During enrollment season, the corridors would be stuffed with bodies; some standing and texting their friends that they were about to lose hope, some sitting on the floor, buried in a book or blankly listening to music, some nodding off to sleep, having lined up before sun-up—all of them ready to rush to the nearest academic department at the magic words from the overworked registration assistants: they just opened a new class. The air would be saturated with a distinct tang of sweat and desperation. You’d have to jostle through a sea of exhausted, caffeine-fueled students to make it down the stairs.
The worst year was 2015. I was helping out the Anthropology Department, which involved a number of tasks; assisting freshmen with their first enrollment in UP, herding students waiting for general education (GEs) into orderly lines, telling lost students that the Sociology Department was in another building, and no, we don’t offer Social Science 2. I had already put up a sign saying that all our GE classes were full, but the line of students remained steady; they were hopeful someone would cancel their slot in a class, or that we would open up a new section. A middle-aged man carrying a plastic envelope of documents approached me. His voice was low and gruff. He asked me if there were any GE classes left.
“No, I’m sorry. They’re all full.” I said.
“Are you going to open up a new class?” he asked.
I gave him the usual spiel. “I’m sorry, but we’re not sure. Right now, you’re just waiting for someone to cancel their slot. But the line for cancellations is pretty long,” I said, pointing at the throng of people snaking their way down the corridor. Our department office was next to the Speech Communication Department, so I was unsure which students were waiting for our classes and which ones were waiting for communication classes. At one point, they kind of just meshed together.
The middle-aged man scratched his head but refused to budge. I asked him where his daughter was.
“She’s in the Science Complex, trying to get Math 2,” he said. The Science Complex was around half-an-hour away by foot. “She only has six units.”
In UP, every student needs to take at least 15 units a semester—a class usually counts for three units, or three class hours a week. Take less than 15 units and you’re considered underloaded, disqualifying you from Latin honors and increasing the likelihood of finishing college late. They’re also required 45 units of GEs—classes in the sciences, social sciences, and humanities that any student can take. They’re supposed to form the basis of general education, to improve critical thinking and ensure well-rounded students. Recently, the University Council of UP Diliman voted to reduce the number of required GEs in most majors. The prevailing logic was that the global market needed more specialized students.
“Perhaps enrollment in UP isn’t as bloody as a bar fight or a street rumble, but they sure have similar effects.”
I muttered another pithy “sorry,” and the middle-aged man left a few moments later. I remembered my friend, Beata, who was in one of the dormitories earlier that week, assisting students from the provinces who had not yet been given rooms. Some of them had their parents with them. A woman had complained to Beata that she had taken a half-day from work to help her son. A man from Mindanao told her that he needed to sail back home, and was entrusting his son into her care, with nothing but his luggage and some pocket money. I wondered if the middle-aged man had also taken a leave from work to try to rescue his hapless daughter from the cursed clutches of a six-unit semester and delayed graduation. I wondered what he might have lost: a day’s salary, chance at a promotion, a bucket’s worth of sweat trekking from one building to another in the noonday heat.
Now, the beloved and bedraggled Faculty Center is no more. Workmen recently cleared the rubble left of it after being gutted by a fire over a year ago. But the flocks of students that lined its halls during enrollment have materialized elsewhere; down the steps and outer walls of the west side of the Arts and Sciences Building, where many of the social science and humanities departments were relocated. During the enrollment season for the second semester earlier this year, our college administration asked members of the student council the unavoidable question: how do we keep students from lining up overnight? You see, the past few years have seen students arriving on campus in the evening, plopping a mat or a sleeping bag on the ground, and setting their alarms for 6 a.m. the next morning, to ensure that they’re first in line for any new classes or cancelled slots. It was a huge security risk; you’d have one or two security guards watching over dozens of students sleeping or loitering on staircases and walkways all through the night.
I never considered education a gamble until I came to UP. You stew in your juices inside a corridor-cum-sardine can, waiting in line for a class you may never get, and you gamble that someone drops their slot in that class and gives it to you. Losing that gamble might mean another year in the university. You gamble that you’re not placed in a higher income bracket, forcing you to pay an extra 5 or 10K that semester. You gamble that the payment deadline gets extended, otherwise you have to get a loan or appeal to the chancellor. You gamble that you get into a dorm, because the alternative means renting an apartment or boarding house at twice or thrice the cost.
“Some people cope by saying it’s an initiation rite. But then I have to ask myself: what are we being initiated into?”
Perhaps enrollment in UP isn’t as bloody as a bar fight or a street rumble, but they sure have similar effects; dirtied clothes soaked in half-fever, loss of breath, the devastating emotional distress wrought from being put through the wringer, and the palpable feeling you’ve been screwed over big time. Both will most likely leave you huddled on a grimy floor somewhere, clutching your chest, wondering what you had just lost: maybe a tooth, or an entire future.
Enrollment in UP is a slow kind of pain; the kind that grinds you down year after year and causes you to celebrate at the slightest stroke of luck, until you’re finally able to graduate and this sorry system is passed onto another batch of unlucky students. Some people cope by saying it’s an initiation rite. But then I have to ask myself: what are we being initiated into? The strange, arcane rites of a tertiary education? I’ve come to realize that this kind of pain masquerades as natural fact; as if it were natural for instructors to teach hundreds of students a semester while juggling administrative work and a doctorate, as if it were natural to keep students in a state of recurring educational insecurity.
When that unfortunate day in 2015 ended, I felt dread, not relief. I was still three classes short of a 15-unit load, and I really wanted those Latin honors attached to my name at graduation. A few days later, I tried approaching a professor to see if I could enlist in his Physics 10 class.
“I’m sorry, but we’re full,” he said, gesturing to the crowded room in front of him.
I spotted a few empty seats in the back. “But I’m graduating,” I told him. A few other students searching for classes huddled behind me.
“Don’t say you’re graduating,” he told me, showing me the door. “Because to graduate, you’ll need to get this class. And you won’t get this class.”
I was able to graduate, thanks to the help of my wonderful undergraduate adviser, who got me into the classes of much more amenable professors. But I can’t help but think of the people who wanted an education and got shown the door. One day, I hope the students of every state university get to study what they want, when they want, at no cost to them—whether financial or emotional. But now, with another enrollment season coming up, my first hope is that it doesn’t rain; sleeping on wet ground is another level of endurance.
This article originally appeared in Esquire Philippines' July 2017 issue. Main photograph by Carlo Gabuco.