16-year-old Mikaela Irene Fudolig triumphantly steps into the spotlight as she delivers a speech as the valedictorian of the graduating class.
The summa cum laude with a general weighted average of 1.099 will also receive the Best BS Physics Student award and the Dean’s Medallion for Excellence in Undergraduate Studies at the UP College of Science. (She earlier qualified as a regional finalist for the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines.)
Mikaela was only 11 when she became a college student as part of an experimental program that would test the possibility of gifted children entering university without compromising their emotional and social development.
The conditions of the program required that Mikaela be hidden from public scrutiny and the unforgiving glare of the media.
And she told the Inquirer in an interview marked with much laughter that more than her awards and achievements, she was proud that the Early College Placement Program (ECPP) originally designed for her had succeeded.
“It was a great thing that I was able to show people that it can be done,” she said. Now, she added with a hopeful smile, similar programs to help gifted people like herself could be conceived and implemented.
According to Mikaela, many gifted children end up discouraged or unproductive because of a dearth of programs to guide them and maximize their abilities.
They sometimes refuse to take required courses, claiming early mastery in these areas, or are simply interested in other things.
“I know one brilliant classmate who was very promising. But for some reason, he did not attend many of his classes and even retook some subjects,” she said.
Mikaela did not undergo such a dilemma. She thinks of her academic life at the Philippines’ premier state university as “a happy experience.”
“Many people think that a child, even if equipped with the mental abilities, is not emotionally prepared to enter college. I am glad to have proven them wrong,” she said cheerfully.
Tony Fudolig and Lyn Dimaano apparently took pains to have their eldest child grow up a balanced individual. Lyn made Mikaela join her nursery class in the afternoons even if she was already enrolled in the first grade at the age of four.
“Mikaela could read and write English and Filipino at three years old,” Lyn recalled. But she said she made sure that the child still had her share of playmates and nursery games.
Mikaela said that at three, she already had a keen interest in science. She recalled enjoying the times her mother would take her to the UP Botanical Garden and point out to her the different plant families.
“We also grew mongo seedlings and conducted small experiments. I was fascinated with how nature and science worked even back then,” she said.
Science appears to be a family passion. Tony is an industrial engineering graduate, and Lyn used to teach biology courses at UP. (They are now managing the family-owned Brains Review Center.)
Their second child, Miguel, 13, is an incoming senior at the Quezon City Science High School. The youngest, 9-year-old Raphael, is in sixth grade at the Jose Abad Santos Memorial School.
After grade school at Saint Mary’s College, Mikaela was accepted at Quezon City Science High. It was, she said, the best option for her at that time.
“I enjoyed my first year in high school. I had very nice classmates, good teachers and a challenging environment,” she said.
She was elected first-year-level council president and spearheaded many projects, including a scholarship program for underprivileged classmates.
The family decision for her to enroll at UP for a summer class marked a critical turning point in the 11-year-old’s life.
When Mikaela formally sought permission to register for a Mathematics 11 class in UP, her case was referred to Dr. Leticia Penano Ho, then dean of the College of Education.
Ho, also the president of the Philippine Association for the Gifted, noted the child’s potential to survive in the university at the end of the summer course, and later designed the ECPP for her.
Baby doll shoes
Mikaela recalled how intimidated she was on the first day of her Math 11 class.
Comparing her high school and college classmates, she said laughingly: “It was one thing to have your classmates stare at you because you are three years younger, and another for them to strangely appraise you because of the way you dress.”
She recalled in particular how her Math 11 classmates stared at her baby doll shoes, which she wore in high school: “They were all so quiet, choosing to remain silent in their seats, wearing their college get-ups. And there I was, wearing a skirt and a blouse, squirming uncomfortably in my seat.”
Then on the verge of adolescence, Mikaela was shocked at the fast pace of the summer lessons. She was disheartened when she got a grade of 72 in the first exam, which was held a week after classes started.
“I was feeling low, but when I saw that my seat mate got a score of 71, I felt that there was still hope,” she said, still laughing.
The following week, after days of intensive study, Mikaela took the second exam along with the rest of the class. The professor later announced that the 11-year-old got the highest score.
“I felt very happy that I could fit in,” Mikaela said.
She got a grade of 1 in that Math 11 class.
The following semester, Mikaela enrolled at UP as a nondegree student and volunteer for Ho’s program.
But she enrolled as a sophomore at Quezon City Science High at the same time, just in case her yearlong trial with ECPP fell through.
“We eventually found out that this kind of setup could not work because I had no more time to take my high school exams,” she said.
