Stories of survival as first ‘pandemic batch’ graduates from college

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MEDICAL biology senior Ainee Chris Verdillo waited for the moment when he finally faced the camera for his college graduation photo because he had never had one during senior high school (SHS).

Verdillo, then a Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) student from Far Eastern University (FEU), was still in the process of revising his research paper when the government suspended classes in Metro Manila from March 10 to 14, 2020, as the wrath of the coronavirus disease reached Philippine shores.

Students like him thought the suspension would only last one week, but on March 16, 2020, Malacañang placed Luzon under “enhanced community quarantine,” which forced residents to stay inside their homes and upended the lives of Filipinos for the next three years.

The pomp of graduation faded as schools resorted to livestreamed ceremonies. Newly minted SHS graduates entered college with a never-ending flow of regret and disappointment.

’Yong shift [sa] online, nangangapa ka sa lahat,” legal management senior Liyah Foja told the Varsitarian. “Paano ka makikisalamuha at [paano] pakikitungo mo online?”

Foja has always envisioned herself under the beaming lights of theater. But the school of her dreams rejected her, and the UST communication program, which offers theater subjects, was already crowded. She had no other choice but to enroll in the legal management program.

Interior design senior Biena Lei Abrenio begrudged the pandemic because she did not learn the basic tenets of manual drawing early on. She felt conscious upon seeing her blockmates producing better outputs.

Inaral ko talaga siya ng maayos pero parang ‘di talaga makuha ng maayos since ‘yong ibang professors, YouTube videos lang [pinapapanood],” she told the Varsitarian.

Abrenio’s ordeal was compounded when her family caught the virus. She failed to submit her plates during the preliminary examination period, forcing her to ask for an extension.

Na-lost pa rin ako pero gawa lang talaga ko nang gawa noon,” she said. “Nakatulog pala ako tapos gawa ulit. Noong natapos ko ‘yong finals and prelims plates, sabi ko, ‘Nagawa ko pala ‘yon.’”

Princess Angel Galono had to figure out how to navigate Blackboard, the University’s learning management system at the time, because she came from a traditional SHS that delivered education through chalk and blackboard.

Galono, who finished secondary education, major in Filipino, felt giddy when her teachers in SHS canceled scheduled thesis defenses and asked them instead to deliver their papers via Lalamove.

The fun, however, sapped when it dawned on her that the online setup would extend beyond the second semester of her freshman year.

Carrying the burden

The Class of 2024, in exasperating and sometimes painful ways, found out how the Covid-19 pandemic completely turned their college lives upside down.

News reports and academic studies have all painted a gloomy picture of what students went through during distance learning. They bore an extra amount of exhaustion, struggled with intermittent internet connection and descended into a state of stress and anxiety.

Verdillo bought a new set of notebooks and ballpens on his first day of college. A keen notetaker in high school, the psychology student developed a certain level of laziness during online classes.

“I relied so much on looking sa internet, not really understanding what it is,” he admitted. “Nakukuha mo na sa Google agad ‘yong tamang sagot, and as is na, hindi siya ‘yong learning na ine-expect mo talaga. It’s more on memorization pagdating sa online.”

For Sheirida Miranda, another legal management senior, her family always had to be vigilant of possible exposure to the virus because her mother was a frontline worker in Quezon City. As the eldest in the family, she had to juggle between doing the household chores, taking care of his sick uncle, and reading Supreme Court cases.

“I never thought I’d be asking for a comeback sa onsite classes,” Miranda told the Varsitarian.

Most Thomasians endured the “enriched virtual mode” for two academic years, with only medical interns, students with laboratory courses and athletes returning early to campus.

Scarred and disoriented, they registered lower scores during in-person assessments than online – a casualty of the pandemic validated by instructors across various academic units.

“Their mean scores suddenly became lower than 70 percent,” Benjie Clemente, a faculty member at the Faculty of Pharmacy, told the Varsitarian in November 2022.

“The students have been used to online examinations for quite a long time,” Asst. Prof. Eryln Geronimo of the College of Education believed.

“It took us forever to get through the test,” journalism instructor Nathaniel Melican lamented.

Programs with little to no laboratory activities headed back last to the classroom. Miranda, for instance, did come back to campus three years later, giving her only one year to wander the 21-hectare UST.

