SAN PEDRO, Laguna, Philippines—Kevin Villanueva’s graduation photo would not have been any different from those of other fresh graduates surrounded by family — had he not had his taken seated next to his parents’ grave.
The picture, showing Villanueva in his graduation toga, immediately went viral on the Internet, with at least 232,000 “likes” and “shared” at least 15,900 times as of Friday morning.
The 21-year-old Information Technology graduate said the picture was taken on March 31, five days after his graduation from the Colegio de San Juan de Letran in Manila.
He, with his two cousins, went to the San Pedro Memorial Park where his parents are buried.
“My cousins and I regularly visit the cemetery because our grandmother is also buried there. But they didn’t know I packed my graduation toga with me during our last visit,” he said in a telephone interview on Thursday.
Villanueva donned the toga while his cousin, Sarah Vinoya, took the photo.
He uploaded the photo that same day via Instagram, an online photo-sharing website, with a caption that read: “Akala nyu kayo lang ang may picture kasama parents nyu ha :)) (And you thought you were the only ones with pictures with your parents).”
“Pero Ma, Pa this is for the both of you i hope that you are proud of me :))”
The photo immediately went viral.
“I really wasn’t expecting it. People ‘shared’ and ‘liked’ while others thanked me for inspiring them when all I did was to post it (on Facebook),” Villanueva said.
As of Friday, the picture had at least 232,000 ‘likes’ and was ‘shared’ at least 15,900 times.
“This made me cry… Congratulations! You made it through the help of your parents… Your guardian angels! :’),” wrote Facebook user Paw Yandan.
Another user, Randy James Gepitulan, said: “a simple picture that can move your hearts. how i wish all (the) kids in the world act like him, who know how to acknowledge (their) protectors, provider(s) and teacher(s), who (are) our parents…”
Villanueva’s mother passed away when he was 10. She committed suicide by drinking an acid solution.
“I remember a (prior) attempt. I was sleeping beside her and I felt she got out of bed. The next thing I knew, she was in the bathroom with blood (from cutting her wrists) all over,” he said.
Villanueva said his mother suffered from nervous breakdowns. “She would drink cleaners and slit her wrists. I remember she would sometimes lock me inside the house.”
Villanueva’s father, who worked as an electrical engineer in a hotel in Manila, remarried but continued to support his only son.
“After high school, my father asked me if I could enroll in (smaller computer colleges in Laguna) because the tuition was lower but I insisted that I study in Manila. I thought to myself then that I deserved a good school because I did well in high school,” he said.
Looking back, Villanueva said, he could not help but feel guilty about it. “If not for my expenses in school, we might have had enough money for his medicines.”
Villanueva’s father suffered a heart attack in 2009.
Villanueva, who stayed with his aunt in Pasig City during his freshman year, remembered receiving calls and text messages that his father was rushed to the hospital.
“I remember I only had P100 left. I took the jeep but I was already startled by the news I forgot to claim my change from the driver,” he said.
He was already on Shaw Boulevard about to take a bus south when he realized he did not have any money left.
“I asked an MMDA (Metro Manila Development Authority) officer if he could lend me money for my fare. I told him my father was in the hospital. He flagged down a bus and asked the driver to give me a free ride,” Villanueva recalled.
Villanueva graduated with the help of his aunts, Maria Teresa Jalbuena and Jacqueline Calumba.
While in school, he took jobs hosting friends’ debuts and worked part-time at a dance studio for pocket money. He said he loved dancing.
“I survived photocopying workbooks at school or my classmates pitching in for our projects. There were times a glass of water would get me through the day, but that’s okay,” he said.
Villanueva said his friends’ parents also helped him through college. At the baccalaurete Mass, his best friend’s mother stood as his guardian.
Despite being orphaned at a young age, Villanueva said he still considered himself lucky.
“At least I had the opportunity. Others didn’t. My parents sent me the right people to support me,” he said.
He said graduating from college was what his parents wanted for him and the best gift he could offer them.
“They might not be around to congratulate me on my graduation day but there were thousands who did and said I was, somehow, able to touch their lives,” he said.