It was a yearning she just couldn’t shake off. As a high school senior back in 1963, Virgie Garcia wanted to study painting and pursue a Fine Arts degree in UP Diliman. Fifty years later, she finally enrolled in the program.
The dream had evolved over the course of those five decades, but its essence never really changed. She still wanted to study Fine Arts in UP. But it wasn’t about getting the degree anymore. She just wanted to learn.
Passion for learning
When Virgie tells the story of how she had to forego the Fine Arts program for a BS in Education, there’s no regret in her voice. “I had to be realistic and practical. I needed to earn a degree that could land me a job after graduation.”
Back then, becoming a teacher was a much better option than becoming a starving artist—especially for someone whose father was a radio technician, whose mother was a dressmaker, and who was only the second of six children. It meant she needed to help support her family.
Virgie wasn’t completely devastated over the decision she had to make. She simply saw it as an opportunity to learn and enrich herself intellectually. And that appetite for knowledge remains to this day. “Even at my age, there’s still so much to know. I’m still curious and fascinated by so many things in the world.”
In her second year at UP, the teenager who wanted to be an artist but studied to be a teacher was so swayed by her interest in the natural sciences that she shifted to the BS Chemistry program. She graduated in 1969 and when the results of the licensure exams were released in 1970, she was number nine in the top-ten list of successful examinees.
Climbing the corporate ladder
Fresh off university life, Virgie’s first job was in quality assurance at Johnson & Johnson, where she stayed for six months. She then moved on to the UP College of Medicine as a project researcher, also staying there for six months. “That was where I got the idea for my next job,” she says and continues with a laugh, “from one of the reagents we used!”
It was so random that she still couldn’t believe how well it turned out. Virgie saw the name of the company that produced that reagent and told herself to just apply for a job there. That company was Warner Chilcott (later Warner Lambert), where, for 25 years, she moved up the ranks—from a technician/analyst in quality assurance to production supervisor to managerial positions in procurement as well as production planning and inventory control.
In 1977, seven years into her stint at Warner Lambert, she began to pursue an MBA at the Ateneo de Manila University. While she’s a thesis short of her degree, she was successful at applying everything she had learned as her position in the company got higher.
In 1995, Virgie transferred to Century Pacific Food Inc., holding corporate managerial positions in procurement, production planning and inventory control, and warehouse and shipping. “I never would have thought, growing up as I did in Sta. Mesa, studying in public elementary and high schools, that I would reach the positions that I had in the corporate world.”
She was later promoted to assistant vice president and had become such a valuable part of the company that they asked her to postpone her retirement when she turned 60 in 2007. After a few years, she again expressed her desire for retirement to pursue formal studies in Fine Arts. The company agreed to let her do the latter and in 2013, at age 66, she went back to UP while still with Century Pacific.
Art in her heart
Throughout her life as an executive, she never really abandoned her childhood dream of painting. She had helped her siblings through school. Her two children had earned their degrees and were living on their own. She already had “more than enough money” to pursue her passion.
Virgie could afford art materials and tutors for one-on-one classes, but she felt those weren’t enough. She wanted the experience that she had missed out on. “I didn’t even need to get the degree, I just wanted to be in that traditional education setting, to be in classes at the College of Fine Arts (CFA), learning from teachers along with classmates.” Perhaps it was the generation she belonged to that made her place a higher value on traditional learning.
And she learned so much more than just painting from being back in the University. She saw the struggles of her classmates—from buying the materials to finish plates for class to finding venues that welcomed exhibitions from new and unknown artists to the uncertainties after graduation. “The idea of the struggling, starving artist, I’ve seen it here. Many times. It’s heartbreaking.”
So “Mommy,” as she is fondly called by classmates, college staff, and even some faculty members, knew she had to help in some way. Aside from granting scholarships to select FA students, she established Start 101—an art gallery with an art supply store. Located inside the campus, its proximity and competitive pricing makes it convenient not just for CFA students but for everyone who needs supplies and exhibit space.
Virgie’s advocacy is to not charge rental fees to students or new and budding artists who mount their shows at the gallery. While the store is able to sustain gallery operations, the gallery sometimes also earns from being a venue for art-related workshops such as those on art restoration, film, photography, and art therapy.
Sometimes, her assistance goes beyond budget-friendly prices and free rent. She lets UP students get supplies and pay when they can. “Teach them trust and they become trustworthy,” she says. She even gives away supplies to UP students who come to the store out of sheer desperation because “Mommy” was their last hope.
What was supposed to be a simple going-back-to-school stint five years ago to pursue her passion for painting had turned into a desire to help out her fellow Iskolar ng Bayan. She held on to her dream and has now become an instrument that enables others to get closer to achieving theirs.
“I don’t have an endless supply of money and I’m certainly not filthy rich, but I also can’t refuse a UP student in need. Start 101 is a struggling business, but I hope I can keep it afloat for those who need it.”