Finding the magic

Perhaps the failure to maximize four years of University culture was Covid-19’s most severe blow to the Class of 2024.

Meeting friends who would serve as emotional backbone proved testy in the age of online classes. Foja, in her case, initiated a Zoom get-together with her blockmates to serve as an avenue to know each other better.

[W]alang program, walang anything, as in nasa Zoom lang kami,” she recalled. “Hindi namin alam talaga [kung paano] kapain ang isa’t isa. Hindi namin alam kung paano makikitungo.”

Communication graduate Dizelle Masilungan first connected with his friends when they attended the virtual rites of passage – a staple in Thomasian life that became face-to-face for the Class of 2024 two years later (an event nearly postponed “to minimize the risk of the virus” but was later pushed through after students revolted online.)

As the virus rages on, the team of Charles Nobleza, a College of Information and Computing Sciences graduate, rebuilt the UST campus on the sandbox video game Minecraft – an alternative that UST administrators used for the onboarding and send-off activities and earned an accolade at the AcadArena Awards “for becoming a platform for community building.”

The vibes were just not the same, however.

Kahit papaano naman, nagawan ng paraan ng UST na i-bring sa online setup ‘yong freshmen week natin,” he told the Varsitarian. “Sabi ko naman, ‘Okay, sakto lang. Wala ‘yong magic.’”

When UST welcomed back juniors and sophomores for their homecoming activities on Aug. 23, 2022, Typhoon “Florita” rained on their parade and axed the final welcome walk for students of the Alfredo M. Velayo-UST College of Accountancy, Faculty of Medicine and Surgery, Faculty of Civil Law, Graduate School, Graduate School of Law, College of Commerce and Business Administration, and Ecclesiastical Faculties.

The Class of 2024 also missed out on two in-person Paskuhan festivities. Miranda had devised plans with her high school friends to celebrate the annual Thomasian tradition, but they were abandoned because of mobility restrictions.

Paskuhan 2020 replayed previous concerts, while 2021 livestreamed performances, including that of the iconic band Mayonnaise, from inside the Quadricentennial Pavilion without any audience.

When festivities returned on campus in 2022, Miranda’s friends already graduated.

Making time count

The Class of 2024 exerted all their efforts to make up for the time the dreaded virus has forsaken them.

Some, like Verdillo, valued the mundane moments every time he ate out and chit-chatted with his friends. Others, like Jerald Trambulo – now a degree holder in secondary education, major in science – freed their Saturdays to hang out with blockmates, even if they see each other’s faces five days a week.

’Yong Saturday, doon talaga kami nag-bonding, though mahirap ‘yong subject ng araw na ‘yon kasi both lecture and laboratory courses, naging masaya naman,” Trambulo told the Varsitarian. “Pagdating ng fourth year, medyo napapagod na rin, [so] pag gusto na umuwi, umuuwi, pero we try to work together para, at least, ma-maximize ‘yong time [lalo pa’t] ngayon na patapos na talaga.

Masilungan revived his dying passion for filmmaking by actively embarking on student productions both for academic and extra-curricular purposes.

Dahil nagka-pandemic, mas naging different ‘yong anggulo ko sa buhay,” he said, adding, “Na ito ‘yong buhay sa mundo, hindi lahat maganda [kasi] may times talaga na ibabaon ka sa lupa.”

In front of 7,795 graduating Thomasians during the Baccalaureate Mass on May 31, UST Acting Rector Fr. Isaias Tiongco, O.P. lauded what he labeled as the “pandemic batch” for embracing the uniqueness and unprecedentedness of their academic adventure.

“The sudden shift to online learning, the absence of traditional campus life, and the need for constant adaptation tested your limits, yet you rose to the occasion,” he said in his homily.

“You faced many challenges that have tested your resolve, yet here you are, here you stand, ready to step into the world as proud Thomasians.”

As the storm passes and the college journey comes to an end, the “pandemic batch” wants to take time to breathe before hurdling new challenges.

Sobrang na-drain talaga ako,” Abrenio said. “From college, ang nadala kong lesson is deadline – walang time magpahinga [at] mag-isip ng ibang bagay besides academics.” Janica Kate J. Buan, Faith Nicole S. Gelacio and Karis M. Tsang

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