Madaling makapasok sa UST. Pero mahirap siya iwanan.
I often hear of cruel remarks thrown at my university. Of course, most of the insults had everything to do with the superficial – tuition fee rates, persistent flooding, the policy on uniforms, or the family income of the enrolled students. Others grazed the area of post-university success of graduates, or which school had more courses awarded as centers of excellence. Statistics were often use to back up a claim, or disprove a preconceived notion. And like with most Catholic private schools, there was also the matter of the religious running such a tightly conservative institution, which to some, was backward-thinking, outdated, and hostile to free inquiry. Suffice to say, I heard things which, had it been directed at me, would have shattered my ego into fragments.
But I don’t think I ever really minded the arguments, and insults. When I was a student, I was not even half-concerned about what students from other universities ever thought of my school. Nor did I waste time speculating what the priests were up to, how many students were passing board exams, or the implications of existential and academic queries. I wanted to learn, and I filtered on my own whatever knowledge or information I received from my professors, classmates, and academic surroundings.
I was happy with my choice of university education. I loved the campus life. I enjoyed most of my classes. And my classmates were a great source of socializing. If I ever felt the four walls of a classroom did not provide me all that I needed to learn, I leaned on other sources – books, media, the Internet, experience, professional life – to help me understand. Life is constant learning that is not limited to a Bachelor’s degree anyway. My university education was sufficient, enlightening, and compelling enough. At the end of the day, it was only one way to gain understanding, and with modest optimism, wisdom.
Truth be told, there is really something magical about the University of Santo Tomas. It’s easy to attribute this enchantment to the imposing persona of the Main Building. Built at the near-center of the campus, it’s a Hogwarts-esque icon of the campus, built as the first earthquake-resistant structure in the country. Steeped in history, the Main Building has an almost regal air to it, palatial once in view, and intimidating once you enter its cavernous interior. Beside more modern structures, it’s a real-life time machine.
At Christmas, the whole university becomes even more magical. Trees lining the narrow campus roads are draped in Christmas lights, and a towering Christmas tree illuminates the vast football field, turning it into a popular destination for lovers to unwind by laying on the grass, looking at the few, bright stars a city can offer. How can it not be for lovers? Even the Grinch would have found the cool, December winds, coupled by the warm holiday lights, and the steady chatter of both men and cicadas, romantic.
In my years of stay in the university, I took great pride walking in such a storied campus. Compared to other schools, the UST campus was smaller, and perhaps even more cramped considering there are no other campuses outside Manila. And yet, my good classmates and I always found a nook or cranny as breathing space – a forgotten hallway on the second floor of the health clinic where we could study, a hidden pavillion in the Botanical Gardens where we would enjoy late lunch, or the field where we could sit on the grass after our evening classes, recalling assignments to finish, or criticizing professors we disliked.
During our Saturday classes, we found ourselves even more in love with the university. Crowded hallways were quieter. Cafeterias, restaurants, and cafes quainter. The walkways, were to say the least, more walkable. The usually busy Plaza Mayor was all to ourselves, and we could run and prance around like giddy elementary schools and boys enjoying the weekend peace afforded by the campus.
School pride was always running in our veins. Whether it was the men’s basketball team, the volleyball squads, the dance troupe, or the excelling students of medical sciences, there was always something to boast of and be excited about. The school chant never failed to elicit goosebumps, even when it was only the Yellow Jackets practicing. Once the drums started beating, and the familiar “Go USTe” chanted in collective joy and pride, the sound of the school resounded with the uproar of Thomasian spirit.
During my days as a student, I always stayed longer in the campus than my classmates. While they made their way to España, Dapitan, or P. Noval, I sat in contemplation along one of the concrete pavilions overlooking the field, making up silly reasons so I could enjoy the campus on my own. In solitude, the right words would form, and an intimacy between me and the university developed. I was falling in love with her. Every day, every minute, every second, I looked around and saw a safe place, where I would learn, live, and love.
I feared the day I would graduate and leave the loving home UST had turned out to be. While the stresses of my senior year prevented me from fully enjoying my last days in school, I still managed an hour’s walk in and around the campus in between or after classes. It was during these private jaunts that I saw the fast-pace of urban change. New condominiums were being built everywhere. The skyline around Sampaloc was changing. Once narrow alleyways where we chain-smoked after Political Science classes, were being transformed into fancier establishments. What would happen once I leave? Will the tainted, polluted skies of the city be permanently blocked by these towering, concrete behemoths?
It’s been a few years since I graduated. I’ve only been back to the university a handful of times. While many of the physical changes I feared were now in place – the softball field has been turned into a massive sports complex, and the old gym torn down for an alumni center – UST was, and still is, home. There is something in it’s air that gets trapped in your system. She never fails to make you feel welcome.
There are still huge chunks of the open sky to enjoy, and favorite hole-in-the-wall eateries still exist to offer cheap, gastronomical treats to students and faculty alike. Much loved lecturers and professors are still seen scurrying between rooms and buildings, waving a hi to students or stopping to exchange pleasantries with alumnus. Tucked-away retreats are still, tucked away. Our illegal labeling of the benches in Plaza Calderon still exist to remind us of our recklessness. And the field still boasts some of the more eye-catching athletes of the school, training in tights, dirtied by the field’s mud, their hair streamed by the afternoon Manila breeze.
With many of the familiar faces long gone, I envy the new students enjoying this peaceful plot of land in the capital. Surrounded by one of the few vestiges of greenery left in this old city, the university offers a respite against the strong currents of the modern world. What it does, and continues to do, is resist faddishness. UST is always the same by heart. She doesn’t bend her virtues, regardless how debatable her virtues are. While keen to have one step into the future, she honors her past most devotedly. Most are swiftly discouraged by this seeming penchant for history. But UST is not stuck to it. Indeed, you have to be a Thomasian to understand this philosophy. UST is it. It is past, and both present and future. It is unending grace in a world where graces are too brief. She is stubborn. But she is stubborn for a cause.
While everyone is hurrying to discount what may appear to be a living relic of Spanish colonial legacy, the University of Santo Tomas has gathered her virtues, and quietly slip to the new days without losing her identity. Isn’t that the best kind of change? To be altered and yet remain unaltered. To press forward without losing her fidelities. To accept change without fear because she is certain of her identity.
It’s true. Getting in the school is no real sweat. The entrance exams are relatively easier than most university examinations. But there’s just as much hard work to be exerted to succeed in the school’s academic endeavors. Late nights will be spent. Sweat and blood will be offered. Wading floods will be necessary. And from my experience, countless trips to the chapel to pray novenas before the exam week will be done. She’s not all fun, you see. She would not be here over four-hundred years later if she was easy. What I can speak for is how hard UST makes it for you to leave. I don’t think the above-mentioned stories and anecdotes scratched the surface of the university’s charm.
You will fall in love with the University of Santo Tomas. And damn right will she love you back, you will be spoiled.