Micro-barriers to education
I’ve been a scholar for most of my student life. In fact, for the past 12 years, I haven’t paid a single centavo of tuition, and now that I am a freshman at the University of Oxford, I am a full-ride scholar here as well.
Growing up in the province, where for many students even the big Manila schools are way out of reach, my path to Oxford was full of challenges, not the least of which was financial.
However, two years ago, I received a scholarship worth more than both what my parents made in a year combined. That scholarship made it possible for me to leave my hometown of Bacolod and study at The Beacon Academy, a Filipino international school in Laguna, in hopes of bringing my Oxford dream to fruition.
To say that it was hard is a grave understatement. I didn’t only have to learn how to cope with the demands of an international curriculum and adjust to an entirely new city, I also had to learn to live without my family and the comforts that I had grown used to at home.
I had to wake up at 5 a.m. to catch the bus to Laguna every morning, work through hours of academic load and extracurricular activities, then endure the commute going home every afternoon.
Unlike many of my classmates, I didn’t have my own car, printer, home WiFi connection, desk, or even a properly functioning laptop; in fact, when mine broke down during one of the busiest parts of the school year and we couldn’t afford a new one, I simply made do with using a Bluetooth keyboard on my smartphone.
Looking back on all of it now, I’m beyond thankful that the fruits of that effort paid off—I almost can’t believe I managed to survive all of it.
Well, I say “almost,” because truth be told, there are plenty of scholars out there who go through far worse ordeals than mine. There are scholars who have to walk the distance of my commute, because that extra P28 fare a day could pay for a meal instead.
There are scholars who wake up early not to catch an air-conditioned bus, but to go to work and earn their pay before going to class exhausted. These students, and many, many others, underscore the fact that the less privilege a student has, the more micro-barriers to education they have to deal with, and all of these micro-barriers add up and affect them in ways we rarely ever think about.
What are these micro-barriers? As the name implies, they’re the little things—whether a student has reliable access to the internet, whether they have sufficient ICT equipment, whether they can afford to skip a day of work so they can study for an exam. All of these things that are distressingly common among low-income students, but nobody talks about because even scholars consider them part and parcel of “the struggle.”
But spotty internet can lead to missed deadlines, a broken keyboard can lead to a poorly written term paper, and skipping work can mean less money for food that semester. These little things chip away at a student’s well-being and lead to poorer overall performance. And all I’ve mentioned thus far are financial barriers; there are many more, such as gender and mental health and ethnicity and disability, that can really ruin school for a scholar.
It is a reflection of my own privilege that I didn’t have to go through the worst of it. And while many at Oxford will perceive me as the token poverty-stricken Asian, all I can truly, authentically represent is a lower-middle-class girl from the province who happened to get lucky many times over and who had an amazing support network.
This isn’t to undermine anyone’s hard work, abilities or challenges, including my own; everyone works to get to where they are, everyone has to deal with personal circumstances, and each candidate is very carefully deliberated on before they are awarded a place—but we cannot deny that a large part of what makes a candidate so attractive to top universities is afforded by privilege. Doing well in school, whether that’s through the help of copious printed notes, tutoring or even just having a peaceful place to study, is a privilege; playing sports at varsity level, which sometimes entails traveling to meets or buying equipment, is a privilege; even doing community service sometimes needs a personal financial contribution from students, especially in lower-income schools, and being able to do that is a privilege.
Don’t even get me started on the access gap between international and local schools—it’s why I moved to Beacon in the first place. There is simply so much ground to cover, such a huge disadvantage to overcome, that a truly dirt-poor but deserving student may not make it even with a full-ride scholarship. As much as we have romanticized the idea of “the struggle,” if we really want as much of the Filipino youth as possible to be educated and successful, then letting our scholars struggle isn’t romantic at all.
I’m thankful for my scholarships. I’m thankful for my privilege. I’m thankful for the people who have given me all these incredible opportunities. I’m ecstatic that I get to go to my dream university, and I can’t wait to start paying it forward. But now, as I’m sitting in modest but comfortable lodgings, working through vacation readings and the study material that my university provides for free, I can’t help but think about the scholars out there somewhere who can’t do their readings yet, because they’re busy with a job that will pay for living costs when school starts.
Ma. Francesca Santiago, 18, is a first-year student at Oxford University
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