By Mark Raygan E. Garcia
Photos by Dennis Futalan
Love at first sight. A common line that’s shared in romance and the many Sillimanians’ first encounter with their Alma Mater.
All of the country’s top universities would boast of offering quality education. Silliman University, which is turning 117 this August, is no different. But while it joins the ranks of prestigious Philippine universities, it is humbled by a gift of a location that bespeaks of the natural environment’s complement to academic learning, one feature that sets Silliman apart from the rest. Its bewitching beauty lies on the outside and within—on its sprawling green campus and the people who make life more colorful and meaningful.
Dotted with over 300 acacia trees, the Silliman campus has the Cuernos de Negros mountains in its background and the Visayan Sea at its frontage. The 62-hectare campus offers patches of greens on where personal relationships are nurtured, spiritual nourishment facilitated, and the concept of quality student life redefined. In 2014, Christian Universities Online included Silliman on the list of “50 Most Beautiful Christian College and University Campuses in the World,” the only one in the Philippines and one of only two in Asia.
Silliman University is a melting pot of cultures and religions. Of its overall population of more than 9,000, over 300 are international students from more than 30 countries in Asia, America, Africa, and Europe. Its affiliation with the United Church of Christ in the Philippines as a Protestant university has never been a hindrance to the exercise of religious freedom. Majority of Silliman students are Roman Catholics and a good number are Muslims.
“Whole person education” is what Silliman offers. It is the holistic development of one’s competence, character, and faith, transforming one into a person for others. It is this approach to learning that is encapsulated in its tri-logical ministry of teaching, healing, and preaching, providing opportunities of deep reflection toward an appreciation of self in relation to the larger community. Campus life revolves around the motto Via, Veritas, Vita (the Way, the Truth, the Life). It is Silliman’s mission to develop the whole person within the Christian context and in a sound environment. Students are expected to put their education to work in service to those in need.
Granted Full Autonomous Status by the Commission on Higher Education, Silliman offers over 140 certificate, undergraduate, graduate, and post-graduate programs in 19 academic units. It also offers a strong Basic Education program from Early Childhood to Senior High School.
The university is located in the charming city of Dumaguete, dubbed the “City of Gentle People,” an hour away by plane from Manila and roughly four hours by boat from Cebu. Silliman thrives in a city where the strip of restaurants offering good food along the boulevard and where everything a student needs are just a stone’s throw away. While offering the coveted “retirement getaway” environment, the city is not left behind by progress. You can find infrastructure developments and businesses sprouting in support of the city’s “University Town” concept.
A conducive residential campus life also sets Silliman University apart from the other leading universities in the Philippines. The 13 regular and cooperative dormitories, including the newest Rolando Villanueva Del Carmen Honor Hall (which offers free board and lodging to top honor students), provide a home away from home to Silliman students who come from outside Dumaguete. In the dormitories, students belong to a family, a part of the bigger Silliman community. Corollary to this sense of community is the “Silliman Spirit,” an atmosphere of personal closeness, warmth, friendship, and concern.
On our campus, students can freely bike around, skate, or enjoy an early morning or afternoon jog. Here, they develop strong and lasting bonds of friendship with each other. During weekends, or after an exam week, some plan a trip to nearby tourist spots listed among the Philippines’ must-visits: San Jose for the Twin Lakes, Siaton for Lake Balanan, Bais for the dolphins, Apo Island for snorkeling, scuba diving, and the marine reserves, and Oslob for the whale sharks.
But how did Silliman come about?
To most Americans in the late 1800, Dumaguete was a name their tongue had yet to master. It was unfamiliar to them. Even the Philippines, which at that time was still recovering from the onslaught of the Spanish-American War, was not on the immediate list for a Presbyterian mission. But it took the vision and commitment of a man to turn this around.
The late Dr. Arthur Carson, third Silliman president, wrote in his book how a man’s strong resolve to help shape Philippine education paved the way for the establishment of Silliman University. This man was Dr. Horace B. Silliman, a retired businessman of the town of Cohoes in New York State. In 1899, Dr. Silliman appeared at the office of the Presbyterian Board of Foreign Missions with the conviction that the Filipino people would need a new kind of education. To support this, he contributed the initial sum of $10,000 toward the founding of an industrial school. Legend has it that the board secretary was surprised and explained that the board had only begun to consider a mission in the Philippine islands. At that time, news was fresh on the naval victory of Admiral Dewey over the Spanish fleet in Manila Bay. The board secretary thought it would be too early for a school.
But the visitor persisted. Something had caught his imagination about these islands, and the people whom he had never seen and whom he would never meet.
Dr. Silliman had long been an active supporter of schools and colleges. Among such institutions was Hampton Institute of Virginia, and his proposal to the Presbyterian Board was for an industrial school in the Philippines to be founded on the Hampton model.
The mission in the Philippines started with Dr. David Sutherland Hibbard and wife, Laura, who were commissioned to head it. Three areas were considered: Cebu, Zamboanga, and Iloilo. While in Cebu, someone suggested for him to make a side trip to Dumaguete. Sailing from Cebu on a Saturday night, he came out early on deck the next morning and saw “the unsurpassed drama of a Dumaguete morning from the sea.” It was told that the friendly attitude of the people and the caliber of the local officials attracted him to Dumaguete, a “place of health and beauty.”
On Aug. 28, 1901, Silliman Institute was established. As Dr. Hibbard described the modest beginning of Silliman half a century later: “There were 15 boys that first morning. The equipment consisted of four desks about 10 feet long, two tables and two chairs, a few McGuffey’s Readers, a few geographies, arithmetics, and ninth-grade grammars. I was president; Mrs. Hibbard was the faculty.”
Enrollment in the university grew gradually to include students from Asian countries. The year 1912 marked the admission into the university of the first female student, Pura Blanco. Silliman was granted university status in 1938.
Developments on campus were interrupted by two significant events in Philippine history: World War II and Martial Law. But Silliman braved these historic events and left dents on the pages of Philippine history.
At the height of the war, Silliman faculty members and students evacuated to four localities in Negros Oriental, and continued rendering professional services whenever there was an opportunity. This led to the establishment of the “jungle university” in the mountain of Malabo—the first community school in the Philippines.
In 1972, when Martial Law was declared, Silliman was one of the first two universities closed. It was also one of the last universities allowed to resume operations after the closure. Despite the threat to life and democracy, Martial Law did not, however, stop students from gathering and keeping their patriotism aflame. At the basement of the Silliman University Church, in a room named the Catacombs, the “secret” campus rendezvous of students continued.
The rich contribution of Silliman to Philippine history has earned it the distinction of National Landmark from the National Historical Institute on June 19, 2002.
Growth of Silliman in the early period was greatly attributable to the support of the local community. Local families shared in the vision of Dr. Silliman and believed in the educational pursuits of Dr. and Mrs. Hibbard, and accordingly offered their properties through sale and donation to expand the campus. Later developments were characterized by more infrastructure development and initiation of student activities, ranging from journalism and public speaking to the performing arts and athletics.
Silliman continues to be nurtured under administrations headed by presidents of character and tested credentials. Its 13th and first female president, Dr. Betty Cernol-McCann, who assumed the presidency on June 1, 2018, carries with her a strong background in Asian higher education and a large network of higher education institutions, particularly in Asia.