As I gazed at my white dress and sablay hanging on my door, I couldn’t help but reminisce about the ups and downs I experienced over the past years. After seeing my name on the official list of graduates just days ago, I had vivid flashbacks, as if these experiences happened only yesterday.
2010: I graduated from high school. I felt sad that I didn’t pass the UPCAT. I knew I would not pass because I put computer science as my first choice in the application form. I wanted fine arts, but my family said this was not a real career.
By this time, my twin sister was a student at UP Los Baños. She really struggled there because we were poor. Eventually, she would transfer to UP Diliman, and I would become an Associate in Arts student at the UP Open University (UPOU) in 2011.
As I waited for UPOU to admit me, I took a vocational course in Tesda. Taking this course made me forget about my mental health struggles for a while. Eventually, I applied as an on-the-job trainee in different hotels, but I was always rejected.
2011-2013: I lost my UPOU scholarship when I failed algebra. I was supposed to graduate in 2013, but we did not have enough money to finish my two remaining subjects (including algebra). I went AWOL.
I applied as a call center agent in Pasig. I failed the final interview. My twin accompanied me even though she had to attend classes the next day. We were both crying due to hopelessness and frustration as we wandered the streets, figuring out the way back home. We got home by 4 a.m.
2013-2016: We were evicted from the small room where we were staying in. We were almost homeless until we managed to transfer to the province. In 2014, I was hired as an office staff in a box factory. I only earned P9,000 per month, but I was desperate. After work, I would walk about 2 kilometers from the tricycle terminal to our house to save money, despite having bleeding wounds on my feet. At work, I would cry in the restroom because they would tease me about my skin color. There were so many sexual predators there. Once, someone slapped my butt when I was buying food in the canteen. I asked who did it, but the guys just stared at me like I was meat.
Later that year, my twin and I were hired at the city hall. I will never forget how one of my coworkers ridiculed me: “Kulot na, pandak na, maitim pa!” I acted like I did not hear him. After six months, my twin would become an instructor in UP Diliman.
Everything changed when I passed the civil service exam and finished my UPOU Associate in Arts degree in 2015.
2017: I was hired as an administrative assistant at the DILG. I traveled daily from Cabuyao to Edsa and back. One day, I woke up and had rashes all over my body, and this eventually made me decide to resign.
2017-2019: My twin encouraged me to go back to school. It was hard for her because she became our breadwinner. I was admitted to social work. I loved it, because the work emphasizes the inherent worth and dignity of people. Social workers fight for social justice and are biased toward the poor and the marginalized.
2020: I was supposed to graduate by first semester, but got delayed because of the pandemic. The pandemic worsened my mental health. I could not recognize myself. I felt that I wanted to die.
2021: I organized young people in an urban community virtually. My past experiences had prepared me for this, because I can genuinely empathize with and listen to them. I used humor, art, and fun as community organizing tools. I did not want them to be more pressured than they already were.
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Mama did not have a stable job but did her best to support us. We did not even know how we would stay in school if it wasn’t for the monthly support of a kind friend who also silently helped us and didn’t expect anything in return. Help from so many other people eventually came along. My twin even finished her master’s degree abroad just last year. And now, I am finally graduating, too.
My takeaway is that poverty can really kill people’s dreams. As I graduate, I think about other people who were deprived of opportunities like me, who have mental health problems, or those who gave up because of the unfair system. I don’t want to highlight how resilient I am just because I thrived despite experiencing these obstacles. Gasgas na word na ang resilient sa Pilipinas. If you ask my twin how she graduated summa cum laude, she would tell you that she doesn’t really know. She says, perhaps because God helped her, and that she was just desperate to get us out of poverty. It was an ordeal, and we are still on our way to healing and recovery.
I am not trying to be “woke” here. I did not learn poverty from textbooks, I experienced it. What I am trying to say is that we must demand accountability from authorities. Throughout my journey, I met workers who experienced abuse and unfair wages. I experienced the horrors of commuting, which would not be so if corruption did not deprive us of a decent transportation system.
We must unlearn toxic cultural beliefs and question the status quo. We must not discriminate based on skin color, gender, or economic status. The least we can do is to be kind and sensitive to others.
After graduation, I want to hibernate and further contemplate on things. I also expect that employers might judge me or overlook my resumé. They might not be interested to hear my story of how it took X years just to wear that sablay and dress. It does not matter. I just pray that I will become the principled social worker that I aspire to be.
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Mary Jesusa A. Villegas, 27, finished her social work degree this year at the University of the Philippines Diliman. She loves to draw, play ukulele, and sing or write songs with her twin. You can view her artworks on instagram: @mryjssvllgs_
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