College Tuition Became Free the Year After I Graduated. Here’s How That Felt

College Tuition Became Free the Year After I Graduated. Here's How That FeltThey say you never forget what you’re wearing the day your life changes forever.

Surely, the bulk of college students in the Philippines never expected they’d still be in their PJs the moment the groundbreaking news came.

We all imagined this romantic moment when we’d break out into cheering, crying, and some more cheering as we hugged and patted each other on the back for surviving long enough to witness the death of unaffordable college tuitions and student loans.

Instead, the life-changing news broke in the wee hours of a morning in August 2017 — just as hordes of students were sipping their morning coffees, or waiting for their turn in the shared dormitory bathrooms, or speed-writing a paper for their next class:

Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte approves the free tuition law!

I still remember what I was wearing that day: A white, long-sleeved, collared shirt. Black slacks. Basic two-inch heels that are international code for “I want to look professional but not too much.” A heavy laptop bag was slung across my body, and a huge I.D. was hanging around my neck with the words JUNIOR REPORTER plastered in bold red.

That’s right. Attending college became free the year after I graduated with a journalism degree. So I ended up delivering the news I had been waiting all my life to receive. At that moment, I felt like a character straight out of an Alanis Morissette song.

I like to think the crying fit that ensued after submitting my free tuition story to my editor was tears of joy. That would be giving myself too much credit, though.

To be completely honest, I felt like I was outside of awesome looking in.

I felt cheated.

Between my mother’s hefty hospital bills and my grandmother’s maintenance meds, my family didn’t have enough money to give me a free college ride. So in between classes and off-hours school work, I taught English to foreigners, peddled dumplings and sweets to my dorm-mates, and ghost-wrote poems and love songs for lovelorn frat boys to send myself to school.

I worked myself dry, but incredibly, all my side hustles never seemed sufficient to cover the costs of a college education. As a result, I had to take out student loans. Cue the collective pained groaning.

I know you know what’s coming. But no two struggles are the same, so I’ll keep going.

It took me six years to finish a four-year degree because student loans in the Philippines don’t look like the ones they offer in North America. Here, student loans do not accumulate. Before you can enroll in the next semester, you have to settle all your bills from the previous one — including any loans. Because of this, I missed out on a few semesters.

I was wearing a pink Taylor Swift shirt the first time I applied for a tuition loan.

I was a scrawny freshman straight out of the suburbs, still carrying that pride of having made it to my dream school in the city. But it took a single trip to the Loan Board Office to have all that pride stripped away from me.

Walking out of that room felt like coming home from war — or so I imagine.

For two hours, a panel of scary-looking loan officers “assessed” whether or not I needed — and deserved — the help. I was fifteen, and had thought they would simply discuss interest rates and repayment options with me. Apparently, the university didn’t have enough money to grant every single loan application, so the staff of the Loan Board ended up with the unenviable task of deciding which students get the check, and which ones get the green slip that says, “We’re sorry. You may try again next semester, or transfer to any of the following recommended universities.”

To this day, I’m convinced that the only reason I didn’t walk out with the green slip is that my interviewers were Swifties who loved my “You Belong With Me” shirt.

I don’t remember much, but I’m sure I couldn’t have been articulate in answering questions that sounded more like accusations.

Didn’t your parents prepare for this?

Didn’t YOU prepare for this?

Can’t you just work first and enroll next term when you have the money?

How can you pay us back if you don’t have any money?

For the record, I do not hate my loan officers. They were just doing their jobs, and I’m sure they felt as rotten as I did after such a dehumanizing interview. Besides, I think I got better at answering similar questions the following four times I lined up for a student loan.

Still, that intense feeling of humiliation for not having enough money never went away.

By God, that was the moment I realized that shame is a shining feature of modern-day poverty.

I grew up watching Western musicals like Rent and Les Miserables, where the homeless and the penniless are unapologetically proud and defiant. They’re poor because the system is broken. They’re homeless because the generation before them caused a housing bubble to burst. They’re hungry because the rich and the greedy took everything when there should be enough for everyone. They’re uneducated because, well, they’d rather be in the streets staging a revolt against injustice and inequality.

And then there was me, a glitch in the matrix: someone who was still in the trenches even though the system had been fixed a long time ago; a girl who just didn’t…prepare for college.

Sometimes I’d walk past student movement rallies and felt a sense of tribal affinity for their placards and bandanas that said, ‘WE DEMAND FREE TUITION NOW!’

But I was convinced it couldn’t be done. They said it couldn’t be done. They said the people’s taxes were just enough to pay for a couple of aircraft carriers…and not much else.

So I kept my head down most days, slaving away for a few extra bucks while my schoolmates went to parties, soirées, and speed dates.

Until it was time to reclaim my pride.

It was graduation day, and I had no plans of keeping my head down. My school didn’t do the whole toga thing, so I didn’t have a graduation cap to decorate.

Never mind, I thought. That’s what Facebook is for.

Before I slipped into my immaculate white number and cream stilettos, I typed up a lengthy Facebook update reminiscing over my journey as a “student loan survivor.”

It was the first time I allowed myself to feel proud, ever since that day I first walked into the Loan Board Office in my pink T.Swift shirt.

I had been wearing shame for too long, and it was finally time to take it off. I had survived. It was over. Now, my life could begin.

I ended my “graduation essay” with some words of wisdom for would-be college students in my beloved university: “Poverty is not an excuse. If you are serious about your dreams, you have to work for it — day in, day out, without stopping to rest. Rest when you’re done, not when you’re tired.”

I realized too late that I was projecting my inflated sense of ego for having struggled and survived onto young students who deserve so much better.

In my naive quest to inspire, I became complicit in attaching shame to not having enough money.

“Poverty is not an excuse?” What was I thinking?

At least, I know better now. All it took was the courage of several lawmakers who decided we didn’t need any more aircraft carriers, and in an instant, student loans became a thing of the past.

All my misplaced pride got exposed for what it was: a sorry attempt to convince myself that I was better than those who dropped out of school, just because I was able to graduate in spite of everything.

It took a long while, but I did eventually learn how to apologize to the person who most deserved it – myself. And I have learned how to accept forgiveness, too.

I should have power-walked into the Loan Board Office every single time.

I should have told them that yes, my mother worked two jobs to prepare for college, but she could not have prepared for cancer.

I should have said that yes, I prepared for it, too, but chemotherapy was so dang expensive everyone had to pitch in.

I should have told them that yes, I could work first and enroll next year, but I’m not going to. Why should I delay my dreams for something as natural as the temporary lack of money?

I should have assured them that I would pay them back, because I had so much more potential than my financial capacity reflected at the time.

I should have told them to wait, because it’s not true that free education cannot be done. 

I never got to enjoy a free ride to college, but the day student loans became nothing but a painful memory from a bygone era, my life changed forever.

I wiped away my tears, straightened the collar on my crisp white shirt, took a good hard look at my Press I.D., and made an important decision, right then and there — to help smash the stigma that comes with depleting bank funds and ballooning loans.

The day we recognize that poverty deserves understanding and not shame is the day the world becomes a little kinder.

I’m still at it, and we’ve got a long way to go, but little by little, one conversation at a time, we’ll get there.

And maybe someday, we can rest easy knowing that every person who ever struggled with money has that one day — when they’ll never forget what they’re wearing.

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Category: DebtLife Stories

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Article by: Rosabell Toledo

Rosabell is a 20-something journalist from Manila. Her financial awakening started when she was 8. She spent 150 minutes wondering why Ron Weasley had to show up to Hogwarts in second hand robes with a second hand pet rat, while Harry Potter can practically buy the entire school (probably).