Fighting for change: Sanggunian President Reycel Hyacenth Bendaña shares how she won the Most Outstanding Jose Rizal Model Student of the Philippines 2018

May 06, 2019
Reycel Hyacenth Bendaña
The Loyola Schools held an internal search for its official nomination for the Jose Rizal Model Student of the Philippines (JRMSP). The 4 Deans and the Office of Student Activities (OSA) nominated 2 students each, listing a total of 10 names in the internal search draft. I was a nominee of the Office of Student Activities. Within the same week of nomination, we were asked to submit our curriculum vitae and be interviewed. The interview focused on how my leadership was similar to that of Dr. Jose Rizal.

I described how his leadership primarily changed the behavioral structures present in Philippine society. He was fighting against racial inequality, asserting that Filipinos should be treated with equal human dignity and the same respect as that of Spaniards residing in our Motherland. He condemned the presence of structures that systematically oppressed the Filipinos, and desired to abolish them. Through Sanggunian’s gender initiatives, I fight to change the behavioral structure of patriarchy to gender equality, recognizing that every human person has an inherent and inviolable dignity.

All university nominees from schools nationwide were asked to submit a bidbook showcasing their academic excellence, student leadership in local, national, and international activities, and active involvement in community programs. This comprised 45% of the grade basis for the JRMSP selection and was used to choose the Top 20 National Finalists who would proceed to the final phase of the search.

The final phase had two main activities: the on-the-spot essay writing and the panel interview. We were given 30 minutes to write an essay on how our leadership could develop and strengthen the values of wisdom and compassion in society. My essay had 3 main sections, all highlighting the core principles of Rizal and how my leadership contributes to those principles: (1) active nonviolence—through reforming structures and passing legislation and policies, we aim for a change that is unifying, not divisive; (2) solidarity with the oppressed and those in need—leadership is senseless if not grounded in compassion, especially with those in the margins. This is most manifested in my active involvement and stance against labor issues, human rights violations, and government abuses; and (3) liberation through justice—a society without justice will never be liberated. Through our gender initiatives and active provision of psycho-emotional and administrative assistance to victims of sexual harassment and violence, we demand a liberated nation. The graded essays were ranked, and comprised 30% of the final grade.

The second activity was the panel interview. It had 3 core sections: (a) who I am, (b) what is my assessment of my impact, and (c) how do I espouse Rizal’s values in my leadership.

(a) I am a daughter of a hardworking jeepney driver. I work hard, sometimes even 10x greater than everyone else, just to be on the same level as they are. I have to, because I have to compensate for my lack of privilege. But it’s a reality of life I have long embraced. I qualified for a full scholarship in Ateneo de Manila University and am now serving as its student council president. People celebrate my narrative, because it is a success story, an exemption. But that’s exactly what I think is wrong in our society—my success is an exemption and not the rule. I struggled against structural barriers that make my dreams impossible to achieve. Yes, I defeated limitations and broke boundaries, but these should not have existed in the first place. I envision a Philippine society that, at the very least, is able to provide fair access of opportunities for the rest of the Filipino youth, especially those who are like me, from the poorest of the poor. 

(b) Guided by the Catholic Social Teachings, I have three roles as a student leader: (1) educational–to form citizens geared towards social action; (2) social–to respond to the needs of my fellow countrymen through relief operations and resource mobilization, and lastly (3) governance–to be both a critic and a partner of the  government in ensuring that political decisions are always for the common good. Everything I have done— from conducting educational discussions, organizing sociopolitical rallies, mobilizing relief efforts, lobbying policies, releasing issue-based stances, and implementing development interventions in communities— have been guided by these three primary roles and the values of compassion and justice.

(c) I relate to Padre Florentino the most. I believe that violence does not give justice and healing. Instead, it fuels resentment, hatred, and perpetuates even more violence until the cycle is never ending. Violence as a means of achieving justice is not out of love, but of anger and vengeance. It destabilizes our nation, confuses our morality, and makes it difficult for us to progress as it removes our capacity to forgive as individuals and collectively heal as a society. The bloodshed Rizal deemed necessary for liberation was not the murder of others for the causes that seemed just. It was about being prepared to shed your own blood in defense of the inherent human dignity and freedom of your fellow countrymen and women. It was never about self-righteous killing and vengeance, but about love that fuels sacrifice.

The awarding ceremony was held in Barbara’s Restaurant. As this was the 30th anniversary of the search for the Jose Rizal Outstanding Model Student of the Philippines, Knights of Rizal Chapters from different localities in the Philippines and in the international community attended the celebration. In the speech I delivered as the 2018 Most Outstanding JRMSP, I reminded the Filipino youth that intellectual leadership is useless unless accompanied by integrity and morality. In a society whose structures continue to oppress the poor; where human rights violations are not only condoned, but glorified; and where violence is institutionalized, we need moral leaders who are grounded in justice and compassion. Only when leaders take moral stances, commit to social transformation, and foster healing can we have a nation that’s less broken and more loving.