Right until I wake up, I dream of Manila… or at least, of what my life used to be like when I was a student in Manila.
As the rays of the new morning’s sun hit my eyelids, I cling to what remains of my sleep. A new day means a new set of online classes to attend—a new day of pretending I’m not distracted by the dozen other tabs I have open, or the loud music blasting through my earphones to keep me awake, or the internship I’d unnecessarily taken just to gain some sense of growth and development. In those spare few minutes I have left before my first Zoom class starts, I cherish my ability to momentarily dream.
I dream of the smoggy, damp morning air that used to fill the streets of Malate, where I used to attend classes at the University of the Philippines-Manila—for a good three semesters, at least. I dream of my early morning commute and the empty asphalt roads bathed in morning light, save for the one or two jeepney drivers and taho vendors who’ve already begun their day. The casual overhead buzz of the LRT on its metal tracks and the soothing drum of footsteps on pavement were my peaceful white noise. The iced coffee I’d line up for at the downstairs Lawson’s was my defibrillator. I’d dream of these things, and somehow, I’d get the feeling that I was a member of something so organic and alive; a part of a routine with a community I’ve learned to love so much.
And then my phone alarm rings, and I’m thrust back into reality. My eyes snap open and it’s nothing but pure adrenaline that pulls me out of bed—less out of excitement and more to do with me running late for my online class. Like a toddler drunk on sleep, I wobble to my nearest device, log into Zoom, and attend my class on screen. In a matter of seconds, I’ve probably fallen back asleep.
I dream of Manila… or at least, of what my life used to be like when I was a student in Manila.
For the first few weeks in March 2020, the idea of online classes was a welcome development. Thousands of other students might have even said the same, especially when the concept of a three-year-long pandemic was still unimaginable. This virus scare was an excuse to cancel classes, to postpone exams—an excuse for stressed out students to momentarily relax and take much-needed breathers at home, at least until the threat of “nCoV-19” inevitably waned. Nobody had suspected, though, how suddenly and exponentially the cases would skyrocket—not just in the Philippines, but all over the world.
Online classes were romanticized as a concept. At home, my father would tell me how lucky I was that I could stay at home; that online classes were ultimately to my advantage since I’d be receiving knowledge and education from my school while reveling in the comforts of my home. Even universities attempted to draw out the silver lining, claiming that online classes pushed the creative boundaries of education and effectively removed barriers. In the lead-up to the new semester, UP Manila held frequent Zoom conferences that championed its new online education program. More people could be a student in their campus now, they said, regardless of location and schedule. They distributed survey forms promising student aid for those in need—both material and financial—and glorified the idea that attending a class was literally just a click away.
But after a good few months, it was clear that online classes just weren’t as ideal as they were marketed to be. It was disheartening to learn that my favorite professors routinely couldn’t make it to synchronous classes because of their internet connections. Even fellow students had similar issues, and knowing that these disadvantages meant that we were essentially leaving them behind made me question the entire point of school altogether.
It’s difficult to measure what’s been gained when so much has been lost, for me and so many others.
Over the past two years, people have also neglected to factor in the idea that learning works best when it involves the presence of other people, engaged in the company of a collective instead of within a vacuum. More than anything, it’s this social aspect—this shared experience with people from all walks of life—that used to define campus life and the college experience. The pandemic, and the online classes that came with it, had taken this away.
Had I been back at campus, I’d be battling my way through sweaty, sardine-packed crowds at the railway station every morning, or laughing my head off at the rickety juncture of stone chairs and dirty plastic tables we’d dubbed the org tambayans. If I were at class, I would have been sitting at the back doodling on my friend’s yellow pad, if not stationed at the front row, furiously scribbling notes away for a subject I was desperate to pass. On a usual day, I’d have looked forward to the room-to-room campaign interruptions, or the surprise skits performed in the hallways, or the sudden class invitations to a forum or movie premiere—not to mention, the spontaneity and thrill of cutting a class just because.
