Last July, the University of the Philippines (UP) Diliman produced a record-breaking number of graduates with Latin honors: a total of 634 cum laude graduates, 652 magna cum laude graduates, and—the most impressive feat—150 summa cum laude graduates.

Among all the summa cum laude graduates, it was BA Speech Communication student Neil Piolo Villanueva who achieved the highest Weighted Average Grade (WAG) of 1.032. The College of Arts and Letters valedictorian was able to excel academically while also bearing a passion for service as the Chairperson of UP Batangan, a duly-recognized socio-civic organization of Batangueño students on campus, and the Project Head of Aruga Are, one of the organization’s projects that had received the 2022 Ignacio B. Gimenez Award for UP Student Organizations’ Social Innovation Projects – Special Citation.

When In Manila was able to talk to Piolo about his college experience, what he learned and will miss most about college, and how he embodies the university’s values of honor, excellence, and compassion for others.


I believe your batch was the first to study not only in the K-12 program but also transition to an online set-up amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Personally, how were you able to overcome the struggle of switching to this alternative learning?

“Privilege. The privilege to have access to a functioning laptop, an okay internet connection, a safe house to study in, a loving support system, and a so-so mental health made the transition bearable. Unfortunately, all these earned the name “privilege” for a reason.

If anything, the online setup magnified the gross inequalities in our country, and we saw clearly how all the aforementioned things are privileges rather than things all students must have in the first place. Maraming napwersang tumigil sa pag-aaral dahil sa anti-poor setup na ito. Maraming hindi tiyak kung epektibo ang kanilang pagtuturo o pagkatuto. May krisis tayo sa edukasyon at dapat maaksyunan ito agad; tiyak na hindi solusyon dito ang paggastos ng 58,300 na piso kada laptop na may lumang processor.”

How important was it for you to not just excel academically but also be of service to others through your extracurriculars? Was it difficult to balance this?

“It would be hypocritical for me to say that I never chased after uno’s. I am saddened to admit and think that it has been part of my social configuration under a neoliberal framework of education to anchor my worth on grades and merits. Thankfully, my stay in UP eventually equipped me with the knowledge to challenge this thinking and the system that perpetuates it.

The common saying, “grades are just numbers,” made more sense to me when I started assuming leadership positions in my organization. UP Batangan, my only organization in college, exposed me to the harsh realities in our province. Marami pa ring walang akses sa edukasyon, serbisyong pangkalusugan, pagkain, at sa gitna ng lahat ng ito’y laganap pa rin ang militarisasyon.

Since then, my views of why I study and learn have tremendously evolved. I treated every learning opportunity not anymore as a chore for which I must get high grades, but now as a means through which I could grow and become more knowledgeable in pursuit of enabling myself to genuinely and excellently be of service to others. That is why, for me, learning is in itself an act of service and more importantly, learning is a means through which I would be able to serve my country well. While managing my academics and extracurriculars was hard, it made all the hardships enjoyably purposeful. Kaya ngayon, tuloy pa rin ang pagpapahusay at pagkatuto para mas makapaglingkod lalo sa panahong ito.

What are some important life lessons you learned during your stay at UP?

Every lesson in UP can be life-changing, no matter how small or big it may be. Halimbawa, sa dami ng pancit canton kiosks sa UP, natutunan kong original flavor ng pancit canton talaga ang pinakamasarap, at ang kalaban natin ay ‘yung mga sweet and spicy apologists.

Kasabay niyan, natutunan ko rin na hindi totoo ‘yung “kung may tiyaga, may nilaga.” Walang ganun, mars. Some of the brightest and most responsible people I know got delayed or were forced to stop studying because of poverty, gender discrimination, and other systemic inequalities.”

The one thing you’ll miss the most about UP.

‘Yung kalayaan in many forms. Una, kalayaan para isuot mo kahit anong gusto mong isuot. Mamimiss ko magtsinelas at magsuot ng pantulog araw-araw nung face-to-face pag papasok sa klase. Pangalawa, kalayaang mahalin kung sinong gusto mong mahalin. Kaya talaga pagsabayin ‘yung laude at landi. Pangatlo, kalayaang makipagdiskurso at makapagpahayag ng kritisismo. I was so lucky to be surrounded with the brightest professors, classmates, and orgmates. Higit sa lahat, siyempre, kalayaan mula sa tuition fee na utang ko hindi sa gobyerno, kundi sa mamamayang Pilipino na matapat na nagbabayad ng kanilang buwis.

Any message you’d like to share with fellow graduates who are now about to face a new world beyond the walls of their campus?

“Grades don’t define you… unless mataas. Eme.

Congratulations to all 2022 graduates! Padayon, mga Iskolar ng Bayan!

(ALSO READ: How This Magna Cum Laude Graduate Proved That Quitting is for Winners, Too)


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