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Graduation in the time of COVID-19

Anna Mae Yu Lamentillo

I missed my graduation ceremony in 2020. I am part of the Class of COVID-19, one of 1.2 billion students affected by country-wide or localized closures of educational institutions.

The COVID-19 pandemic has shaken the status quo and disrupted the way we live within just a few weeks. What we once considered to be the most-mundane activities before March 2020 — study sessions, dinner dates, coffee meet-ups — are now prohibited and basic human conduct — walking, driving, and even holding hands — are regulated.

Friends have asked me how I felt about not being able to wear the “Sablay.” At first, it was frustrating. However, I realized that graduation was not diminished by the absence of celebration or custom. It is momentous for the value it espouses. To me, it was the fulfilment of a promise and an opportunity to aid in rebuilding a country slowed down by the COVID-19 pandemic.

My last conversation with my dad, Manuel Lamentillo, before he died was about law school.

Before leaving for Boston, I went to visit my parents. My dad told me, “I’m proud of you. But I hope Harvard is not an excuse not to finish law at UP. Babalik ka di ba?” I laughed.

My dad persisted, “Di ka pa sumasagot. Tawa lang ng tawa.”

I continued laughing and asked him “Gusto mo ba?” He said “Oo.”

It was at that point when I said, “Don’t worry, Pa. Tatapusin ko ang law school.”

He knew I was having a hard time balancing work and school. There were many times I wanted to quit, take a break. Often, UP Law has a way of making you feel inadequate, ill prepared, and in need of improvement. Over time, I got used to the feeling and maybe, in admitting that I was inferior, I worked harder to survive.

Just about two years ago, I remember having dinner with two of my mentors at UP Law — Atty. Gaby Concepcion and Atty. Charlie Yu. When we were about to leave, I told them I was planning to file a leave of absence. My exhaustion was getting the best of me. I couldn’t forget what they told me — “We won’t stop you but you should know that if you do take a leave of absence, you will never be a lawyer.”

I knew they were right. This wasn’t the first time I thought about it. In fact, to be honest, I thought about giving up on my first month at law school. Every day was a struggle. But if there is one lesson UP law taught me, it was to show up for class, regardless of circumstances or how prepared I was.

That night, I went home to visit my mom, Nora, only to find out that she had converted our patio into a library. She thought I only had one more year in law school. I laughed and told her, “Delayed akech. Wag masyado magexpect.”

In a span of six years, from when I started at UP Law in 2014, I held four different jobs in four different organizations: the United Nations Development Program, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the Office of Congressman Mark Villar, and now, the Department of Public Works and Highways.

I can still remember how difficult it was to give up my job at the United Nations so I could pursue law school.

Since our classes would end at 9 p.m., the only option was to take the last flight to Cebu at 11 a.m. and a connecting 4 a.m. flight to Tacloban. There were many days I’d sleep at the airport. I read my cases in moving cars, and at airport terminals hoping to finish the coverage for my 6 p.m. class.

UP Law follows the Socratic Method. The professor has a deck of class cards with each student’s name on one card. He shuffles it, picks a card, and calls a name. This was our routine every evening for the last six years (even when there were power interruptions).

Admittedly, there were many days I fell short. But I couldn’t give up my job without putting up a fight. It was beautiful to be a part of an initiative bigger than myself.

I can never forget the first time I saw Tacloban. Thousands of cadavers lay in debris, the streets smelled of death and decay, and in several barangays, not a single house survived. Students who were just studying for their exams woke up the next day with nothing but their shirts. One had to choose between saving his girlfriend and her one-year-old niece.

Despite the devastation, however, residents affected by Typhoon Yolanda were already rebuilding only a few weeks after the storm. One of them told me, “Isa ka adlaw, tatlo nalang kami. Waay na ang akung duha ka anak. Masubo pero kailangan mag-ubra. Wala man kami sarigan. (One day, there were only three members of my family left. Two of my children died. I’m sad but I have to work. We couldn’t depend on anyone else)”.

Work at United Nations taught me survival, resilience, and fighting— even and most especially, in the most unfortunate of circumstances.

One day, while camping out at Starbucks to study for my exams, I met an old acquaintance, then Las Piñas Representative Mark Villar, wearing a UN hoodie, a pair of shorts, and flip flops. The banter ended with an impromptu initial interview and a question — “Wala kang balak bumalik sa politika (Don’t you have any plans of returning to politics)?” I joked — “Kung kukunin niyo ako, Boss”.

On February 14, Sec Mark formally offered me a job and by April 1, I was hired. What started as a decision primarily based on instinct as Batasang Pambansa was only 15 minutes away from UP Law turned out to be one of the most fulfilling jobs I ever had.

I have lived in Metro Manila all my life, and I’m part of a generation that has accepted (and complained about) traffic as a way of life. To be a part of Build, Build, Build, President Rodrigo Duterte’s infrastructure program, which aims to connect 81 provinces, 146 cities, and 1,489 municipalities across the country, is an opportunity I will always be thankful for.

Friends are often surprised as to how I survived UP Law while maintaining a full-time job. It would have been impossible without the support of Sec. Mark who understood the value of education and pushed me to be a better version of myself. He would often remind us — to think outside the box, to speak up, and to take accountability for our actions.

Some of my classmates were asked to choose between their job and law school. It never happened to me. In fact, when meetings would go past 4 p.m., I’d often receive a message: “Do you have class? Go ahead”. At the end of the semester, when I returned to work after a leave for my final examination, Sec. Mark would ask, “Pasado naman?” On every occasion, I would just laugh.

But now finally, after six years, four jobs, 14,670 kilometers of roads, 4507 bridges, 6,022 flood mitigation structures, 129,479 classrooms, and 114 evacuation centers, I’m finally graduating with a Juris Doctor Degree.

To mom, dad, and April, we finally made it.

Anna Mae "Anime" Yu Lamentillo Logo
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