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Lightning in Diliman: UP post-Kristel

02:22 PM April 28, 2013

PHOTO courtesy of Wendell Capili

There’s a strong chance that lightning will strike in UP Diliman on Sunday.  One hit UP Manila a week ago when students briefly held a protest during the commencement exercise.

It’s called a lightning rally.

It was one of the most creative and dangerous forms of student protest in the ’70s and ’80s.


Here’s how it worked: You gather at a location, unfurl banners, make impassioned, but very short, speeches, and then very quickly disperse.

Total running time: Less than five minutes.

On the UP campus in Diliman, during the Marcos years, that sometimes meant a march that began on the fourth floor of the Palma Hall building and quickly ended on the second floor before the Marcos security forces could react.

I guess you can call it an early version of the flash mob, though unlike today’s mass actions, you can end up in big trouble, like in prison, for any error in the timing and coordination.

It’s been heartening to know that lightning rallies have survived at UP.  In fact, it has become a tradition especially during graduation season.

There is, however, one thing I find odd: Students nowadays actually let authorities know about holding a lightning rally. Sometimes they even ask for permission.

Back in the old days, that would have been considered silly, even suicidal.

But my sister Nymia Simbulan said that when she was head of UP Manila’s student affairs office, students routinely let her know of a lightning action and they would even come to an understanding with her on how it should be carried out.


My sister was herself a student activist and so was naturally sympathetic though she made it a point to remind the activists to keep the rabble rousing “short and sweet, not more than 3-4 minutes, to maximize the impact and get the attention of the audience.”

They didn’t always see things her way.

During one commencement, an activist kept on going for more than five minutes, annoying the main speakers — and my sister. Only when she stood up to ask her to finish did the activist stop.

In any case, last week’s UP Manila commencement lightning rally was not surprising. And it also will not be surprising if another one hits the Diliman commencement on Sunday.

The sloganeering can no doubt turn off some spectators, even some of the graduates and their parents. But we’re talking about UP where protesting and activism have long been cherished traditions.

And there is much to protest about this year.

UP has yet to fully recover from the tragedy of Kristel Tejada, the UP Manila student who took her own life. Apparently, one of the reasons was that she was forced to go on leave after her family failed to pay her tuition.

It remains a hot topic in the UP community. I found this out a few weeks ago when the UP Alumni Association marked its 100th year. I found myself helping celebrate embarrassingly underdressed. But then again, the UP I know and love is an institution not overly obsessed with formality and formal attire.

Don’t worry about it, Wendell Capili, UP’s point man for alumni affairs, told me and my friend and fellow UP alum Oca Gomez. I’m wearing sneakers, he added.

Oca also was in sneakers and a T-shirt. I was the most out of place, in t-shirt, rubber shoes and cargo pants.

But sure enough it was no problem as Wendell led us to the Bahay ng Alumni hall where portraits of past UP Alumni Association presidents were being unveiled.

(The gallery featured distinguished alums and respected figures in UP and Philippine history, such as Abraham Sarmiento and Gerry Roxas. There were a few others one wouldn’t put in that category. One portrait was of Ferdinand Marcos.)

The unveiling was followed by the inauguration of a new stamp commemorating the centennial. UP President Alfredo Pascual was at the event where, as expected, the discussions frequently turned to the tragedy of Kristel.

Wendell introduced me to the president who didn’t seem bothered with having underdressed and unexpected guests as he talked about a grand plan to raise enough money in order to set up a workable study-now-pay-later plan.

I was in Diliman to discuss our own plan with Oca, one of many UP alumni for whom the Kristel tragedy struck a nerve. What about stipend grants for specific needs, such as meals and dorm fees, I asked. The president nodded, saying, that’s also good.

In fact, Wendell said stipend grants could fill a major need. Tuition is not the only problem.  The tragedy apparently sparked an effort to let more students know of the grants and financial aid available to them. At Vinzons Hall, where the university student council and the Philippine Collegian offices are located, a big banner with student aid and grant information greets visitors.

There’s another one, Oca told me, pointing to another banner near the School of Economics.

But there are other needs, to be sure. Many students struggle because they find themselves scrambling to pay the rent or because they simply don’t have enough money for meals.

Somehow the UP community, including many in the administration, but most especially its alumni, has found a way.

Which was why the Kristel Tejada tragedy was so shocking for many of us. That’s not supposed to happen. That’s not what UP is about.

A more fitting image of UP emerges from a story Wendell told me and Oca. It took place during yet another commencement this time in Tacloban.

No lightning rally this time. Instead, there’s a young woman with her parents.

They were poor, and the young woman had to support herself while at UP by washing and ironing the clothes of her housemates. But she was bright and she worked hard. She graduated with honors and made it to the top ten of her board exams.

During the UP Tacloban commencement, she went up the stage with her parents to receive her medal.

Then something happened.

As Wendell recalls, the parents were wearing “clean, simple-looking but ill-fitting clothes.”

“After seeing how everybody onstage wore formal graduation attire, suddenly, they looked totally overwhelmed by the experience,” he continued. “They tried to leave the stage immediately.”

Wendell rushed to stop them. “The father looked really overwhelmed and misty-eyed, while the mother was on the verge of crying,” he said. “So I ended up crying as I started to persuade them to pin the medal on their daughter.”

That’s what UP is supposed to be about.

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TAGS: commencement exercise, education, Features, Global Nation, student activism, UP Diliman
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