Illuminated by resilience: ‘Pandemic batch’ ends Thomasian journey

STUDENTS OF the batch that dared enter UST during the darkest period of the pandemic lit the España campus bright on May 31, marking the end of their college stint with a vow to spread the light in an increasingly changing world shrouded with uncertainties.

When the academic year 2020-2021 started in August 2020, the world was still gripped by darkness brought about by an unprecedented health emergency that literally placed the world at a standstill.

Ten days before regular classes started on August 13, local COVID-19 cases surged past 106,000, placing Metro Manila under tight quarantine restrictions. Students of this year’s graduating batch went on to spend half of their college lives inside their homes, slouched in front of their laptops or mobile phones. The Faculty of Arts and Letters only returned to an onsite set-up in April 2022.

And yet, the batch was able to reach the light at the end of the tunnel.

Four years after that big leap of faith to pursue their studies despite calls for academic freeze and term cancelation, the graduating students joyfully exited the iconic Arch of the Centuries, carrying with them the psychic reward of knowing that they are much more resilient now.

Graduating seniors of batch 2024 exit the Arch of the Centuries to finish their Thomasian journeys. Photo by Jianzen Deananeas/ THE FLAME

In the rooms of the St. Raymund de Peñafort building, Artlets embraced each other in their type A uniform for one last time and snapped ‘0.5’ group photos with smiles on their faces ahead of the Baccalaureate Mass. What happened was a grand despedida, the beginning of their farewell.

It was also an opportunity to be festive before becoming pensive.

Yes, there was a live marching band playing upbeat tunes like “Jopay” and “Salamin, Salamin” and rowdy students who could not hide their excitement to perform the exit rituals. But their frolicking was accompanied by the awareness that one of the best chapters of their lives was about to end, that after all these celebrations, they will be forced to adjust to a new reality without any clue of how their future will look like.

Perhaps such thoughts explain why some students like political science senior Etchel Leinne Perez could not help but be filled with mixed emotions as they waited with their block-mates in their holding rooms.

“Although I’m excited because the readings have already ended, I’m also sad since we were part of the pandemic batch. [Because of online classes], there were many wasted moments for bonding,” Perez told The Flame

“Just as you’ve gotten attached to people, your college life ends . . . but at the same time, I’m happy it’s over,” she added.

The University sends off around 900 Artlets during this year’s Baccalaureate Mass on May 31. Photo by Jianzen Deananeas/ THE FLAME

Academic struggles caused by two years of full distance learning led students to doubt their capability to finish their undergraduate studies. Calls for academic breaks proliferated during those seasons.

In April 2021, the UST Faculty Union urged the University administration to declare a week-long “academic freeze” as COVID-19 cases spiked nationwide. The hashtag “#AcademicBreakNow” also frequently trended online in the Philippines from 2020 to 2021.

Despite the fear and anxiety around him, communication senior Joe Vincent Santos said his time at UST taught him to take risks and to make the most out of his college life. 

“It was very challenging on my part because I don’t know if I was learning back in my freshman and sophomore years. I became hesitant,” Santos said.

“But I [asked myself], ‘How long will this pandemic last?’ So when I was in my second year, I took a risk and joined organizations . . . and in came the opportunities.” 

Challenges remained even when the University transitioned to a hybrid setup. For Perez, who lived in Imus, Cavite, a two-hour drive from Manila, waking up earlier than usual was one of the first things she had to relearn when onsite classes returned.

“Before, even if I woke up five minutes before [an online] class, it was fine. It then [became] difficult to study when you get home [from a two-hour travel] because you’re tired. But I had to overcome that,” she said.

‘Pioneers of a new era’

As the seniors waited in their rooms, UST Secretary General Fr. Louie Coronel, O.P., left a message through the building’s speakers. 

“Let the challenges you faced be the catalyst for your personal and professional growth. . . . Stand tall in the face of adversity, knowing that you possess the wisdom to overcome any obstacle that comes your way,” he said.

He congratulated them, saying that the storm that has gone through in their lives is “now just a mist.”

Under the soft blue twilight, the graduating students trudged into the University field in a parade. The batch that had spent half of its college life in darkness was now about to shine as one. The University sent off about 7,795 graduating students, 900 of them Artlets.

UST acting rector Fr. Isaias Tiongco, O.P., in his eleven-minute homily, congratulated the students of the “pandemic batch” for their resilience, perseverance and unyielding pursuit of excellence in the face of trials. 