But as Mikaela, her family and Ho happily learned, there was no need for this fallback plan. She completed her first year at the university with exceptional grades—an average of 1.395. Mikaela next wrote then UP Chancellor (now president) Emerlinda Roman to consider her application to be a regular student. With her parents’ assistance, she also requested then Education Secretary Edilberto de Jesus to help her get into UP even without a high school diploma.
De Jesus wrote then UP president Francisco Nemenzo and endorsed Mikaela, attaching her transcript of records and her teachers’ certificate attesting to her excellent performance.
Lyn Dimaano said that according to Department of Education officials, “not many people could get the kind of average Mikaela obtained in her first year in UP.”
“Their only concern was that she’d be happy,” the mother said.
In May 2003, the Board of Regents approved Mikaela’s admission—the first case of its kind nationwide, said a UP Newsletter.
Between math and physics
At the age of 12, Mikaela was formally enrolled as a BS Physics student at the UP National Institute for Physics.
“I had the choice between math and physics and in the end, I chose the latter,” the teenager said, adding that she had no particular reason for doing so.
“But I also think physics is more concrete than the more abstract mathematics,” she said.
After the yearlong trial period, life at the university went smoothly for Mikaela. She made friends with her classmates, joined the UP Student Campus Ministry at the Parish of the Holy Sacrifice, passed a Japanese language proficiency exam, and attended classes she enjoyed.
“I took two consecutive music courses because I just love studying different kinds of music in the world. Some people at the College of Music even thought I was a student there,” she said.
Mikaela also kept in touch with her high school classmates, and even attended their junior-senior prom.
“I think I was able to extract all the good things I was supposed to have missed in high school,” she said.
Her most traumatic experience at UP was an encounter with a student assistant who thought her grade of 1.75 in a math subject was “a bit low.”
“Maybe the assistant expected that because I was admitted to UP at such a young age, I would get a higher grade. I thought that maybe getting a 1.75 was equivalent to getting a barely passing mark,” she said, again laughing at the memory.
The ECPP’s careful steps in keeping her out of the public eye helped a lot, according to Mikaela.
Her adviser, Dr. Jose Perico Esguerra—who, before Mikaela, was the youngest student accepted at the university in 1984—was not as lucky.
Esguerra was a 13-year-old Philippine Science High School student when he passed the advance placement exam for Math 11 and Math 14, and was allowed to enroll at the UP College of Science.
“Cameras would sometimes follow Dr. Esguerra when he came out of the classroom. The other students, perhaps resentful of his achievements, would also bully and make fun of him in the corridors,” Lyn Dimaano said, adding:
“It was a good thing there was an agreement that Mikaela be shielded from the media so she could live her life as a normal university student.”
Mikaela plans to teach at the National Institute of Physics and to take up her master’s degree in physics at the same time.
She said cheerily that she did not mind teaching students older—or taller—than she.
“I’m used to it. Last night, I tutored a high school classmate three years older than me, and I had no problem doing it,” she quipped.
Mikaela said her graduation speech would focus on opening new opportunities for others, including gifted ones like herself.
“Instead of taking the road less traveled, the new graduates should make new roads,” said the 16-year-old trailblazer.
Mikaela Irene D. Fudolig of Quezon City Science High School won first prize in Cluster 2 Individual Category for her project entitled:”Cleaner Air near Gas Stations: Recycled Activated Carbon, Terracota and Single-Fired Earthenware Granules as Filter Adsorbent for Gasoline Fumes.” The project sought to use recycled materials as substitute for activated carbon used to control air pollution in gasoline stations.
source: Science Education Institute
Mikaela Irene D. Fudolig, BS Physics with a GWA of 1.099, led the top honors. She also delivered the valedictory address on behalf of the graduating class.
Only 16 years old, Fudolig is the youngest student to be graduated by the University in the recent years and one of only two admitted to UPD without a high school diploma and without taking the UP College Admission Test.
She was only 11 years old and a sophomore at the Quezon City Science High School when she was granted permission to enroll at UPD as a non-degree student, having volunteered for a prototype Early College Placement Program the UPD College of Education was spearheading. After earning remarkable grades for an academic year, the Department of Education (DepEd) endorsed her admission to UPD, which was approved by the UP Board of Regents on May 30, 2003.
