It was in November, the second semester of my second year at law school that my brother, only two years younger than me, died very unexpectedly because of an aneurism that had ruptured in his brain. The unexpected death of a loved one is always difficult and inevitably, one finds oneself questioning many things in life. I found myself  asking  whether law school was really for me and wondering if by chance that I, too, had some aneurysm waiting to burst and throw me into a brain dead state, would I want to have died studying or practicing the law?

I never got around to squarely answering this question. After we laid my brother to rest, I immersed myself in school and catching up on the two weeks I had missed. School was the perfect distraction and that was all I needed at the time. But, now that I am on the brink of graduating and as I look back, it can only be with a resounding “Yes!” that I answer that question. As I leave the confines of Rockwell Drive, there are two hallmarks of the ALS education that I take with me. These are my comfort and assurance that to learn and to live the law at the Ateneo was no mistake. They have contributed to my development not only as a student of the law but also as an individual heading out to face the world and the challenges of my chosen profession.

These two hallmarks are Spirit and Excellence.

Spirit. I refer to spirit in two ways: the personal and the communal. I received my undergraduate degree from one of the most liberal, secular universities in the United States and I moved back to Manila more distant from God and religion. Being in the Ateneo reawakened a dormant spirituality in me that has given me a sense of calm. Although there is no catechism distributed or mass attendance required, the little reminders of a greater Being as I walk by the chapel or the statue of St. Ignatius or when I the read the mantra of being “a person for others” resonate within me. Knowing I could sneak in and collect my thoughts at the Prayer Room or catch a mass at noon or at dusk somehow brought me back to my Catholic roots. These constant, small manifestations of God remind me that studying the law is merely a means to an end and that central to my identity and formation as a student of the law are the values that spring from a healthy fear of and love for God.

The second aspect of spirit is more palpable. It is the school spirit. Whether students are engaged in mooting or debating, hosting talks and forums on a range of pertinent issues, staging events showcasing our talents ranging from Mr. Law School to Majorem, or playing sports in the Conflicts of Law, the ALS fosters a vibrant school spirit that brings the community closer together. The resulting unity these activities nurture creates an environment wherein one never feels alone and one believes that everything being done is for a higher purpose or ideal — there’s a sense of collective accomplishment. The ALS school spirit teaches us that when we work together, we can do anything. Moreover, students take leave of the campus confident in their ability to work well with others, to communicate, cooperate, and share ideas. This school spirit lingers until much later on in their professional lives and we see it today in the many different ways alumni give back to the school, such as through teaching and supporting fundraising activities.

Excellence. The word is always thrown around — “excellence in legal education,” “a tradition of excellence” — but what do these battle cries mean in action? Intelligence is a component of excellence and Ateneans are intelligent. Yet excellence is not simply about intelligence and passing the Bar. In my mind, excellence must be deconstructed to be understood. There are building blocks which, when put together, radiate excellence. These blocks are a combination of discipline, perseverance and fortitude, fairness, striving to be one’s personal best, and wishing the best for others.

Getting through four years at the Ateneo is grueling and requires some measure of self-discipline; otherwise, cases don’t get read and digests aren’t made and recitation questions can’t be answered. The daily grind of recitation requires constant studying and patience, which only self-discipline through time management and knowing what to prioritize can achieve. What good is a daily schedule, however, if one doesn’t have the perseverance and fortitude to keep going, to keep fighting? At law school, one learns that they are good days and bad days — it’s learning to shake off the failing grade or the embarrassing moment at class with the belief that one will continue and strive to do better that matters. It’s easy to say, “I give up,” and nonchalantly pretend not to care; but don’t believe for a second that an Atenean means this when she says it. She may utter these words but secretly, she’s already gearing up for the next battle and this time, she’s ready to win it. That is perseverance and fortitude.

And then there is fairness. We are taught the idea of “justice as fairness.” In school, fairness is usually taken up in discussions on grades, which in turn are based on merit. Grades are not meant to be unjust. Although it might be a too personal and to some extent, shallow, way of impressing upon students the contours of fairness and justice, the fact that minimum quantifiable standards must be met in order to progress drives home the point that you get what you give. It’s only fair that results and advancement in school are based on merit. There are no shortcuts at the ALS; we recognize this and that is why we are diligent students — we study hard to meet what is required of us so that we can move on to the next level. How is this lesson of fairness and merit important? Translated into the legal profession (and in an ideal world), this means that when a problem is studied well and argued based on its merits, a decision should be made based on a fair and just assessment of what has been submitted.

Knowing that fairness and merit are closely related, a student strives to be the best that she can be. But, it doesn’t stop there. Excellence is not a personal affair; at the ALS, it is boundless and contagious. Students generally want to see their peers do well and succeed; they sincerely wish the best for others. This is evident in the way notes and reviewers are passed on from year to year and pointers on how best to approach certain subjects and professors are given; students congratulate one another for their personal victories such as making the Dean’s List or hurdling Thesis Defense.

Graduates can rest assured that all they have to worry about is studying come September because of the host of volunteers during Bar Operations taking care of all the other details for them. And at the end of the month-long ordeal, everyone partakes of the barristers’ triumph at Salubong. Having spent countless hours cooped up in the Library and having made the rounds of the coffee shops, we recognize in each other the drive and the relief when we surmount similar obstacles. We earn one another’s respect and we push each other as we strive to excel. There’s a whole world out there waiting for us and there’s enough room for everyone. We are reflections of one another and the best way to shine is in concert.

Come graduation, I leave the Ateneo armed not only with an outstanding legal education — I have been marked by the virtues of Spirit and Excellence as well. The challenge will be to carry over and transplant these into the next chapter of my life. The component of Spirit will linger within me and in the future, I hope to give back to the ALS in some capacity. But perpetuating Excellence is another story. I will need to actively endeavor to maintain the building blocks of excellence and use them as guide posts for living my life. I am comforted, however, by the fact that there are so many other Atenean lawyers who have come before me bearing the same marks of the ALS and who have succeeded in their chosen paths. With their guidance and example, I am confident that radiating excellence outside the ALS will become second nature to me.

* Diana Joy G. Dizon is a member of the Ateneo Law School graduating class of 2011. She graduated from Brown University in the U.S., majoring in International Relations and in Literatures in English. She is a member of the Ateneo Law Journal’s Executive Committee and was Lead Editor for the Journal’s second issue of Volume 55 (Navigating the Complexities of Taxation Today).