Esquire (Philippines) - - NOTES & ESSAYS - I never con­sid­ered ed­u­ca­tion a gam­ble un­til I came to UP. Lakan Umali Fic­tion­ist and es­say­ist

BE­FORE IT BURNED DOWN, THE FAC­ULTY CEN­TER OF UP DILIMAN some­times re­sem­bled less of a hal­lowed aca­demic in­sti­tu­tion and more of a mosh pit. Dur­ing en­roll­ment sea­son, the cor­ri­dors would be stuffed with bod­ies; some stand­ing and tex­ting their friends that they were about to lose hope, some sit­ting on the floor, buried in a book or blankly lis­ten­ing to mu­sic, some nod­ding off to sleep, hav­ing lined up be­fore sun-up—all of them ready to rush to the near­est aca­demic de­part­ment at the magic words from the over­worked reg­is­tra­tion as­sis­tants: they just opened a new class. The air would be sat­u­rated with a dis­tinct tang of sweat and des­per­a­tion. You’d have to jos­tle through a sea of ex­hausted, caf­feine-fu­eled stu­dents to make it down the stairs.

The worst year was 2015. I was help­ing out the An­thro­pol­ogy De­part­ment, which in­volved a num­ber of tasks; as­sist­ing fresh­men with their first en­roll­ment in UP, herd­ing stu­dents wait­ing for gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion (GEs) into or­derly lines, telling lost stu­dents that the So­ci­ol­ogy De­part­ment was in an­other build­ing, and no, we don’t of­fer So­cial Sci­ence 2. I had al­ready put up a sign say­ing that all our GE classes were full, but the line of stu­dents re­mained steady; they were hope­ful some­one would can­cel their slot in a class, or that we would open up a new sec­tion. A mid­dle-aged man car­ry­ing a plas­tic en­ve­lope of doc­u­ments ap­proached me. His voice was low and gruff. He asked me if there were any GE classes left.

“No, I’m sorry. They’re all full.” I said.

“Are you go­ing to open up a new class?” he asked.

I gave him the usual spiel. “I’m sorry, but we’re not sure. Right now, you’re just wait­ing for some­one to can­cel their slot. But the line for can­cel­la­tions is pretty long,” I said, point­ing at the throng of peo­ple snaking their way down the cor­ri­dor. Our de­part­ment of­fice was next to the Speech Com­mu­ni­ca­tion De­part­ment, so I was un­sure which stu­dents were wait­ing for our classes and which ones were wait­ing for com­mu­ni­ca­tion classes. At one point, they kind of just meshed to­gether.

The mid­dle-aged man scratched his head but re­fused to budge. I asked him where his daugh­ter was.

“She’s in the Sci­ence Com­plex, try­ing to get Math 2,” he said. The Sci­ence Com­plex was around half-an-hour away by foot. “She only has six units.”

In UP, ev­ery stu­dent needs to take at least 15 units a se­mes­ter— a class usu­ally counts for three units, or three class hours a week. Take less than 15 units and you’re con­sid­ered un­der­loaded, dis­qual­i­fy­ing you from Latin honors and in­creas­ing the like­li­hood of fin­ish­ing col­lege late. They’re also re­quired 45 units of GEs—classes in the sciences, so­cial sciences, and hu­man­i­ties that any stu­dent can take. They’re sup­posed to form the ba­sis of gen­eral ed­u­ca­tion, to im­prove crit­i­cal think­ing and en­sure well-rounded stu­dents. Re­cently, the Univer­sity Coun­cil of UP Diliman voted to re­duce the num­ber of re­quired GEs in most ma­jors. The pre­vail­ing logic was that the global mar­ket needed more spe­cial­ized stu­dents.

I mut­tered an­other pithy “sorry,” and the mid­dle-aged man left a few mo­ments later. I re­mem­bered my friend, Beata, who was in one of the dor­mi­to­ries ear­lier that week, as­sist­ing stu­dents from the prov­inces who had not yet been given rooms. Some of them had their par­ents with them. A woman had com­plained to Beata that she had taken a half-day from work to help her son. A man from Min­danao told her that he needed to sail back home, and was en­trust­ing his son into her care, with noth­ing but his lug­gage and some pocket money. I won­dered if the mid­dle-aged man had also taken a leave from work to try to res­cue his hap­less daugh­ter from the cursed clutches of a six-unit se­mes­ter and de­layed grad­u­a­tion. I won­dered what he might have lost: a day’s salary, chance at a pro­mo­tion, a bucket’s worth of sweat trekking from one build­ing to an­other in the noon­day heat.