Take not the road less traveled
One of the things that strike me as being very “UP Diliman” is the way UPD students can’t seem to stay on the pavement. From every street corner that bounds an unpaved piece of land, one will espy a narrow trail that cuts the corner, or leads from it. Every lawn around the buildings sports at least one of these paths, starting from a point nearest to the IKOT stop and ending at the nearest entry to the building. The trails are beaten on the grass by many pairs of feet wanting to save a fraction of a meter of traveling, no matter that doing so will exact some cost to the shoes, or, to the ubiquitous slippers, especially when the trails are new.
What do these paths say about us, UP students?
One could say that the UP student is enamored with Mathematics and Pythagoras, hence these triangles formed by the pavement and the path. Many among you would disagree.
Others could say that the UP student is naturally countercultural. And the refusal to use the pavement is just one of the myriads of ways to show his defiance of the order of things. This time, many would agree.
Still, others will say that the UP student is the model of today’s youth: they want everything easier, faster, now. The walkable paths appeal to them because they get to their destination faster, and presumably, with less effort. Now that is only partly true, and totally unfair.
These trails weren’t always walkable. No doubt they started as patches of grass, perhaps overgrown. Those who first walked them must have soiled their shoes, stubbed their toes, or had insects biting their legs, all in the immovable belief that the nearest distance between two points is a straight line. They might even have seen snakes cross their paths. But the soiled footwear, sore toes, and itchy legs started to conquer the grass. Other people, seeing the yet faint trail, followed. And as more and more walked the path, the grass gave in and stopped growing altogether, making the path more and more visible, more and more walkable.
The persistence of the paths pays tribute to those UP students who walked them first – the pioneers of the unbeaten tracks: the defiant and curious few who refuse the familiar and comfortable; the out-of-the-box thinkers who solve problems instead of fretting about them; the brave who dare do things differently, and open new opportunities to those who follow.
They say how one behaved in the past would determine how he behaves in the future. And as we leave the University, temporarily or for good, let us call on the pioneering, defiant, and brave spirit that built the paths to guide us in this next phase of our life.
We have been warned time and again. Our new world that they call “adulthood” is one that’s full of compromises, where success is determined more by the ability to belong than by the ability to think, where it is much easier to do as everyone else does. Daily we are bombarded with so much news of despair about the state of our nation, and the apparent, perverse sense of satisfaction our politicians get from vilifying our state of affairs. It is fashionable to migrate to other countries to work in deceptively high-paying jobs like nursing and teaching, forgetting that even at their favored work destinations, nurses and teachers are some of the lowest paid professionals. The lure of high and immediate monetary benefits in some low-end outsourcing jobs has drawn even some of the brightest UP students away from both industry and university teaching to which they would have been better suited.
Like the sidewalks and pavement, these paths are the easiest to take.
But, like the sidewalks and pavement, these paths take longer to traverse, just as individual successes do not always make for national progress. The unceasing critic could get elected, but not get the job done. The immigrant could get his visa, but disappear from our brainpower pool. The highly paid employee would be underutilized for his skills, and pine to get the job he truly wants, but is now out of his reach. And the country, and we, are poorer because of these.
Today, the nation needs brave, defiant pioneers to reverse our nation’s slide to despair. Today, we must call upon the spirit that beat the tracks. Today, we must present an alternative way of doing things.
Do NOT just take courage, for courage is not enough. Instead, be BRAVE! It will take bravery to go against popular wisdom, against the clichéd expectations of family and friends. It will take bravery to gamble your future by staying in the country and try to make a prosperous life here. It might help if for a start, we try to see why our Korean friends are flocking to our country. Why, as many of us line up for immigrant visas in various embassies, they get themselves naturalized and settle here. Do they know something we don’t?
Do NOT just be strong in your convictions, for strength is not enough. Instead, DEFY the pressure to lead a comfortable, but middling life. Let us lead this country from the despair of mediocrity. Let us not seek to do well, but strive to EXCEL in everything that we do. This, so others will see us as a nation of brains of the highest quality, not just of brawn that could be had for cheap.
Take NOT the road less traveled. Rather, MAKE new roads, BLAZE new trails, FIND new routes to your dreams. Unlike the track-beaters in campus who see where they’re going, we may not know how far we can go. But if we are brave, defiant searchers of excellence, we will go far. Explore possibilities, that others may get a similar chance. I have tried it myself. And I’m speaking to you now.
But talk is cheap, they say. And so I put my money where my mouth is. Today, I place myself in the service of the University, if it will have me. I would like to teach, to share knowledge, and perhaps to be an example to new UP students in thinking and striving beyond the limits of the possible. This may only be a small disturbance in the grass. But I hope you’ll come with me, and trample a new path.
Good evening, everyone.
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