SHE laughed boisterously during a crucial interview but still got away with it. She had three boyfriends in college, and she would come to class wearing a pair of neon orange socks.

Valarie Ku lived a perfectly normal life. She went to school daily with dozens of stories to tell. Her loquacity and dynamism brought her to places and her brilliant mind took her to new heights.

Equipped with wit and keenness, she made it through five laborious years in Chemical Engineering, graduating summa cum laude. And, as an extra bonus, she landed on the Top 4 of the Ten Outstanding Students of the Philippines (TOSP).

Not only is she a TOSP winner, but also a recipient of the Bank of the Philippine Islands Science Award and Procter and Gamble Student Excellence Award.

TOSP was a tough competition among the 300 best students of the country. It is supported by premium companies and has a rigid set of criteria. The 300 contestants were trimmed down to 30, who underwent a panel interview to determine the 10 winners.

Valarie went through the screening with ease and grace. To her, all she just had to do was be herself, and that was enough edge against her competitors.

Valarie, or Val, as her friends call her, gave the judges a good time while talking about her boyfriends and her 800-library collection during the 20-minute interview for the final selection of the TOSP. She did not carry out profound conversation with the judges. And she did not give the judges amusing textbook answers.

But Val laughed her heart out most of the 20 minutes. Being her usual self, she talked about her involvement with the Church, her boyfriends who were all Filipinos, not Chinese, and her old-time jokes.

“Hindi lahat natututuhan sa classroom. ‘Yung iba subsob sa libro. Akala nila ‘yung world hindi magmo-move on. Iba na ngayon eh,” Val added.

She discussed the essentials in a teenager’s life, based on real teen-age experiences, not slumbook mottos and hifaluting ideals.

Balanced life

Valarie is gifted with exceptional intelligence, but that does not make her life dull and boring, contrary to what others think.

“I always believe in the perfect balance between academic and social life. Nakaka-dalawang movies ako sa isang week, at tsaka nakikipag inuman ako minsan.”

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Val added she has a number of loyal friends who stood by her during turbulent times, making her life quite an adventure.

Philip Cheng, a good friend of Val and an academic achiever himself, describes her as a “genius, mabait, and helpful.”

“Pag may alam siya sa lesson, talagang isini-share niya, hindi siya madamot.. She balances herself very well, beauty and brains talaga,” Cheng added.

Prof. Philipina Marcelo, Val’s laboratory supervisor, attests to her dynamic personality, both as a student and a friend.

“Nakakaiyak ako sa kanya. Napaka-transparent niya at madali siyang matantya. She’s not a nerd, napaka-balanced ng personality niya. She’s not afraid to show that she’s not a perfect person. But she’s trying very hard to perfect herself and be the best that she can be,” Prof. Marcelo said.

Marcelo added that Val’s bubbly character and energetic disposition encouraged her classmates to actively participate in class discussions, even during the dreaded Chemical Reaction Kinetics classes.

“She’s very noisy in class. But when the lesson starts, she really listens. She digests everything, and she thinks aloud. While I’m discussing and something pops out in her mind, sasabihin niya agad iyon.”

While most of her colleagues spend grueling hours memorizing solutions, Val emphasized time management as the key to a well-balanced life.

“Pag projects, hindi ako nag ka-cram. At nagbabasa ako, pag naintindihan ko na, okay na, hindi ‘yung memorize ka ng solutions, iisang problem lang alam mo, e pag nagbasa ka, naiintindihan mo ‘yung principles, kaya hindi ako hirap sa oras.”

Most important, Val never forgets to render service to God. She founded the Parish Youth Council in her community and she teaches children every Sunday. Her catechism stint only shows that if this summa cum laude can do so much through her brains, she can no less accomplish noble acts through her heart.

Incomplete start

Val has made it an open book, mentioning it in every speech and interview, that she lives with her father alone and that she grew up without a mother. But unknown to many, she has a fear of solitude and the hardships accompanying her parents’ separation during her tender years.

