Over twelve years ago, I proudly entered law school thinking it was going to be “just like college.” I wasn’t your stellar college student, but I’d say I was okay – I didn’t land on the Dean’s list often, but I was very active in extracurricular activities. So there I was, a clueless first year law student who thought that a bit of studying here and there would get me through law school. And surely, as all law students would attest to, it didn’t take a week to prove me wrong. I studied like I never studied before, but just like how the song goes, “I guess my best wasn’t good enough.”
Towards the end of my first year in law school, I thought of quitting. Just about the same time, a good friend invited me to join a summer internship program. This program required me to live in the mountains for a week with indigenous peoples and stay in Palawan to work for an environmental NGO. I got exposed to lawyers who broke the stereotypical image of a lawyer in my mind – people dressed in suits always arguing in court. These are people who could have been earning hefty sums, but chose the road less travelled in this profession to fight for causes dear to them. I would say that this was the first time I really fell in love with the law. I (more like my grades) decided I’d continue with law school.
Due to the sheer difficulty of everyday life in law school, I promised myself that I wouldn’t get into any law-related job until I got the result of my Bar exams. So after Bar month, I started going around the country. When I had no more money to travel, I thought it was time to work. But my stubborn self had to make good that promise. I landed a part-time teaching job in a university, which required me to teach two (non-law-related) classes twice a week. I enjoyed preparing for my classes and enjoyed even more interacting with my students. After a few months, I fell in love with teaching.
Soon after, the Bar exam results came out and thankfully, I passed. I started reassessing my life. I was enjoying teaching, but I also figured, I wanted to use my law degree, and more importantly, I needed a job that would pay for the bills. So I decided to grow up (“adulting,” as kids these days would say), and submitted my application documents to the usual places – law firms and government agencies. But because I did not want to let go of my teaching job, I never entertained calls after the interviews. Yes, I can be stubborn that way.
After a few more weeks, an opportunity to apply as a program director and legal staff of a human rights organization came about. This was the same organization, which, during my internship, threw me out of Manila to experience life. I went on to work on human rights education and issues of women, children, and indigenous peoples for five years. (Bonus: I was able to continue teaching!)
For five years, I did the unconventional law practice (which older lawyers don’t probably consider “practice”) – I went to communities to conduct legal literacy trainings, I brought students on immersion for them to see the “human face” of the law, and I did research work on issues that were close to my heart. For five years, I worked with the best and the brightest (and this is an understatement) in the human rights field. These were people I looked up to, and I considered sharing the same office space with them as an achievement. For five years, I excitedly went to work almost every day. But for those same five years, I also had to explain why I chose this field and why I was actually “practicing.” For those same five years, I can’t count the number of times I was told that I would earn more in other fields of law practice and be “more successful.” But for five years, I chose to smile at all these and with a heart full of trust in the One who brought me to this path, I continued my journey and learned to look for Him in the people I encountered, in the work that I did, in the places that I went to, and in just about everything in my life, even the most ordinary. I knew I found my purpose. And I knew I was in love.
I may not be doing the typical work that lawyers do, but I truly found my happiness. I may not have earned millions, but during those five years, I travelled a lot in and out of the country (mostly for free) and learned about places, peoples, and cultures. I may not be as “successful” as others think, but my five years’ worth of toil got me a scholarship for a prestigious master’s program in human rights law in one of the top universities in the United States. Most importantly, these experiences taught me that society does not determine success for us; we define it ourselves.
For me, success is finding my God-given purpose, and falling in love with it. Let me end by borrowing the words in a prayer attributed to Fr. Pedro Arrupe: “Nothing is more practical than finding God, than falling in love in a quite absolute, final way. What you are in love with, what seizes your imagination, will affect everything. It will decide what will get you out of bed in the morning, what you do with your evenings, how you spend your weekends, what you read, whom you know, what breaks your heart, and amazes you with joy and gratitude. Fall in love, stay in love, and it will decide everything.”