Then the much-cherished I.D. of University of the Philippines (UP)-Manila freshman Kristel Tejada was returned to her family by the officials of the UPM Department of Behavioral Sciences last Monday in a Mass held in her honor, her father Christopher Tejada was incredibly touched by this unexpected gift which does not have any use now.
For his daughter, the UP identification card was the only proof of her association with the country’s premier state university. It symbolized her education which was her only way out of poverty.
“Nung nag file na siya ng Leave of Absence (LOA) last March 13, kinailangan na niya i-surrender yung I.D. na tanging nagpapatunay na estudyante siya ng UP. Napakahalaga nito sa kanya. Parang ‘yung ID niya yung buhay niya, ‘yung sumisimbolo ng edukasyon na tanging pag-asa niya. At nung isinurrender niya yun para na rin niyang isinurrender yung pangarap niya. Kaya nung ibinalik ito sa akin, natuwa ako at sinabi ko kay Kristel, ‘Anak eto na ulit ‘yung I.D. mo, UP student ka pa rin!’ says Christopher, who was trying to control his emotions, in a phone interview with the Manila Bulletin Students and Campuses.
Kristel poisoned herself to death last Friday by drinking a bottle of silver jewelry cleaner.
CANDIES FOR LUNCH
The eldest of four children, she had high hopes for herself and family. She wanted to be a doctor for the poor and eventually help support her other siblings.
A consistent honor student since elementary, she graduated salutatorian at the Rizal Elementary School in Tayuman, Manila. In high school, Kristel studied at the Manila Cathedral School as a full scholar from first to fourth year. So even if the tuition there was worth P33,000, Christopher says, he did not pay a single centavo.
“Talino ang puhunan ng anak ko. Mahilig siya mag-aral at malayo sana ang mararating niya kung hindi ito naipagkait sa kanya,” he says.
Apart from the prestige of studying in UP, he says that Kristel was truly determined to get into the university to fulfill his own dream.
“Masasabi kong akong ako ’yung anak ko. Gustong gusto ko rin mag-aral sa UP noon kaya lang hindi natupad. Masayahin at malambing na bata si Kristel, lalo na sa bunso niyang kapatid,” says Christopher who works as a part-time taxi driver.
Her daughter would go to school mostly without any allowance. One time, he gave her a “baon” of R70. She used it to buy R20 worth of candies and gave two pieces to her dad. When he asked her what were all those candies for, she said that it will be her lunch in school that day.
Her teacher in General Psychology, Behavioral Sciences Professor Andrea Martinez, also reveals that Kristel usually went to school with no transportation money. Sometimes, she would shell out some cash from her own pocket and give to Kristel just so she could be able to go home.
Kristel considered her as her second mom, while she also treated the 16-year-old as her daughter. The two were very close; they ate lunch together often and she was Kristel’s confidante.
“Whenever she comes to school since she stopped, her mom would always call or text me to ask if I can assist her. Kristel was like a daughter to me. Her mom is almost about my age and so was she with my daughter. Kaya sabi ko, puwede pala kaming maging mag-ina. When I learned that she was denied to enroll, I burst out crying. We cried together,” she shares.
Martinez says that Kristel’s primary concern was her family’s financial woes so she would often advice her on possible options.
“I brought up the idea na mag-working student siya, but her concern was her age, walang tatanggap sa kanya. I told her how she could ease up her parents’ constant bickerings because of her LOA, like talking to them and explaining them some possible options para makahabol siya sa pag-aaral niya at hindi totally ma-delay like taking summer classes, and fixing requirements for application sa STFAP (Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program) rebracketting, finding scholarships,” she narrates.
The STFAP, according to UPM Chancellor Dr. Manuel Agulto, was designed to ease the financial burden of underprivileged students by studying in UP without having to pay the full tuition fee. Students even receive monthly stipend depending on their bracket. The STFAP brackets are based on the annual family income and have corresponding fees or benefits.Kristel who was classified under Bracket D was required to pay only R300 per unit (R7,500 per semester), equivalent to a 70 percent discount on base tuition fees, full miscellaneous and laboratory fees. Under this bracket, the annual family income ranges from R135,000 to R250,000, which Kristel’s father strongly contests.
