“Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People are willing to help you reach your dreams if your heart’s in it.”—Dr. Gatmaitan (XS ’08) shares his story at Tiong Se Academy Graduation

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On March 23, 2019, Dr. Lawrence Steven Yao Gatmaitan, XS ’08, delivered the commencement address at the graduation ceremonies of Tiong Se Academy. Dr. Gatmaitan, a Xaverian since nursery, was the Xavier Awardee of his grade school graduating batch of 2004. After high school, he pursued a degree in BS Health Sciences in Ateneo de Manila University. After which, he earned a Medical Degree and a Masters Degree in Business Administration from the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health in 2017. He currently works as a general practitioner in the cities of Manila and Marikina. (Tiong Se Academy is the first Chinese-Filipino school in the Philippines, The school celebrates its 120th anniversary this year. 

Ms. Moscoso, my first year high school math teacher. I remember Ms. Moscoso as a well-regarded teacher in school, always walking the halls with much dignity and respect. I would like to take this opportunity to apologize and thank you at the same time. I am sorry for doing horribly with numbers but most of all, thank you. Realizing that I’m no good in Math helped me solidify my resolve to become a doctor instead. People told me that I didn’t have to worry about Math if I became a doctor. But to my surprise and horror, there actually is a lot of Math in this profession. (Haha) Kidding aside, I am happy to see my former teachers: Ms. Moscoso, Ms. Dairo, and Ms. Cruz.

To Mr. Carlos Chung, President and Vice Chairman of the Board of Trustees, members of the board, Ms. Margarita Chua Gutierrez, principal for grade school and high school, to the faculty, parents, guests, students, Grade 10 completers and Grade 12 senior high school graduates of Tiong Se Academy, good afternoon.

It took me quite some time to agree to be your commencement speaker. Whenever I am invited to give a talk, my knee jerk reaction is to recommend someone else—someone more “successful” or “accomplished.” Someone who would have been able to tell you about many more awards, about their TV and newspaper features, and the like. But then, the committee told me they chose me so that I could share with you a slightly different story. It might not be the most straightforward story of success, but it is hopefully a story that will be of help to you, our students, as you go out into the next stage, and for the graduates, into the real world.

 Let me introduce myself. I am Lawrence Steven Yao Gatmaitan. Like most of you, I am Chinese-Filipino. My mother is pure Chinese and actually studied in this school. My father is pure Filipino. The best of both worlds. I grew up in a fairly comfortable setting when I was much younger. We used to live in a two-story house, had a couple of cars and some house help. I studied in a good Chinese-Filipino school like yourselves. Life was simple but comfortable. All of that changed when the family business started to go bankrupt. You see, my dad had some problems with his business partners. The end result? We were in debt, had to move out of our house, had our cars taken away, and had to start doing things by ourselves.

To give some perspective, my family had to move houses eight times, having to adjust to a smaller living space each instance. In one of those times, we lived in someone else’s house with no privacy except for the 2nd floor where we slept and kept our belongings—where the ceiling would constantly drip and the windows would fall from gusts of wind during typhoons.

Looking back, life was really difficult, but at the time, I don’t think any of us kids realized just how difficult it was. My parents were always trying to find ways to stretch what was left of the budget and make us feel like everything was okay.

It only really sank in when the landlord of one of the places we lived in, realizing we didn’t have enough money to pay the rent, suggested to my parents that my siblings and I transfer schools. I was in that meeting between the landlord and my parents, and I remember desperately trying to stop myself from crying because I didn’t want to leave my school.

My parents knew the value of education and how much my school meant to me. It was at that point that they decided to go to my school to ask if I could still apply for a scholarship. It was already the middle of the year and the application period was already over, but my parents knew we needed to ask for help. My dad talked with my teachers and explained the situation my family was in. Without hesitation, the school agreed to accept me as a scholar. The help didn’t just stop with the scholarship, however. Teachers even visited our house and gave canned goods knowing that food was also a problem at home. My school saved not only my education but my whole family as well.

 The challenges were far from over. During that time, my father got a stroke which partially paralyzed his body. After becoming bedridden and fighting for recovery, my father passed away after two years. I was 12 years old at the time.

 From the time of my father’s hospitalization up to his wake, support came from friends and teachers. It was a difficult time for the family but help came when we needed it most.

 A couple of days after my father passed away, I needed to go back to school. My friends welcomed me and tried their best to cheer me up. A lot of them knew of my situation and invited me to go to the arcade with them or play Counter Strike and DOTA without ever asking me to pay. Some of them even told their parents about the situation my family was going through. Next thing I knew, I was being fetched by their parents in their cars and brought to their houses to have sleepovers. They would tell me to eat as much as I wanted at the dinner table seeing how thin I was. A lot of times, they would even buy me new clothes and shoes that I would often be too shy to accept. It was obvious at this point that many of my friends and their families were wealthy. Most of them lived in big bright houses with dinner tables filled from end to end with appetizing dishes. They had their own drivers and cars to bring them to school. It was a big difference from what I had to go through.

Being a scholar, I was expected to do well in school, but I also had to deal with the fact that I didn’t have a lot of the luxuries my friends had. Since we didn’t have internet at home, I’d stay a bit later in school to make use of the library computer and try to do as much school work as I could or sometimes even ask for extra tutoring from my Chinese teacher. At around 6 P.M., I’d leave school and take two jeeps from San Juan to get back home to Manila. After some chores, I’d get back to school work and repeat the same thing the next day. I didn’t have a lot of the comforts that my friends had, but with a lot of support and perseverance, I was able to finish grade school and high school as a scholar. Ready to chase my dreams of becoming a doctor, I headed for college.

