Finding Purpose in the Midst of the Pandemic: Commencement Address to the Graduates of Foundation University (Dumaguete)

Thank you for that wonderful introduction. A pleasant day to the Board of Trustees, President Victor Vicente Sinco, Chancellor Ebenezer Lim, Former President Mira Sinco, members of the administration, faculty, the graduates and their parents, and the rest of the Foundation University community. It is truly an honor to be virtually here with everyone and I thank the leadership of this wonderful academic institution for giving me this opportunity to hopefully inspire our graduates.

First of all, let me greet our dear graduates. Wherever you are right now, congratulations! You have made it! Your parents and families have also made it! You, along with your classmates and other graduating students this year, are called the “pandemic graduates.” It sounds uninspiring and not glamorous at all, but this reality that we have right now, living in this time of the Coronavirus Pandemic, reminds us of the essential things that we should properly discern on and hopefully have in our lives.

Six years ago, I thought of resigning from my teaching job at Xavier School. My teaching job had very good pay. I loved and appreciated the community, especially my colleagues and close friends who helped me learn how to be a better teacher. To be honest, I did not plan to become a teacher. I graduated with a degree in Philosophy from my beloved alma mater, the Ateneo de Manila University. After graduation, I was not sure whether to pursue the priesthood, which, by the way, something that I have undergone as a training, or to walk the Law School way. One thing that was clear though was that I needed a job to help my parents in sending my siblings to college. Life was very challenging then to my parents. So, I applied for a teaching job position at Xavier School. Years passed by. Then, one day, I felt unmotivated. My life as a teacher was monotonous and boring. It was too repetitive. I have done the same thing all over and over for a few years and I felt uninterested. There was no genuine joy for me. Sure, I believed that I taught my students well and I loved interacting with my students and hanging out with my co-teachers. But, something was missing. I knew that I had to find that reason which will help me get excited to go to school and teach. 

The answer to that was very simple and unexpected. One day, as I went through my usual teaching duties, I received an invitation to try out the iPad, which was a new shiny gadget then, and explore how I can use it in the classroom. Interestingly, the iPad caught my attention and enthusiasm to try out new approaches in the way I taught at that time. After a few years of carefully studying, endlessly experimenting, and mastering the use of technology tools in the classroom, I realized what I wanted to do that can help me become a better teacher and at the same time, get to enjoy every moment of it. I decided to stay, a great decision I believe, because right now, I cannot think of doing any other thing aside from teaching.

A year ago, I was able to put a name for this part of my life journey when I encountered the term “ikigai.” In Japanese philosophy and culture, ikigai comes from two words- “iki” which means life and “gai” which means worth. Ikigai literally means life’s worth. This philosophy finds its origin in Okinawa, Japan-the birthplace of karate and most importantly, the place that has the highest number of citizens with ages one hundred and above. Ikigai is about finding and doing one’s life purpose. Ikigai is when we try to find the answer to the following questions: “What do I love to do?”; “What can I do that can be rewarded?”; “What can I do that I am good at?”; and “What can I do that the world needs?” When we cross these questions with one another, we can clearly make sense of our profession, passion, mission, and vocation. But most importantly, ikigai is the intersection of profession, passion, mission, and vocation. It is also the action that we want to do so that we can slowly draw out meaning in our lives, be happy along the journey, and make courageous decisions for ourselves. If you can still recall one advertisement of a coffee brand on the television, ikigai is our answer to the question: “Para kanino ka bumabangon?” – What makes you excited and energized to get up every single day?

