Students in need
I’m finding that amid the groundswell of sympathy for the UP Manila student who committed suicide, there’s also been strong disapproval of what she did: that she should not have given up so easily and that she could have found a way out, if she had tried hard enough.
Such feelings come more from lower- and middle-income Filipinos I talked to, maybe because they have gone through and overcome so much adversity. The more outspoken ones were those who had been working students, talking about how it took them six, seven years to finish a four-year course. Others talked about the many scholarships or subsidies offered by politicians, and lower-tuition state universities, with one pointing out that PUP (Polytechnic University of the Philippines) charges only P12 a unit.
I try to calmly respond, pointing out we know too little about what was going on in the student’s life and sharing cases of students in need that I had encountered as an administrator.
No doubt, the UP Manila student was under great pressure to stay on and do well in UP, but we know nothing about other circumstances that might have driven her to despair and suicide, besides the inability to pay tuition. I thought about how Filipino daughters are often more pressured than sons when they’re in universities because families expect more of their girls, many of whom end up supporting other siblings even at the cost of their own education.
Psychologists point out that many suicides involve chronic depression, which means our academic institutions need to watch out at this particular time of the year, as the schoolyear ends and the pressures of exams and loans accumulate.
All that said, I did want to say the financial problems faced by our students can be very serious. At a recent college meeting, professors shared stories of how their financially strapped students took on odd jobs, skipped meals, or walked to school. One said professors have to be more sensitive about the cost of field trips, which poor students cannot afford. Another said he has had students who could not fulfill the mandatory CWTS (Civic Welfare Training Service) because they could not afford the transportation money to the sites where they were to render training service.
Another professor said he has heard of students in other schools having to go into “prosti-tuition” (a self-explanatory term).
And there’s pride, too. One professor said he had allowed a student to continue to attend classes despite delayed payment of tuition but that the student’s family pulled him out, saying it was shameful to attend classes without paying.
Last year after our graduation rituals, I congratulated the new graduates who I knew had to take several leaves of absence because of financial problems. After my column came out, two generous donors wrote to offer support: One wanted to help students with tuition scholarships and the other told me to use the donation to help whoever was in need.
The open-ended donation resulted in a trial program in my college, where the Office of the College Secretary announced that money was available for students in need, with no specifications, and that students can write in to explain how they would use such an open grant. There were 19 students who wrote in, mostly about unexpected financial shortfalls: a parent losing a job (usually overseas), family businesses going bankrupt, a parent victimized by unscrupulous business partners, and, quite simply, parents who were working but just could not make ends meet.
In the end, six students’ proposals stood out and I thought of P10,000 grants for each of them. The problem was that we only had P50,000, but I told our college foundation administrator to just go through with the six grants. Fortunately, one of our political science students, Ferth Vandensteen Manaysay, won first prize in an essay competition sponsored by US Pinoys for Good Governance. Besides his individual prize money, his department and our college also got cash prizes, and we were able to “top off” and complete the funding for six students. Hulog ng langit, heaven-sent, I thought.
In my letter to the grantees, I apologized about the small amount, but two of them came to me and said I was underestimating the value of P10,000. For them, it was hulog ng langit, allowing them to pay off debts, ensure they would not have to skip meals, or buy much-needed books and textbooks. The two were graduating students, and could now concentrate on completing their requirements. The UP Manila student who committed suicide needed less than P10,000.
I hear now that UP Manila alumni intend to raise P50,000 to P100,000 for an emergency fund for students in need. I also teach at UP Manila, so I think I’m entitled to challenge them to raise much more, given that one anonymous donor to my college in UP Diliman gave P50,000 last year, and has added P100,000 this year. One donor giving P150,000 can make the difference for 15 students.
Since I have personal scholars of my own, I do feel uncomfortable about outright grants and scholarships. They make a difference for graduating students, but what about nongraduating students, who will need more financial transfusions as they go through college? This is where loans come in, and it’s high time the country, and not just UP, came up with a student loan system with longer repayment schemes, perhaps even waiting until after they graduate.
Since all UP and state university students are actually people’s scholars (iskolar ng bayan), some units like UP Manila’s health-related colleges now require students to sign a return service agreement, which means graduates must stay on in the Philippines for two years, giving back a little to the country. They don’t even have to serve in government institutions; the point is to stay in the country.
While putting safeguards in place for screening processes and for monitoring of students, we need to make the applications for these scholarships more friendly. I have learned through the years that it’s still middle- and upper-class students who apply for scholarships. Several of the 19 who availed themselves of our college’s open grants wrote in flawless English.
There were reports that the UP Manila student did not submit documents supporting her claims of financial need. We need to review those required documents. One of my college professors mentioned that utility bills are required and pointed out that many urban poor families do not even have electric and water meters in their names because they’re renting, or don’t have legal connections.
But it’s not just a matter of utility bills. UP and other government institutions are notorious for forms, and more forms. When the UP College of Medicine first asked me to teach a few years back, it required me to fill out papers like a new applicant, and to go through medical and dental checkups and NBI clearances even if I had already been teaching at UP Diliman for almost 30 years. I am still required to fill out new and long information forms every semester that I teach there. If I feel intimidated by these forms, think of what it means for a student feeling disempowered by being young, and poor.
Yes, students and their families can and will find ways to survive. But schools, the government, private individuals can make it easier for that survival, sometimes with very modest donations and, more importantly, with open doors, and open hearts to make the students feel they can seek help.