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On Gratitude And Service: ADMU Valedictorian Karen Perez Wants To Pay It Forward

Not your typical Atenista.

Ending her college journey as valedictorian, Ateneo scholar and sociology major Karen Perez is committed to paying it forward.

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Among the sea of excellence in college, some people stand out for going the distance to do more for the communities they find or connect to. It takes a strong belief in your own abilities, and a “just go for it” mindset, to go above and beyond to try and make an impact on the people around you.

When Karen Perez sat down for a meeting with the dean of higher education at the university, she was all set to congratulate someone else for being the Ateneo de Manila University’s 2023-2024 valedictorian. Thinking it was a thank you dinner for candidates who weren’t chosen as the valedictorian, she was shocked when she was told she was to bear the title herself.

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A fourth-year AB Sociology major, Karen was also the Scholars Representative in the Sanggunian, the student government of the university. Prior to that, she was the Scholars’ Adjustment Committee Head in Ateneo Gabay, the sector-based scholar and education organization in the Ateneo.

A scholar herself, the 22-year old has spent her college life not just poring over readings, but also lending her services and leadership to a community that’s given so much to her. In a conversation with NYLON Manila, the ADMU valedictorian talks about not fitting the typical “Atenista” mold, getting over self-doubt, and paying it forward.


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Ateneo has always been said to house the rich and elite. The banner on the side of the Old Rizal Library is known for its reminder: “We find the Ateneo today irrelevant to the Philippine situation because it can do no more than service the power elite.” As a financial aid scholar, Karen acknowledges the truth to those perceptions, but has always strived to break the mold.

Forgetful and lousy at math—that’s what Karen said about herself in the essay she submitted as a candidate for valedictorian. Two things perceived to be not a marker of excellence.

“Hindi ako magaling sa math, so parang hindi ko na kinalculate yung risks of taking that choice,” she explains. “And I forgot about the possible consequences and just went head on, straight on, towards reaching my dreams.”


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Though spending two out of her four years in college online due to the pandemic, Karen’s worked to serve her fellow scholars in the Ateneo. She talked about the prevalent misconceptions about the kinds of students that don’t fit the stereotype of the “Atenista.”

“I think the community in general is very welcoming and inclusive of scholars,” she said of her experience. “But I think there are still misconceptions.”

The misconceptions, though manifesting in jokes and stereotypes such as in groupworks where people would comment “oh, may scholar, bubuhatin tayo niyan,” often rub them the wrong way when it comes to people taking advantage of scholars’ work ethic, even going so far as to say they owe non-scholars that much because they’re the ones “paying” for the scholars’ tuition.

Though the community is welcoming, scholars still face many challenges. Karen has devoted much of her time outside of classes to participate and even take on leadership roles to help out other scholars, as well as work on projects and initiatives relating to education and development work.

Karen has always loved the humanities and social sciences, even before she went to college. Learning about the sociological imagination allowed her to perceive the world, society, and people on a more interconnected level. She’s been active in leadership roles since she was in high school, and wanted to take it further in college.


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It’s not uncommon for college students to take on so much at university—it’s that drive and hope that gets them places. Big universities like the Ateneo foster cultures that encourage students to be more and do more, not just for themselves. Excellence is not just defined by academic greatness.

However, it’s also common to feel like you’re drowning in an environment that’s filled with so many people chasing greatness—or are great without even trying. It’s often like being a small fish in a very big pond, as Karen says. It’s sometimes also like knowing that you’ve grown to be a big fish, but one that just found itself in a shark tank.

“I just stopped comparing myself to other people, and challenged myself to be better than the previous versions of myself,” she shares. “[Comparing myself to them] would just make me so tired and intimidated all the time, so I just focused on myself and the people who were supporting me along the way.”


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Gratitude has marked the four years of Karen’s life in college. From being guided by her ates and kuyas in school organizations, to getting support from her family and scholarship benefactors, the graduating student is filled with immense gratitude that she transforms into working to make an impact on the lives of others like her.

“All along, the main driving force was to pay it forward,” Karen shares. “The gratitude and the thought that I want to give this experience to other scholars as well. I want to contribute in any way that I can to make the scholars community more known and visible.” In Gabay as well as in the Sanggunian, Karen has guided new scholars and worked to provide services that’ll help them in their endeavors, like community-building and a financial subsidy program, where scholars can apply for financial aid for things like theses and internships.

“I wanted to lay the foundation for future batches, future scholars, to be more visible, to take up bigger spaces in the community.”

Knowing that she had not just her family, friends, fellow scholars, and the school supporting her, but also benefactors that often don’t know who they’re supporting, Karen pursued excellence in more ways than just academic. She continued on her path to service even beyond the school, interning at arts and education non-profit The Storytelling Project and at social enterprise company BEAGIVER. Through it all, her commitment to service and giving back has fueled her throughout her journey.


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Karen discusses that education overall is still a facet of Philippine society that needs much work, whether it’s in the halls of the Ateneo or the classrooms of regional public schools. She spoke passionately about the multitude of problems our education system has, lamenting the prevalent issue of lack of access to quality education.

“There are communities where children don’t even have the opportunity to go to school because there are no schools in their area.” Accessibility has more depth. Being able to go to school is one thing, but learning through quality education—in any forms, not just the traditional classroom form—is another. For instance, teachers are often underpaid and shell out their own money to buy things needed for school or projects.

Support is crucial, but lacking from many sides. Karen shared that parents would rather have their children work than go to school because it brings in more income for the family, and there are fewer expenses than if they went to school. These issues are what she wants to address, using her own background, education, and experiences to improve the education of Filipino students.

Set to deliver her valedictory address at the Ateneo graduation this June, Karen will end her college journey addressing her fellow batchmates that numbers are not everything. The years you spend online, the amount of money you pay to get an education, the grades you get, the salary you’ll have after graduation—they do not define you as a student, as an Atenean. It’s about the values you’ve learned and embodied along the way, as well as the journey you’ve taken becoming a person for others and all the heart it took to take it.

Karen is set to pursue a career in the development sector, currently looking for work that’ll allow her to practice her advocacies, for organizations that are focused on education and children’s rights, still committed to paying it forward.

Images courtesy of Karen Perez.

Continue Reading: Meet JB Bejarin, Ateneo De Manila’s Batch 2022 Class Valedictorian