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Dateline Seattle: AdeN: The Making of a University

(The author of this article, Alenn Nidea, graduated high school from the Ateneo de Naga. A lawyer by profession, Alenn is currently based in New York. He shared with me this article with a note: Tell me if you like it. I like it so much that I asked his permission to print it in my column for others to read and understand the making of the Ateneo de Naga as a university.)

As a distinctive landmark in the growing provincial city of Naga, the Ateneo de Naga University (AdeNU) campus has come of age. It was built, grown, and expanded over the years to suit the requirements of a university campus.

Long before that time, the AdeNU was simply Ateneo de Naga (AdeN), founded right before the outbreak of World War II. Where once stood an elementary academy for boys, Archbishop Pedro P. Santos, a visionary from Pampanga, invited the Jesuits to run it as a high school to serve the needs of the young growing boys of Naga City. Starting as a one building affair, it had an imposing Four Pillars at the façade. The Greek-inspired structure became the hallmark and symbol of the school’s strong projection into the future. The tiny school would soon serve as the cradle for the formation of the minds and hearts of Bicol boys from the region and, over time, of young men and women from the whole archipelago.

Talk about university in the physical sense, and you talk about clusters of massive buildings, and smaller structures dotting the campus, wide expanse of green lawns wedged between buildings, roadways and walkways winding around and connecting buildings and facilities. There is always an administration building, classrooms, laboratories, a gym, an auditorium, a chapel. Bigger universities have dormitories, faculty housing, small buses and rides going around the campus, lots of parking spaces, and a community that serves the needs of the faculty, the staff, the studentry and the university population. Many universities have physical demarcation and outlined by an exclusive perimeter area, sometimes fenced in and have gates along its perimeters.

Some universities in the world have outgrown its perimeters from expansion in population and facilities. The Notre Dame University in Paris’ Hesburgh Libraries and School of Architecture partnered with South Bend’s Historic Commission and gave new life to an old city section by building “walkable, connected, mixed-use communities.” The school’s expansive growth has integrated itself into the city and the physical idea of campus is blurred in the built-up process. City residents and university students blend and interact in the community with hardly a distinction anymore as to residents or students.

In the U.S., New York U exemplifies that physical reality in the heart of Manhattan in the city. You ride a train going downtown, get off the subway at the West 4 stop, walk along West 3 Street and Washington Square, and you enter a bar peopled by students. As you peer around wondering, you see more students. You turn your head and you see the exterior of the NYU School of Law, no fence, no gate. Cross the street from the bar, step on the sidewalk, and walk over into the Furman Hall, the law school building. Well, wonder no more, “You’re in NYU, dude”.

Uptown, you will find the main campus of Columbia U, in the Upper West Side of Manhattan with a main gate into the campus. But separately further up, to Broadway and 131st street, new structures for its Business School are rising, no longer the imposing red brick buildings with the old colonial look but brand new shining steel of modern architecture. They’re built alongside the curb where pedestrians like you and I walk along. Your usual public buses run on Broadway Street, and up above you, the 1 train bound for Uptown and the Bronx is rolling along the overhead tracks.

The AdeNU campus has not come or gotten that far an age. But it’s a beautiful campus nonetheless. Not very big, but it is absolutely a university campus. Its “universification” came in 1989 when Fr. Raul J. Bonoan, S.J. (Fr. Rolly) an affable wisp of a Jesuit character, was given the marching orders to take over the administration of the school as its new Rector. Ateneo was going through rough times, plagued with a falling number in enrollment and expectedly had trouble keeping up with maintenance expenses. Word that reached its alumni and the Naga community was that he was sent there to look over the school, do an audit and close it down. As history would unfold, Fr. Rolly would turn it completely around. He came with an order to shut down the small provincial college. He took a good look, reflected, and then transformed and left it a full suburban university. He became the second visionary to ever happen to the school.

If it were clothes, it were in tatters. That’s how Fr. Rolly came upon the school campus in 1989. The old wooden twin high school structures flanking the Four Pillars from both sides were falling apart. In the late 60s, Fr, Rector Robert Rice built a 4-story classroom building, (the Fr. Burns Hall) which took in the growing high school population, and doubled as the night college. It was the only building then that was full of promise. The old gymnasium, the school’s pride in the city in the 1950s, needed repairs. The band room was a wooden structure in such a sorry state. The faculty house looked nice and neat but needed repairs. The roof of the assembly hall behind the Four Pillars had leaks. The parade grounds that spanned the campus line and the faculty house and main building, all the way to the gym at the west side end of the campus grounds, begged tending.

When Fr. Rolly decided to deviate from the hierarchical orders of the Jesuit Provincial, he set about and worked on accessing the star-studded roster of highly-accomplished alumni from various industries. Armed with a list of loaded names, he first tapped the high profile alumni members at home and later on, at the more lucrative fields abroad with the high-value money and high conversion rate to local currency. The alumni members were welcoming and opened their doors and pocketbooks wide for Fr. Rolly. He made a rich pile and gathered ample support not just from alumni members but from other generous sources. Soon, buildings in the Naga campus would rise. His was a 10-year physical build up plan which he paralleled with upgrades in the academic departmental requirements and university-quality faculty training, qualifications and competence.

Ten years to the day he set out to realize his enormous accomplishment, the conferment of the Ateneo De Naga College by the Commission on Higher Education as a university took place to the jubilation and merriment of the Administration and faculty and the cheering crowd of proud and beaming alumni and friends who graced the momentous event.

In the wake of his 10-year project, the AdeNU has become a flourishing institution with a new library building (named after James O’Brien), a shining 3-storey science building (named after John J. Phelan), an Economic Forum Center, a student dormitory (Xavier Hall), and a student lounge and food center. At a portion of the old parade ground now stands the recently-built St. Ignatius chapel. A winding road way was extended past the Jesuit house towards the back portion of the campus where a new and bigger gym stands. The high school was uprooted from the old campus and transplanted to a rustic village setting, endearingly named the Raul Bonoan campus, in an elegant residential enclave close to the foothills of scenic Mt. Isarog. A new grade school was established in the area in 2014. By some divine stroke, Fr. Rolly passed away two months after the university conferment in 1999.

Into the future, the vision goes on for the university to the time that it may have its own, “walkable, connected,” and blended-in city structures for wishfully, a medical college, its law school and more graduate programs. The AdeNU was started by a visionary builder and was hammered into reality with the help of grateful alumni members and an admiring community of friends.

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