Now, the beloved and bedrag­gled Fac­ulty Cen­ter is no more. Work­men re­cently cleared the rub­ble left of it af­ter be­ing gut­ted by a fire over a year ago. But the flocks of stu­dents that lined its halls dur­ing en­roll­ment have ma­te­ri­al­ized else­where; down the steps and outer walls of the west side of the Arts and Sciences Build­ing, where many of the so­cial sci­ence and hu­man­i­ties de­part­ments were re­lo­cated. Dur­ing the en­roll­ment sea­son for the sec­ond se­mes­ter ear­lier this year, our col­lege ad­min­is­tra­tion asked mem­bers of the stu­dent coun­cil the un­avoid­able ques­tion: how do we keep stu­dents from lin­ing up overnight? You see, the past few years have seen stu­dents ar­riv­ing on cam­pus in the evening, plop­ping a mat or a sleep­ing bag on the ground, and set­ting their alarms for 6 a.m. the next morn­ing, to en­sure that they’re first in line for any new classes or can­celled slots. It was a huge se­cu­rity risk; you’d have one or two se­cu­rity guards watch­ing over dozens of stu­dents sleep­ing or loi­ter­ing on stair­cases and walk­ways all through the night.

I never con­sid­ered ed­u­ca­tion a gam­ble un­til I came to UP. You stew in your juices in­side a cor­ri­dor-cum-sar­dine can, wait­ing in line for a class you may never get, and you gam­ble that some­one drops their slot in that class and gives it to you. Los­ing that gam­ble might mean an­other year in the univer­sity. You gam­ble that you’re not placed in a higher in­come bracket, forc­ing you to pay an ex­tra 5 or 10K that se­mes­ter. You gam­ble that the pay­ment dead­line gets ex­tended, oth­er­wise you have to get a loan or ap­peal to the chan­cel­lor. You gam­ble that you get into a dorm, be­cause the al­ter­na­tive means rent­ing an apart­ment or board­ing house at twice or thrice the cost.

Per­haps en­roll­ment in UP isn’t as bloody as a bar fight or a street rum­ble, but they sure have sim­i­lar ef­fects; dirt­ied clothes soaked in half-fever, loss of breath, the dev­as­tat­ing emo­tional dis­tress wrought from be­ing put through the wringer, and the pal­pa­ble feel­ing you’ve been screwed over big time. Both will most likely leave you hud­dled on a grimy floor some­where, clutch­ing your chest, won­der­ing what you had just lost: maybe a tooth, or an en­tire fu­ture.

En­roll­ment in UP is a slow kind of pain; the kind that grinds you down year af­ter year and causes you to cel­e­brate at the slight­est stroke of luck, un­til you’re fi­nally able to grad­u­ate and this sorry sys­tem is passed onto an­other batch of un­lucky stu­dents. Some peo­ple cope by say­ing it’s an initiation rite. But then I have to ask my­self: what are we be­ing ini­ti­ated into? The strange, ar­cane rites of a ter­tiary ed­u­ca­tion? I’ve come to re­al­ize that this kind of pain mas­quer­ades as nat­u­ral fact; as if it were nat­u­ral for in­struc­tors to teach hun­dreds of stu­dents a se­mes­ter while jug­gling ad­min­is­tra­tive work and a doc­tor­ate, as if it were nat­u­ral to keep stu­dents in a state of re­cur­ring ed­u­ca­tional in­se­cu­rity.

When that un­for­tu­nate day in 2015 ended, I felt dread, not re­lief. I was still three classes short of a 15-unit load, and I re­ally wanted those Latin honors at­tached to my name at grad­u­a­tion. A few days later, I tried ap­proach­ing a pro­fes­sor to see if I could en­list in his Physics 10 class.

“I’m sorry, but we’re full,” he said, ges­tur­ing to the crowded room in front of him.

I spot­ted a few empty seats in the back. “But I’m grad­u­at­ing,” I told him. A few other stu­dents search­ing for classes hud­dled be­hind me.

“Don’t say you’re grad­u­at­ing,” he told me, show­ing me the door. “Be­cause to grad­u­ate, you’ll need to get this class. And you won’t get this class.”

I was able to grad­u­ate, thanks to the help of my won­der­ful un­der­grad­u­ate ad­viser, who got me into the classes of much more amenable pro­fes­sors. But I can’t help but think of the peo­ple who wanted an ed­u­ca­tion and got shown the door. One day, I hope the stu­dents of ev­ery state univer­sity get to study what they want, when they want, at no cost to them—whether fi­nan­cial or emo­tional. But now, with an­other en­roll­ment sea­son com­ing up, my first hope is that it doesn’t rain; sleep­ing on wet ground is an­other level of en­durance.

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