and journalism, and my eccentric obsession for pageants and fashion.

In college, I was part of 13 organizations in various capacities as an officer and as a member. At some point, I was treasurer of the organization called LIGAYA, which stands for Liberation for Gay Advocates. In my calculations, 80 percent of my close friends are gays so it was but logical to be part of the organization.

I was also part of socio-political organization that taught me about little contribution, the power of small scale but consistent initiatives to help bring about change in society. I learned about enlightened student activism from the organization; that I do not need to be always on the street to prove that I am one with the Filipino people in calling for social justice. I learned that my pen is my tool and my words are my weapons. Writing is my form of activism. I left the organization before I graduated because of certain conflicts with some members. But I’ve always chosen to embrace the organization’s principles. I look back to those years with nothing but love and gratitude in my heart.

At the university, I was also part of socio-civic organization called UP Cebu Tsinelas, one of the youth arms of Tsinelas Association Inc., a non-government organization which gives scholarships to children from mountainous and depressed areas in Cebu. I had the most fun times with Tsinelas when we would sell barbecue during UP Cookout. The small collective profit we earned we donated to the mother organization.

Armed with these organizations and projects and a pending Latin honor from the country’s premier state university, I marched into the TOSP Central Visayas week with the thought that I will be subjected to a paper screening and a rigorous interview with a five-person panel of judges.

Paper screening happens prior to the regional search because the screening committee determines the top finalists. When you become a finalist, you’re on your way to regional week. 

In 2007, the regional week was in Dumaguete City, Negros Oriental. TOSP is the reason why Dumaguete will always be home to me. 

My TOSP regional experience remains to be my most enlightening week as it made me realize my passion in journalism and that my commitment for the mission of journalism that builds communities is the main reason why I always go back to writing even when I have done jobs in academe as a teacher and as a social development worker by being part of non-profit, non-government organizations.

In the national level, I met other youth leaders, who were awesome, talented and passionate. Many of them remained as my friends to this day. I am blessed to have these kind of people as my friends, who keep me humble and remind me that there is still so much to be done despite of the many things I think I have done.

The best part of TOSP week though is not the awarding ceremony in some prestigious venue in the regional level or the national awarding rites at the Malacañan Palace.

For me, the formation days are the most beautiful parts of the entire week.

Many alumni look forward to the two-day formation days. This is like a retreat of the country’s best student and community leaders. Often we think that it is going to be difficult to ground these leaders, empty their tea cups and go through a program where we examine ourselves, our roles in our respective communities and how these can contribute to make the Philippines better.

Call it a laboratory that nurtures patriotism and nationalism. Several times I asked myself why I cry for an inanimate object like a flag; the Philippine flag to be specific. But I learned that when you love, you just love. Loving your country is on a different level of dedication and commitment that not many people would understand. I have since learned to respect myself and the opinions of others. 

Over the years, I have served as a facilitator in several regional formation programs and some national formation days. I learned from my Ates, Kuyas and batchmates in the community on how to get people to open up, on how to facilitate discussions and how to get my message across.

In 2018, I accepted the challenge to be the lead facilitator of the regional formation in Cebu City. After 11 years of being a TOSPian, I thought then that I was well-equipped to manage a team of facilitators and 20 regional finalists coming from various colleges and universities in Bohol, Cebu, Negros Oriental and Siquijor.

I was wrong.

I learned that nothing beats preparation if you want something to turn out well. In the case of being a facilitator, it entails studying the module and running it through with your team so you are on the same page. This is the same principle that I apply in my journalistic dealings. Before I go out on a coverage, I study the topic beforehand, research about it and then formulate questions that I need to understand so I can write stories that my readers can understand. I learned about the value of keeping it simple because doing so will help the readers of my work to better understand what I am writing.

I learned and relearned humility over the years and I saw this when I finally sat in the panel of judges this year.

I have been evading the responsibility for so long. This year, I was left with no excuses to give to my fellow alumni. To be a TOSP judge is tough because you are given the responsibility to choose which of Central Visayas’ 20 finalists will be awarded as the 10 outstanding students of the region.

It takes an entire day to interview all of them. This year, I encountered stories of hope and perseverance.

Remember the barangay tanod who graduated with honors with an engineering degree from one of Cebu’s universities?

He went inside the room, sat down on the central chair facing the judges. I was eyeing him the entire time trying to find a hint of arrogance in him.

I did not see any.

Janryl Tan recounted his experiences as a street child and how this motivated him to do well in his studies. Janryl was shy and even blushed when I asked him if all the media mileage he experienced when he graduated was well worth it.

He replied that those features and interviews were distractions although he is thankful about the experience.

There was a graduate of information technology too, who crafted a project that addresses wastes generated by the school. Another one was a Physics major who shared about the rigors of research and development and experimentation. 

There was a pretty young lady, who is a Sangguniang Kabataan chairperson and raises funds to build toilets in her capacity as a member of the Girl Scouts of the Philippines. The best part? She is doing this in a mountain barangay.

There is a UP Cebu student, who started off her college experience as someone who goes to rallies all the time. Later, she became a playwright and embraced theater as her form of activism.

When a finalist enters the judging room, I often listen to the questions thrown by my fellow judges first before I ask the questions myself.

In my experience as a judge to my fellow TOSPians this year, my valuable takeaway was to never judge a person’s commitment and love for the country based on 10- to 15-minute interview. We love in all forms. It is never our position to judge the kind of love that people give. 

The interview portion gave me the distinct opportunity to hear their stories and learn from them. I place all those inspiring stories in my backpack and take one story out every single time I feel like I am not doing enough for the community or whenever I experience moments of self-doubt.

In most meetings these days, I am the “oldest” alumna who attends. We often joke about it that tumatagal na kami sa industriyang ito; an industry that continuously instills love for country and hope in people.

I am often asked where I get my energy when I organize events for the community or conduct talks and whatnots with mothers and children.

You now know my answer.

In TOSP, I learned to love the Philippines even in times when it is so difficult to love. You can never give up on the one you love. You can never turn your back on something or someone that matters to you.

I hope to influence my children to embrace this part of them: to serve the Filipinos in their respective spheres of influence with the values of humility and perseverance in their hearts.

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