“Nang naghiwalay ‘yung parents ko, 10 years old ako non. Nagalit ako sa mom ko. Lumaki akong walang mother. Ang hirap talaga, tapos hindi kami close ng father ko before, kaya lumaki ako nang mag-isa.”

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Yet Val used the negativity around her as a catalyst to succeed. Her anger pushed her to study harder at a very young age.

“’Yung galit ko sa mom ko, ‘yun ang naging driving force ko. Gusto kong makita niya na mag-excel ako kahit wala siya,” Val related.

Val had a traumatic childhood, with no mother to comfort her and no friends to cheer her up. She only had rivals and competitors to challenge her young strength. She started to excel academically in second grade and was a consistent honor student since then.

“I believe that if I can’t have it all, I’ll get most of it. If you want the best perks in life, start early,” Val stressed.

But college life in UST seems to have changed her pessimism. In her speech during an awarding ceremony for her at the Faculty of Engineering last July 14, she said life in UST was a lesson on being human.

“ UST imbued Thomasian values in me and that helped me realize that I was a Filipino. The Engineering quiz team and my classmates gave me the family I never had. And the people who betrayed my trust showed me how wonderful it was to be human.”

It was in college when she started involving herself in Church. And from then on, Val was never the same.

“The real reason why I won the TOSP was because of my involvement in the Church. That involvement changed me into a person I was five years ago, which is the very same person I am today.”

With the Church as her base, Val enjoyed a safe take-off to the goal she wanted to reach.

Keeping strong

Behind the achievements, Val draws her strength from the Church and from other people. She said it was her involvement in Church that changed her outlook in life and made her fulfilled and happy.

“Kung walang Church, siguro in a way mag e-excel parin ako, pero hindi ako magiging masaya. Kung walang Church, wala akong friends. Baka napaka-bitter ko ngayon at hindi ako superwoman, maraming tumulong sa akin.”

For Val, forgiveness was the most difficult lesson life taught her.

“The hardest thing I did in life is noong napatawad ko `yung nanay ko sa lahat ng ginawa niya sa akin.” Though hard and painful, Val admits it was a relief to forgive her mother, and to release oneself from hatred.

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Also, through the values she learned from her ordeals, she was able to patch up things with the only family left in her, her dad. She considers her dad the man behind her success. Being the talkative daughter that she is, they always argue about things.

“Lagi kaming nag-aaway. Kasi pro-Erap `yung father ko. Anti-Erap ako, sobra, and ‘yung religion. Hindi siya masyadong naniniwala sa Catholic faith.”

Val described her dad as the type who “lives for the moment.” He never got mad and cried for the first time when she won the TOSP in Malacañang Palace. Despite their differences, Val regards her father as her greatest inspiration.

“’Yung father ko ang greatest motivation ko, concrete motivation. Nakita ko kung gaano ako kahalaga sa father ko noong naghiwalay sila ng mother ko.”

The TOSP award is her biggest break to date. And because of the award, she now has the chance to be hired by companies like Shell Pilipinas, San Miguel Brewery and Unilever Philippines. She was featured in the papers for several weeks and interviews keep coming. But for this young Thomasian achiever, the holy call of God will always come first. Her service to Him is her greatest achievement.

It is God who completes her life, it’s the Church that feeds her soul, and it’s community service that keeps her busy.

“Ngayon naman, gusto kong tulungan ‘yung community ko. Until now, ang tingin pa rin ng mga Chinese sa mga Filipinos, second class-citizens. Gusto kong ma- change yung mindset na yon, through faith and catechism. And gusto ko magturo.”

Success comes from God in different packages. For Val, God made it extra special, it may have an ugly coating, but the inside is truly resplendent with faith, hope, and love.

“ I’m sorry I cannot give the formula for producing the next TOSP,” she said in her speech at the Faculty of Engineering. “All I did was to aim for the stars I cannot reach. I was my own soldier, and I commanded my own mission.”

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