FR. BIENVENIDO Nebres is winding down his duties as president of Ateneo de Manila University (AdMU), a post he has held for 18 years. ?I?m looking forward to doing something different,? he says. Fr. Jose Ramon T. Villarin, SJ, succeeds him as president.
In a few days, Father Ben will be off to Europe to go on a pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela. A well-deserved break, as everyone at AdMU will tell you, although when they tell you this they look forlorn, even woeful.
What break? It will be a walking pilgrimage for the 71-year-old Jesuit, covering 780 kilometers from St. Jean Pied de Port in France to Santiago de Compostela, the holy shrine that draws thousands of Catholics to Spain because it is where the remains of St. James are said to be buried. Father Ben starts his walk on June 1 and hopes to end it by July 7.
If anyone can walk that walk, it is Ben Nebres. He has planned his pilgrimage so that he can do it in a most organized and efficient way, not unlike the way he ran AdMU and powered it to be among the premier education institutions in the country.
Having read that it is usually the blisters that do a pilgrim in, he has taken care to break-in his hiking boots. ?The secret is to wear two pairs of socks, so I?ve been told,? he says. To keep his backpack light, he says, he will bring no laptop, not even an iPad. He will take photos and keep a journal using a good mobile phone. Instead of sleeping every night in an albergue (pilgrims? inn), he has made arrangements to visit with Jesuit communities along the way, at Pamplona, Logroño, Burgos and Leon in Spain.
He has also been running around the 200-meter lighted indoor track at the Moro Lorenzo Sports Center after the daily evening Mass. ?I?ve been jogging since the 1970s,? he says. Before the sports center was built, he would jog to the high school track, do 10 rounds and jog back to his office. Running at the sports center has not only kept him fit but has also allowed him to look in on the basketball, badminton and track teams that practice there.
The students who were in college when he took over as AdMU president in 1993 now have children of their own who attend grade school, high school or college on campus. Add the graduates of the succeeding years and the current batch and you end up with an army of Atenistas who cannot help the outpouring of affection since news of Manong Ben?s retirement came out.
The traditional open house marked his 71st birthday last March 15, but because it was going to be his last celebration with the Ateneo community as president, the festivities seemed endless: A fun run, the launch of a book honoring his accomplishments as Ateneo president, a bonfire christened ?Benfire,? and a surprise celebration with his BFFs (best foreign friends) in attendance. ?I was deeply touched by their coming,? he says. ?I know they made a very special effort to be here.?
A Facebook page has been created to collect tributes and photos of students taken with Father Ben. One will be hard put to find a more approachable university president than Father Ben, judging by their wall of photos. Or someone more endeared. The current batch of Atenistas, reared on Harry Potter, has taken to calling him their very own Dumbledore, after the Hogwarts headmaster in the international bestseller.
?I will miss the students,? says Father Ben, pulling out a small card from his wallet to show a small note with a caricature of him done by a student.
The current enrollment at AdMU is 8,000, with the management and social sciences courses getting the biggest numbers of enrollees.
Under Nebres, AdMU increased its undergraduate degree offerings by 32 courses. Even more staggering, the university added over 70 programs to its graduate studies menu, including the new masters? programs in electronics engineering; environmental science; applied mathematics, major in mathematical finance; atmospheric science; Japanese studies and political science, major in global politics.
A fine arts program where students can major in creative writing, theater arts, information design, or art management was also created because Filipinos have a for talent and an interest in the arts.
Under his watch, too, AdMU started a whole new School of Government that delivered many of its programs onsite. ?This year, we had graduations for provincial and municipal government officials in Marawi, in Tarlac and in La Union,? he notes.
A handsome building on Ortigas Avenue in Pasig began housing the Ateneo School of Medicine and Public Health in 2007. ASMPH will graduate its first batch next year.
In his view, AdMU has done very well in management, natural sciences, social sciences, humanities and, most recently, fine arts. But he feels the university needs to expand its offerings in the area of technology and find its niche in the very large area of the life sciences.
Nebres inspired the re-branding of Atenistas from ?men and women for others? to ?professionals for others? by using the university as laboratory for effecting social change, particularly in public education and antipoverty advocacies. (See interview on Page G1.)
Father Ben is happy that Ateneo?s four professional schools?the Graduate School of Business, the Law School, the School of Government and the School of Medicine and Public Health?have spearheaded the feeding program called Blueplate for Better Learning. The program will expand an earlier program with Jollibee and will undertake the feeding of 4,000 school children in four public elementary schools in Bagong Silangan, Quezon City. To Father Ben, the program is one way of closing the gap between private and public education.
Also a source of pride for him are the social entrepreneurship programs where Ateneo business management students have helped in shepherding businesses started by Gawad Kalinga villagers, such as Rags to Riches (woven rags) and Hapinoy (sari-sari stores). ?These are not charities, these are legitimate businesses,? he is quick to point out.
Does he sometimes muse about what his life would have been like had he not become a priest? ?No, no such musings for me,? he says. ?I?m quite happy where I am.?
His father, Bienvenido Sr., a doctor, would have preferred a medical career for him. ?Looking back, I remember that my father would bring me to the summer medical conventions,? he says. ?It was only later that I realized he was trying to show me that a doctor?s life wasn?t so bad.?
At his ordination, he recalls, it was his father who was crying, not his schoolteacher mother, the former Asuncion Florendo.
Before he became AdMU president, Nebres was dean of the School of Arts and Sciences, rector of the Loyola House of Studies, Provincial Superior of the Jesuits in the Philippines, and president of Xavier University in Mindanao. Some eight or nine years ago, he was asked to help out in Rome, but he asked for a reprieve because ?we were going through some difficult challenges in some units here at Ateneo.? He thought it would have been a difficult time to pass on the presidency to another Jesuit (the AdMU president must always be a Jesuit).
?This is actually a good time,? he says. ?Everything is pretty much stable. I don?t have to burden the next president with a big challenge. I feel Father Villarin will have time to get to know the place and eventually decide what directions will be important for the future.?
Upon his return from his pilgrimage, Father Ben says he wants to do some writing. If his superiors will allow him, he says he will go back to teaching math and continue his work with the public schools.