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Incomplete without ‘U’

I tell myself not to think about it because it is petty. I manage my time and I know how much work has to go into every day that I am there. But it followed me home. I didn’t even go out looking for it anymore: It was online. I could see it at home where I lived, where my work mattered, and it was telling me that I might as well not exist.

I saw the image for the first time in the lobby, which I passed while I was on my way to class. It was March; I was in a good mood. I ran into our dean and I waved hello, as was usual. I got to the lobby and there were these blown-up photos on propped up tarpaulins, representing all the colleges of the university. I immediately spotted the photo of our college and I was excited for about two seconds—until I actually saw the picture.

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Two years ago I was part of the team that won the national title for a moot court competition in international humanitarian law. The final match of that competition was held at the Supreme Court. This was an important moment for any law student, and it was a particularly validating victory for our university in the province. We had our picture taken at the Supreme Court with our big smiles and our big trophy.

Heartwarming as that was, that same photo was blown up years later as part of the university’s enrollment campaign for the academic year. The big trophy was still there, and so were the big smiles, minus one: mine. Where I used to stand was a me-shaped purple space, with my teammate’s still-there hand holding on to my no-longer-there arm. I was cropped out of the photo because the university enrollment pitch was that the university was incomplete without “U.” I was the “U.”

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After my class that same day, after my friends had also seen the posters, I jokingly told everyone that I was going to call on the other missing “U’s”—the other students from the other departments who had been cropped out of their college photos—and that I was going to form a U-nion. We laughed about it, and then we moved on to our dinner plans. I’m not going to lie, though: That poster hurt my feelings.

I’ve been a student of this university for what is going to be eight years now. I acquired my undergraduate degree here, and came back to study law. The amount of the tuition alone means that someone somewhere must have benefited from that contribution at least. As a student, I was left confused and a little hurt by the poster.

Was it easier to crop my image, head to toe, from that particular achievement, than it was to have a photo shoot like what happened a year before that? Was it so inconvenient to let me know beforehand that this was going to be done to my face? What about the other students whose faces were cropped out and turned into yellow, green, blue spaces: Were they asked? Didn’t they want to be included, too, not as a colored cutout space, but as a real person—a real student who was enrolled in the university?

I don’t know what it means to anyone else, but I know what it means to me. The poster is telling me that the university is a machine and that I am a replaceable cog. I am the silhouette that anyone can fill in and nobody can tell the difference. My achievements, though important to me as an individual, can be tampered with by the university because by allowing me to compete, I have turned in my right to my image. They own my face and they can choose not to include it when it fulfills their agenda. They can turn the space I used to occupy in a photograph into an empty space so that someone else can imagine themselves as me, without asking me what it cost me to get there in the first place.

According to my older brother (who laughed when I showed him this picture), I am the purple shadow of truth and justice. And that is what I feel like—a shadow. As my smiling teammates invite new enrollees to join our ranks and be the new champions of truth and justice, I have no smile to give. On that tarp, or wherever else that image finds itself, I am empty purple space.

Maybe in that poster I am appealing to that market segment of empty purple people, who are okay with being replaceable, who are okay with having no face where everyone else they worked with has one. Do you want to be the nobody on this poster whose face isn’t important enough to be connected to this achievement? Then join me. Be aspirational but forgettable. Be empty. Be replaceable. Because the university is incomplete without you.

But then again, there is me in real life: the person who occupies a real space and smiles a real smile. You don’t see it on that poster, but I wore a black dress that day at the Supreme Court when that photo was taken. I wore that same black dress when I applied for a visa to go to Japan because it was my winning dress (and yes, my visa application was approved).

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I have a face, one which you don’t see on that poster. I know what my face is worth, and I am aware of my achievements. The absence of my face on my achievements is not something I take offense with; I have ghost-written pieces and volunteered for projects and causes where the work was its own reward. This particular instance of facelessness is offensive to me only because I was purposely cut out of it in a way that I felt was inconsiderate.

So here is what I think, as a girl with a face and a voice: I deserve that space, alongside my teammates. The university took out my face to tell potential students that it is incomplete without them; the university is incomplete without “U.” As the “U” that got taken out, I am saying, “I’m here.” I am “U” and I deserve to be here. I deserve to be heard. And if the university feels like its posters say, then I deserve some consideration—not as a purple shadow, but as a real student with a face.

Jamie F. Bentinganan just turned 26 and is an incoming fourth year law student.

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TAGS: Achievements, international humanitarian law, Supreme Court, youth
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