My friends and I would have hauled ourselves over to whatever eatery we could afford after class, whether it’s a hole-in-the-wall diner or a splurge at a fancy restaurant at the mall, just to ease some of the stress. We would hang out in nondescript cafés on weeknights—a wiser choice compared to the bars, even though college nights in Manila are almost synonymous with drinking the entire night away…
But I’m not in Manila. I’m at home, parked in front of a desk and hunched over a laptop in the dark—the most un-idyllic picture of what life as a college student has been like for the last two years.
I find myself mourning the what-could-have-beens: the late-night café and library thesis-writing trips with friends, the countless night-outs adventuring our way through Manila streets, the deluge of field trips and rallies, and most importantly, the six-week practicum experience of living with farmers and fisherfolk vital to my degree program—a trip that has been discontinued.
Despite this, I’ve also found a new set of experiences to relish instead—the real silver linings that make it all bearable.
I savor the impromptu Discord meetings; whether to play a friendly online game or watch a thrilling movie. I’ve learned to appreciate the all-nighter study sessions with fellow classmates cramming their homework, the planned e-numan sessions to laugh away the worries of the pandemic, and zoom-to-zoom instead of room-to-room campaign sessions. The Halloween dress-ups, Valentine’s Day support groups, org parties, and better yet, the online fundraising concerts, conferences, and other makeshift events to support marginalized Filipinos, have all surprised me and plenty of others.
Ultimately, I had found that, though the campus life I had briefly experienced no longer existed today, a different kind of college experience still persisted.
Whether on Zoom or in Discord, or on some other social media platform, social interactions have continued to power through. Despite it all, students have managed to continue meeting up—to discuss classes, to organize events, to make new friends, or to hang out with the help of a streamed film, concert, or online game. It almost feels like how it used to be at the tambayans, a few years back.
It’s this social aspect—this shared experience with people from all walks of life—that used to define the college experience.
If anything, connection has been made easier now with a simple message, a click, a call. Student organizations have had a field day with the amount of networking they can do, as well as the plethora of opportunities and activities they can find—and host—online. The same goes for any student, really, looking to find practical experience.
There is beauty in how persevering everyone has been. Aside from finding ways to satisfy our indispensable need for social connection, many students have also found a desire to pick up new skills along the way: Cryptocurrency, content creation, paid internships, extracurricular academic activities, small business start-ups, delving into one’s personal interests—all these things and more give only a glimpse into a college student’s life now.
In a truly ironic way, online classes simply aren’t the focus of students’ lives in the age of online schooling. I guess this alone can speak volumes about the kind and quality of education that students are receiving today, and the priorities we all have.
It’s difficult to measure what’s been gained when so much has been lost, for me and so many others. But if anything good has come out of this, perhaps it’s a new shared mindset between students—a shared understanding of what ought to remain important in the grand scheme of things. There’s a new culture and a new way of going about things; a collective realization that we need to revive the things that make us feel alive, regardless of academic validation. That, and the knowledge that we don’t need to go through it alone.
These days, I dread waking up in the morning to the prospect of another dreary Zoom class. But I keep my excitement reserved for the late nights—those that have me up ‘til the sun returns—where the fun happens again. The late nights are when I hop into a Discord call with friends from high school, college, or elsewhere—our shared virtual tambayan where we can gather and talk about the pressures faced in school, the frustrations with our families, the funny stories we’ve been itching to share, or even just revel in the companionship. Whatever absurd and inconsequential activity it is, the night is the best time for it.
Though I can’t speak for everyone, I can say that as a college student during the pandemic, I’ve learned a great many things. Most importantly, I’ve learned to grapple with myself. I’ve learned that it’s an everyday struggle to remind myself that I’m not just a machine programmed to churn out whatever output is needed each day. It’s an everyday struggle to remind myself that I’m not alone in this, and to remember that there is value not just in what I’m asked to do, but also in what I choose to create.