“Paano kami naging Bracket D eh wala akong trabaho nung nag-apply ng STFAP? Nung nagkatrabaho naman ako one month palang natanggal ako. Ang sahod ko nun R426 a day lang. kahit icompute mo yun hindi aabot ng R135,000 sa isang taon. Naging truthful naman kami, at nung nagkatrabaho ako dineclare namin, pero dapat talaga nasa Bracket E kami,” laments Christopher.
Under Bracket E1 and E2, students from families with an annual income of R80,000 and less, enjoy free tuition, miscellaneous and laboratory fees, and receive monthly stipend.
He says that he and her wife Blesilda used to have a push-cart business, selling streetfood in a marketplace in Manila until they were deceived by a partner. This got him bankrupt, and unable to pay Kristel’s tuition on time.
In a press conference held last Monday at the UP Diliman, Chancellor Agulto reported that Kristel filed for an appeal to be re-bracketed to E2 on Sept. 27 last year but was not able to submit supporting documents. UP Manila records also showed that Tejada availed a loan amounting to R6,377.00 which was due at the end of October before the second semester enrolment.
“We allowed an extension of payment until Nov. 30, Dec. 7 and Dec. 19 in response to her appeal,” he explains. According to him, there were 79 appeals from 28 students from the period of November to December 2012, and all cited financial difficulty as the reason.
On Dec. 19, Tejada was able to pay off the loan and got a form for another loan but was denied because it was past the deadline and the last working day at UPM. “The family appealed only on January 23, nine weeks into the semester and well beyond the last day of payment which was agreed upon by UPM and the student leaders,” Agulto says. Hence, Tejada was not able to pay tuition fee for the second semester, yet she continued to attend classes.
HELPLESS AND HOPELESS
To help raise money for her tuition, Kristel and her parents searched for various ways. She worked as an student assistant (SA) at the Office of Student Affairs. Martinez says her intention for working was not for the meager salary but for the chance to be the first one to know the available scholarships that she could apply for. She adds that SA’s in UP don’t get any tuition discount, only R30/hour, for a maximum of 100 hours per month.
Apart from the STFAP, scholarships are being offered to UP students but are limited to the higher years and very seldom for freshmen. These are mostly academic scholarships like the Oblation Scholarship (for top 40 students who took the UPCAT), GSIS scholarship (for children of government employees), and the CHED Scholarships (given to students taking certain priority courses which does not include Behavioral Sciences, Kristel’s course).
But due to the “no late payment policy” or Article 330 of the University Code, which states that “no person who has not duly matriculated may be admitted to classes,” as well as a memorandum by the Office of the UPM Vice Chancellor on Academic Affairs issued last August (which informed students who have not paid their tuition fees that they are not officially enrolled for the current semester, shall be removed from the classlists and shall be advised to take a leave of absence), Kristel finally decided to file for LOA.
Agulto says that the LOA is filed by students who are not officially enrolled for various reasons, and is not a penalty but a solution that facilitates them to be enrolled for the next semester.
“In UP, payment of tuition is on a cash basis, so students have to pay in full their tuition at the start of a semester. So hangga’t hindi sila nakakabayad ng tuition, hindi sila officially enrolled pero puwede silang mag-attend ng classes that they have enlisted. In Kristel’s case, she has enlisted in several subjects including mine. For the meantime that she has not paid yet, and hence not yet enrolled, she still can attend her classes. But if the Admin refuses to allow the student to enroll, sayang lang yung pagpasok niya kasi hindi ‘yun make-credit sa kanya, hindi siya mabibigyan ng grades kahit nag-exam siya at nag-comply ng requirements kasi wala siya sa official class list sa gradesheets,” she explains.
WHOSE FAULT IS IT?
Kristel’s death has sparked outrage from the UP community, youth and militant groups, as well as netizens who condemned the institution’s alleged repressive policies. An online petition on change.org. was even initiated by former journalist Alcuin Papa, on the same day Kristel took her life, echoing calls of various groups to revoke the LOA and no-payment policies. The campaign has so far gathered over 5,000 signatures.