“You are pioneers of a new era,” Tiongco said. 

“You have demonstrated that education transcends physical boundaries and that the spirit of Thomasian excellence can thrive in any circumstance. . . . You are part of a more than centuries legacy of greatness that has weathered countless storms and emerged stronger each time.”

Incoming graduates recite the Thomasian Pledge of Loyalty as they hold their Thomasian Mission Crosses. Photo by Ethan Christensen Cardaño/ THE FLAME

‘We are the light’

Thomasian traditions were alive during this year’s farewell ceremony, with the University’s theme of spreading the light taking center stage.

The Thomasian Mission Crosses, which were bestowed upon the students after the mass, bore the sun of the University patron St. Thomas Aquinas. The silver cross, which symbolizes a graduate’s commitment to upholding his or her Thomasian identity, is placed by another student on one’s neck as a symbol of their life-long commitment to serve others.

The ceremony of light, also known as Lumina Pandit, served as a metaphor for the light of education kindled by the spirit of evangelism. In keeping with tradition, the flame from the acting rector’s torch was ceremoniously passed to the torches held by the deans and regents of the various faculties and colleges.

They in turn extended the light to each of their students’ candles. As the flames flickered to life one by one, the collective glow created a sea of light that shimmered in the dark. It was an apt sight to behold – the batch that thrived in the shadow of the pandemic is now veritably spreading the light.

During her message at the podium of the UST Grandstand and Open Field for batch 2024, outgoing Central Student Council president Ierathel Tabuno urged fellow graduating Thomasians to be grateful for the people who stood by them while they struggled to believe in themselves.

“Let us all be reminded that despite the doubts, the what-ifs, the almosts and the fails, there were always the people that believed in us from the start,” the legal management senior said.

Despite being called the batch “that had it easy,” for spending half their college journey online, the incoming graduates must thank themselves “for never stopping, keeping going and counting to this day,” she added.

Tayo ang liwanag (We are the light),” Tabuno said, gazing upon the thousands of graduating students.

“Through the nights and tomorrows, we are the light.”

Graduating students face the blue cross atop the UST Main Building as they sing the University hymn. Photo by Raymond Vince Manaloto/ THE FLAME

Creative writing senior Jules Pesigan admitted that even though she is still considering her career path, “spreading light” meant being present and supportive to one’s circles.

“I think I can spread light to my friends and family for now, since I still don’t know what I’ll do with my life after graduation. But what I know is, I will thrive in my own way,” she said.

For Asian studies senior Emmanuel Sancho, it meant “contributing to the betterment of our society.”

“In our course, we are actually looking into different disciplines that are aligned into crafting recommendations [for communities]. We [will be] able to utilize what we’ve learned in the University toward developing other people’s lives,” Sancho said.

Streaks of red, green and gold flew in rapid motion from the back of the grandstand to the Manila sky, shining over the dormitories, karinderyas, condominiums, printing shops and streets that held the memories of students. A heavy cloud of smoke covered the University, but this did not stop the seniors from dancing, crying, hugging and singing along with the music. 

The eight-minute-long pyro-musical display featured songs from Filipino pop groups SB19, with their songs “Mapa” and “Gento,” and BINI’s “Salamin, Salamin,” “Karera” and “Pantropiko,” along with their joint rendition of “Kabataang Pinoy” by the Itchyworms.

It was a catharsis to the darkness that the batch endured in its fraught journey. Just like that, another batch ended with a bang.

The eight-minute pyro-musical display shines over this year’s graduating batch. Photo by Ethan Christensen Cardaño/ THE FLAME

Trudging toward the other side of the Arch of the Centuries — the threshold of new beginnings — they, again, felt it coming all at once.

“It still feels surreal up to now, since we only entered the Arch of the Centuries [almost two years ago] because of the pandemic,” behavioral science senior Dyronne Patrick Mallari said, shortly after he exited the Arch.

“It is the end of a journey. But it is also a portal to the real world where we can apply our learnings from the UST,” Mallari added.

On that night, savoring the moment was the only thing that mattered. The blinding lights on the other side of the Arch shone on their faces as they marched on to the beginning of another chapter. F – Arabella Peñaranda and Ron Kyle Gabrielle Reyes with reports from Ma. Irish Fery

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