by: Ma. Jaya A. Ariola | Feature Editor
Equipped with a metaphorical arrow and a wide-eyed gaze, little Betty looks up and aims for a star. In the darkness, she never sees the arrow fly. Disheartened, she walks around and aims for other things. Above her, however, the star still keeps on pulsing…
Dr. Betty Cernol-McCann has never been a student of Silliman University. Although this was her dream school for college, circumstances—both familial and financial matters—did not permit it. However, a few noble jobs, several diplomas, numerous countries and a boundless set of skills later, she is now in her dream school—not as a student but as the first woman president in the history of Silliman University.
Where it all started
In 1980, a year before Martial Law in the Philippines was formally lifted, McCann moved to Dumaguete with her first husband, and their three children. Her first husband was a media man —setting up radio and television stations here, while Betty’s inclination was more to teaching.
“When we decided to come to Silliman, I knew then that it was somehow a fulfillment of my childhood wish to go to school here,” McCann says, recalling how studying in Silliman University for college was but a distant dream, and how she had always been the type to wake up to reality. After all, they were in far-off Leyte, and it was difficult to move. Her father was a government employee, and going away to study at her dream school meant contending with the high cost of living, even if she went only by herself.
With glistening eyes, she recalls the words her father said to her years later when she got the teaching job at SU: “My dear daughter, you may not have been to Silliman University as a student, but now, you are there as a teacher!” She smiles at us while she says this, but she is not really looking at us. A trudge down memory lane, perhaps, transports her to a time in the past—at the moment when she realized that she was finally here, really here, in the school she had only been dreaming about. From that time on, she was certain her life was about to turn around.
“Maybe he felt guilty that he could not send me here before,” McCann says, her voice cracking with emotion as she tries to choke back tears. “But I made my father happy.”
On being the first woman president and promoting inclusivity
“Here in Silliman, it becomes more pronounced, given the fact that I am the 13th president, and I am the first one who is a woman. But among friends of mine, who think more in an inclusive way, they would rather that I be not called a ‘woman’ president, but simply as president. Because if we have a male president, we don’t really say ‘man’ president, do we?” McCann says with a chuckle, pointing out one of the issues regarding her being a woman and her position in the university and implying how unfortunate it is that socially constructed gender roles have limited the way humans perceive one another’s capabilities.
“In the spirit of inclusivity, that will have to be pointed out. To me, however, I don’t really mind being labelled as the first woman president, because, historically, there is a basis. Before me, no one here in Silliman was president who happened to be a woman.” She says that she is comfortable with being given that label, although she tries to understand people who are still surprised by the fact that a woman can hold the highest position of power.
“Women should really be respected to be their own agency. Being a woman, what we do should be determined by what WE want to do, and not merely what the norm dictates and what society limits us to do.”
McCann aims to promote inclusivity in SU by not only empowering women, but all genders as well, wherever they may be in the spectrum. She intends to make the university a safe space for people to become the best version of themselves, so they could exceed the unsolicited limits society constructed for them.
Prioritizing the 3Ps
“For me, success is the ability to accomplish what I have set out to do, at any level.”
Being away for about 12 years to work in research and community engagement abroad has allowed her to see and work with many other universities in approximately 13 countries in Asia, and finally coming back here with a heightened sense of purpose.
“I feel overwhelmed,” she says of her new appointment, adding that the challenge is on how to best allocate the resources and cater to the needs of every student, now that they have increased in number and demand.
In her five year-term as SU president, McCann will prioritize three main areas: People, Programs and Partnerships.
On being progressive and conservative
“I believe that these two [being progressive and conservative] are not different things, but both ends of the same continuum,” she explains, extending her arms to opposite sides to emphasize her point.
To her, being conservative means holding on to your own basic beliefs that you consider non-negotiable, while being progressive is in the way you think and do things depending on the advancement of age and time.
“We have to find the middle ground and work towards the center, and let this be a balancing act for us to arrive at better decisions.”
A day in the life of the president
”I need more sleep,” Betty says with a hearty laugh, when asked how a typical day in her life goes by.
She usually rises before the sun does, around four or five a.m., then spends a quiet time with the self to read the news and email sent to her from people all over the world–proof of how her impact has spread across the globe. She goes to work, eats lunch at around one in the afternoon, then returns to work and does more readings, hoping there will be no unexpected dinners or late-night events that require her presence, so she could spend time with her loved ones. After the evening meal, she and her husband proceed to peruse their eclectic selection of movies, her favorite ones being anything starred by Omar Sharif, Sophia Lauren, the Affleck brothers, or Natalie Portman. She then goes to sleep, with her favorite song, The Beatles’ “In my Life”, playing inside her mind in a loop. She mentally prepares herself for another day, drawing her strength from her unshakeable faith.
Betty (who isn’t so little anymore) looks up at the stars again. She laughs when she sees she has reached the one she had aimed for, though a lot of years too late. With the same wide-eyed gaze and metaphorical arrows, she looks at Silliman University, and realizes that there are a lot more stars to aim for— inclusivity, environmental conservation, social justice, and development. It’s up to us to get our own arrows and help her reach them.