I applied for scholarship and was lucky to get accepted into college. It wasn’t easy however. A committee would check your grades and see if you are indeed “worthy” of a scholarship be it because of financial or academic reasons. It was even tougher for medical school. The tuition for medical school costs approximately 1 million pesos in total for five years depending on where you go. That doesn’t include the cost of uniforms, books, and other things you might need. Add the fact that I was competing with other students from other universities, it was not easy. But I needed the support and gave my best during college and in my essays and interviews. One night, I received the call that I was accepted into medical school with a full scholarship. Fast forward five years and after sleepless nights of studying for exams/practical tests, early morning and late night commutes to and from medical school, and working in the hospital for two years, I was able to graduate and become a doctor with many thanks to my benefactors, teachers, friends, and family.

 This is the first lesson I’d like to share with you today:

 Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People are willing to help you reach your dreams. There are a million opportunities waiting for you if you know where to go or whom to ask. My parents asked my school for help, and that opened many doors for me. Asking for help is only half of the equation, however. While you shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help, you also need to work hard. Study well. Get up for work. Go the extra mile. I know that a number of you students here today are scholars, maybe some of you have even experienced what I’ve been through—maybe even worse. Let that be motivation for you to persevere, to work harder. I may have lived a different kind of life compared to my peers, but I was still able to finish from good schools because I worked hard and because I wasn’t afraid to ask for help.

 Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People are willing to help you reach your dreams if your heart’s in it.

 The long part of the story is finally over. A joke? Or not. (Haha)

 After finally graduating from medical school and eventually passing the board exam along with a few other thousand newly licensed doctors, I felt ready to take on the next challenge. I’ve always wanted to be a cardiothoracic surgeon—the kind of surgeon that literally fixes broken hearts. It is a difficult field to get into, but I gathered up the courage to apply to the training program at one of the most prestigious training hospitals here in Manila. I got through the entrance exam. I  got through the interviews. The only thing left was a three week pre-residency test. Think of it as a three-week test run for applicants, an audition to become a heart surgeon where you had to basically impress your superiors and take care of patients, all the while having very little rest or sleep. I basically lived in the hospital for three weeks.

 At the last part of that testing process, I got sick. Ironically, it was my heart that had a problem. Because of the stress, fatigue and lack of food, I got an arrhythmia, a problem in the rhythm of the heartbeat which could potentially be dangerous to my health. I was admitted in the hospital for four days. I eventually recovered and was told that I could go back for training. I had my doubts, however. I missed almost a whole week of that test run. Surely they wouldn’t want to accept me, I thought. With some hesitation, I asked if I still had a chance of getting into the program I applied to. To my surprise, they told me that I was accepted. I was finally on my way to becoming a heart surgeon! But then the real work started and this hospital was known to be challenging. Just a few hours into training, my heart had problems again. It was temporary but it bothered me for the rest of my stay. Because of the environment, the stress, and the fatigue, I decided to quit.

 It was a confusing time for me. I was disappointed at myself for letting go of that opportunity but also afraid that if I continued, my health would’ve been at greater risk. Never in my life as a student did I quit. It was painful and I wasn’t sure what to do. It was far from what I had envisioned back when I was still your age. After a month of soul searching, I decided to work as a general physician instead. I work as a doctor in different clinics and hospitals which brought me to Manila, Marikina, and as far as Marinduque. I would diagnose patients, give prescriptions, deliver babies, and assist in many procedures. I became more and more confident in dealing with patients and even in doing minor surgeries. Each day, I learn a bit more, work much harder and even earn at the same time. I am now able to help my family financially to some degree. I may not be a cardiothoracic surgeon—I still want to become one someday, but right now—I’m doing okay.

 This is the second lesson I’d like to share with you today, my dear graduates:

 Your dreams may change, and that’s okay. You can get delayed, maybe decide that accounting isn’t for you, or maybe just have circumstances that stop you from reaching your goal. You might suddenly want to become an artist or maybe even decide to open a restaurant. As long as your heart is in it, I don’t see how it could be a bad thing.

 Your dreams may change and that’s okay.

 Now just one more story before I end. My Chinese name is Yao Jiafu. I always found it amusing how simple my name was and how the character for luck was added to my name. I always made fun thinking that maybe the reason why I was so lucky in life was because of my Chinese name. But truly, I was and still am lucky. As I’ve shared, a large part of my life was spent making the most of what little we had as a family. We didn’t have much but we were still able to laugh and survive. I was just fortunate enough and grateful to have people help me get a good education, much like yourselves.

My dear students, all of you have proven that you have what it takes to get to the next stage in your lives. Without a doubt, you are also very lucky to have your parents, relatives, and teachers who have all worked hard to raise you and teach you. I believe they deserve a round of applause. I know how difficult it can be to earn money, and I am sure that your parents work day and night to make sure you can get the best education. I also know for a fact that being a teacher is not an easy task. I have two sisters who are teachers and the amount of paper checking they do and materials that they prepare would put a doctor to shame. I’m sure there were also many other individuals who’ve helped you graduate today. As we celebrate your success, dear students, we also honor those who have helped you get this far.

This is the last lesson I’d like to share with you students today: Be grateful for whatever you have, no matter how much or how little.

To wrap up, three things:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help. People are willing to help you reach your dreams if your heart’s in it.
  • Your dreams may change, and that’s okay
  • Be grateful for whatever you have, no matter how much or how little 

 I hope that what I’ve shared with you today would help you as you start your own journeys ahead. Your school, your teachers, your family and everyone here have done their best to bring you to where you are today. Now it’s your turn to make the most of this gift of education and we are all excited to see what the future has in store for all of you.

Congratulations, dear students and Tiong Se batch of 2019!

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