As a graduate of philosophy, one essential thing that I learned is to always ask: “Why?” Asking “why” can be and definitely annoying and irritating for a lot of us. At some point, you might have witnessed how your parents, your teachers, professors, or even your friends felt annoyed when you asked the question, “Why?” to them. But asking “why” is a vital part of living as a human being. Asking the “why” question pushes us to dig deeper in our hearts and soul, to search for that single reason or idea that influences and leads us to think and act this or that way. More importantly, it leads us to our deepest, most vulnerable, and most importantly, unfiltered desires and ambitions in life. For many of us, asking the why question gives us a sense of fear, anxiety, and uncertainty because it is like facing a mirror and seeing our true self, devoid of any masks or filters that hinder us and other people to gaze upon our most vulnerable and sincerest form. On the other hand, asking this question can also make us stronger, more anchored on reality, and resilient. Similar to ikigai, when we find our why of waking up in the morning, of doing the things that we always do, and thinking about the things that we hope to do in the future, we are able to know our purpose in life. 

In this era of uncertainty, fear, and anxiety brought about by the Coronavirus Pandemic, knowing our ikigai and why in life can help us in making sense of and navigating the new reality that we are in right now. Our core values, beliefs, truths, and visions in life will help us to become more courageous and resilient at this time of the pandemic. For the senior high school graduates, what is your ikigai as of the moment? What is your “why” behind pursuing a college degree right now? For our college and post-college graduates, what is your “why” for pursuing your new career or the new chapter in your life? If asking these questions makes you feel scared or anxious, do not worry. That is a normal human reaction. Embrace those raw emotions and celebrate them. Accepting these emotions is the first step towards understanding your purpose in life.

A few more things about ikigai before I end my address. Ikigai is about action. It is about doing something. So, when you try to uncover your ikigai, frame it in such a way that you will do something actively. Uncovering your ikigai does not happen overnight. It takes time for you to understand, explore, master, and finally embrace your ikigai or purpose in life. And even if you have finally embraced your ikigai, sometimes, there are circumstances in life that might not allow you to fully manifest and invest all your time and effort on your ikigai. Some do what we call as “side hustle ikigai,” when their ikigai is like a part time thing that they do because they might have a job that pays better than their ikigai. This is perfectly normal. I know for example that some teachers have their own side hustle ikigai. I have teacher friends who teach during weekdays and play with their band on weekends or cook food for their online food services. A few of my friends work in corporate jobs and then become fitness advocates at night or mountain climbers and environment advocates on weekends. There is no time limit here, but one thing is for sure, your ikigai, whether part time or full time, fully embraced or not, will help you as you decided to become happy in your life.

So, going back to my life journey of discovering ikigai. The then newly discovered passion for teaching with technology tools has opened a lot of doors and opportunities for me. In 2017, I became the first Filipino teacher to represent the Philippines in the Global Teacher Prize, dubbed as the Nobel Prize for teaching in Europe and America, and was chosen from thousands of nominations from around the globe. With pride and humility, I was celebrated as one of the fifty best teachers around the world. This then allowed me to travel to the different parts of the country and of the world to share my story as an educator and guide my fellow teachers on how to transform learning with the use of technology. Last year, I proudly launched empowerED, an education advocacy platform that embodies my ikigai-to transform education, to elevate the teaching profession, and to celebrate every teacher. empowerED had a few successes in its first year. Our podcast channel has been in the top charts in around ten countries around the world. Our empowerED live sessions brought top educators and leaders around the world and in the Philippines to share their stories. 

Have I found genuine joy and purpose in life? I am not sure yet. But one thing is clear, I love what I am doing right now. I know what my passion is and I definitely love my profession. Hence, despite this pandemic, I continue to remind myself that I still have to do a lot of things and I need to look forward with much hope.

Dear graduates, I also hope the same things for you. The future might not be as bright as what you have dreamed of because of what is happening right now. It might be a little murky, gloomy, and even, uncertain. But that is life. Life will always have its challenges. After all, why have a boring life if you can have a whirlwind of adventure that will lead you to take risks, trust in yourself, and discover more of yourself. In all of these things, remember to anchor yourself on your why and enjoy discovering and refining your ikigai.

Again, congratulations, dear graduates. Congratulations and cheers to your families and to all of your teachers and professors! I continue to wish everyone good health and safety. Cheehoo! 

Francis Jim Tuscano (September 27, 2020)

Watch my speech during the Foundation University Commencement Celebration 2020 (from 7:43-22:15)