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[Time Trowel] Mentorship matters

A trowel (/ˈtraʊ.əl/), in the hands of an archaeologist, is like a trusty sidekick – a tiny, yet mighty, instrument that uncovers ancient secrets, one well-placed scoop at a time. It’s the Sherlock Holmes of the excavation site, revealing clues about the past with every delicate swipe.

April marks a time of transition and celebration for graduates in the Philippines. My own academic journey, which began over three decades ago, is a manifestation to this period of change – a journey kickstarted by a setback that ultimately opened the door to new opportunities.

My first year as a high school student at Ateneo de Naga began with an ironic twist: I failed history, my favorite subject. This was after my valedictorian success at Tinambac Central School. Despite the setback, history would later steer me towards a . Despite the opportunity to remain at the Ateneo, a strategic decision by my mother provided me with a clean slate at the Naga College Foundation. That means, it took me five years to complete high school.

Reflecting on that failure, I now see it through the eyes of an educator and realize the significance of empathy and mentorship. My move to the city was not just about swapping fields for concrete; it involved grappling with the glaring absence of a role model – someone to help me navigate through the confusing mazes of adolescence and city life. Some high school teachers then seemed more adept at lecturing from textbooks than reading the room, especially when the room was filled with wide-eyed country mice like me.

However, Naga College Foundation marked the beginning of a transformative phase. On my first day, my history teacher – now a distinguished educator himself and the SDS of Iriga City, Manny de Guzman – saw potential in me and introduced me to the school’s boy scout program. This experience wasn’t just about learning survival skills; it was a journey of self-discovery and leadership that rekindled my interest in history. Through scouting, I learned to integrate my academic pursuits with practical experiences, leading me to represent Naga in the Ten Outstanding Boy Scouts of the Philippines, reaching the highest Boy Scout rank, and even overcoming academic challenges to excel in my studies.

The turning point in my academic career came in my fourth year of high school when I passed the UPCAT and got into the University of the Philippines-Diliman. At UP, I did not have grand aspirations of academia, merely hoping to support my family after graduation. Yet, it was here, particularly through my role as a student assistant in the anthropology department, that I discovered the profound impact of mentorship. And it had a lot to do with empathy and friendship. As the student assistant in the department, I met Professor Francisco “Kiko” Datar, the chair of the program then. 

Meeting Kiko was crucial. He was fresh off his PhD from SUNY Buffalo, a and a true-blue four-field anthropologist. Like Manny, he provided the opportunity for me to seek a deeper appreciation of scholarship. Kiko also became more than a department boss, he became my de facto advisor.

Entering my fourth year, my father was fired from his local government job. I didn’t have enough funds to cover my tuition and living expenses, so I asked Kiko to be a guarantor for a student assistance loan at UP.  When he saw the form, he said he is not going to sign it. He would personally loan me the money needed to pay for my fees, and I could stay at the home that he shared with other department colleagues. He told me to pay him when I can, or when I get a job after college.

I accepted the offer for free lodging – it was on campus; I could just walk to work and my classes. But it came with a requirement: If I stayed in their home, I was required to read three articles per week, and during Fridays, over beers, we discussed the articles. That was the turning point in my life. I became more than an average student; I started reading graduate-level articles.

I graduated in 1999, and because I was introduced to role models and advanced degrees, I applied to be a teaching fellow in the department. The fellowship paid for my tuition and provided a salary through teaching. I was hired, and I started teaching Social Science 1 and Introduction to Anthropology. I still remember my first day teaching, I was trembling and was so nervous. Teaching for some (including me) is an acquired skill.

But the teaching experience motivated me to seek out opportunities for a graduate degree abroad. It so happened that during my first year teaching at UP, one of archaeology’s great, (Tito Bill) was a visiting professor. He too, probably, saw some potential in me that he recommended I apply to graduate programs in the US. 

Sometime in June 2000, a stormy day, I helped organize a talk by Miriam Stark. Miriam (or Doc, as I call her) was an assistant professor at the University of Hawaii-Manoa then. She suggested I apply to UHM, and, thus, I immediately applied, got accepted, but unfortunately, there was no funding available. I waited another year and re-applied. This time, the East West Center and the Asian Cultural Council-Philippines provided funding. However, I did not have any money to pay for my first couple of months in Hawaii. Tito Bill did not bat an eye – he wrote a check, booked my ticket to Hawaii, and said to me, pay me back with a PhD – which I did, with interest to boot. Miriam eventually became my doctoral advisor, with Bion Griffin serving as my master’s degree supervisor.

My teaching fellowship at UP further cemented my passion for academia, a path significantly influenced by mentors who greatly encouraged me. This journey of mentorship continued with the consistent support of Bill Longacre and Miriam Stark, guiding me through graduate studies in the United States. It culminated in a rewarding academic career as a professor at one of the top universities in the world – the University of California, Los Angeles.

Looking back, the role of mentorship and having role models in a student’s life cannot be overstated. My journey illustrates the transformative power of guidance, empathy, and opportunity. It underscores the importance of making higher education accessible within local communities, reducing the need for students to seek opportunities far from home.

The initiatives by the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) and the Philippine State Universities and Colleges (SUC) system are critical in this regard, ensuring that students everywhere have the chance to pursue their dreams without undue hardship. Mentorship not only shapes academic paths but also life trajectories, highlighting the need for a supportive and understanding educational environments for all students.

Mentorship goes beyond the traditional boundaries of schooling and education. It plays a critical role in shaping one’s success across various aspects of life. This relationship is more than just an exchange of knowledge; it’s a collaborative journey where mentors share their wisdom and experience, encouraging personal and professional growth in their mentees. Instead of simply transferring information, mentors guide their mentees towards self-discovery. They encourage them to overcome challenges, chase their dreams, and build resilience against setbacks.

Think of a seasoned scientist mentoring a curious student, guiding them through experiments not just to teach scientific methods, but also to instill a passion for discovery and an ethical approach to research.

Such mentorship not only prepares individuals for academic achievements but also shapes them into leaders and innovators. Mentors instill values and skills in their mentees, turning them into not just better learners but also into individuals who are compassionate and visionary. Through this close partnership, mentors and mentees together lay the foundation for a future that values continuous learning, excellence, and the passing on of knowledge and virtues from one generation to the next. –

Stephen Acabado is professor of anthropology at the University of California-Los Angeles. He directs the Ifugao and Bicol Archaeological Projects, research programs that engage community stakeholders. He grew up in Tinambac, Camarines Sur. Follow him on IG @s.b.acabado.