UPM student council vice chair Adrian Sampang stresses that the STFAP itself is flawed because the bracket classification does not take into account the number of child dependents in the family. “Even if your father earns one million and yet supports 10 children, you’re still in Bracket A.”
To express their indignation, UP students in Diliman, Manila walked out of their classes Tuesday and held daily vigils, protests, and other mass actions to demand the scrapping of the policies, the junking of the STFAP and its ongoing review, a big-time rollback in tuition in UP, a tuition moratorium for all state colleges and universities, and the resignation of Agulto and UPM Vice Chancellor for Academic Affairs Ma. Josephine de Luna. For them, Kristel’s family and even for Prof. Martinez, the UPM administration is accountable for her death.
“As they claim, suicide is complex and multifactorial. But lest they forget, there always is a triggering factor. It just so happened that her LOA was the immediate and preceding traumatic factor that led to Kristel’s suicide. I mean, she filed for LOA March 13, and she committed suicide early morning March 15. Since she stopped schooling on the first week of February, she’s been telling me she’s not okay, that she’s terribly sad and devastated that she has to stop schooling. That Wednesday (when she filed the LOA), she texted me and said “Ma’am, I told you I was ok. But I am not,” she says.
LIFTING OF THE POLICY
Meanwhile, the UP administration led by UP president Dr. Alfredo Pascual and Dr. Agulto in a presscon last March 18, expressed sympathy to the Tejada family and denied any responsibility for Kristel’s death. They presented their side, explained the alleged repressive policies, and bared its planned reform and changes to the STFAP.
Dr. Pascual said that it was unfortunate that this tragedy happened a day after he instructed the Chancellors of all UP units “to not deny access to qualified students who cannot enroll because of financial constraints.” He assured that in the “coming days, my administration will take the necessary steps to address the policy and administrative issues that are related to this unfortunate tragedy.”
A day after the presscon and series of protests, UPM Chancellor Dr. Manuel Agulto announced the system-wide lifting of the the controversial “no late payment” policy during a “very civil” dialogue with UP Manila student leaders and faculty while discussing certain issues related to the financial process for enrollment. This was the exact opposite of the presscon held the day before which ended up into a heated discussion with student leaders who were present in the venue.
In a directive released to all Chancellors and UP Cebu Dean, Dr. Pascual also urged all chancellors to allow a reasonable amount of time for registration and payment of (tuition) fees.
The latest development in the case was well-received by Prof. Martinez. Kristel’s parents, however, could not be reached for comment as of presstime.
“It’s a welcome development. At least Kristel’s death was not in vain because the very policy that deprived her of education and cost her life was now lifted. It’s an admission that the said policy does not cater to the interest of the students. I just hope that it will lead to more meaningful changes such as the complete revocation of the policy,” says Prof. Martinez.
UPM director of Public Affairs Dr. Tony Leachon, meanwhile, appealed for a bigger education budget for the UP. The insufficient budget for infrastructure, he says, is the root of the problem.
To mourn her death, the Oblation statue was covered with black cloth as classes and work at the UP-Manila were suspended on Monday (March 18). UP faculty members, administrators and students along with other youth groups also vowed to hold a “Week of Mourning and Protest” as a “call for justice” for Tejada. Campus strike in all UP campuses has also been set until March 20 to call for changes in the country’s education system.Other schools, such as the University of the Philippines (PUP), are also expected to hold solidarity protests as a show of support to the changes in the education system being called for by UP students and other youth leaders.
Amid all these, “finger-pointing” and “hand washing” continue to surround Tejada’s death. Many people started blaming the very institution for being “inconsiderate” to students who are struggling with their tuition. Others put the blame in the government for “not prioritizing education” through low budget provided to public SUCs and its “inability” to regulate tuition hike in many private HEIs. Some even criticize Tejada’s parents—part-time taxi driver Christopher and housewife Blesilda—for “not providing” for their child and there also those who blame the Tejada, herself, for “not being strong enough” to face her problems.