I have no right to write about you. Most of us never had a chance to know you. We have no idea what you went through; there is no way we can ever understand why you decided to take your own life.
But I remember that day. It was a Friday, March 15th, 2013; an officemate told me about your death. She was furious over the first details that were coming in to the news room — that you had committed suicide because you couldn’t pay for your tuition in UP.
She was furious because she felt for you. She belonged to the last batches of students who escaped the revised tuition bracket scheme, one that consequently made it hard for you to continue being an Iskolar ng Bayan.
I was not an Iska. I didn’t have any problem paying for my tuition, certainly not the P10,000 that led you to end your life. But I was furious too. I couldn’t work. I couldn’t focus. I couldn’t get you off my mind.
I was furious at everyone who judged your character, those who said you were a weak coward to do what you did. I couldn’t understand — or accept — how they could be so callous with their comments. Maybe they haven’t experienced being as sad as you were. Depression is a concept which confounds us as a society. It is hard to understand why you succumbed to loneliness in a country of happy people.
But who am I to justify loneliness? You had real problems, I’m just a spoiled pessimist. I wouldn’t ever attempt to explain the monsters you confronted during the last minutes of your life.
Despite all that, you affected me so immensely. You still do.
I didn’t know you. But I knew you were a bright girl who dreamed to have a better life. Your dreams were simple; you wanted to finish your studies. And you were blessed with intelligence which allowed you to study in the country’s premiere university.
This is the same university that was particularly put up for you and others like you — young people who were born into this world poor, but rich in aspirations. Kristel, it was your right to study no matter how poor you were. The laws entitled you to subsidized tuition.
The laws entitled you to dream, Kristel. But for whatever reason, the laws could not come to your rescue and the government allowed a rotten system that killed your dreams, and eventually, killed you. It’s a system that slowly kills the people’s faith in the government.
Others have said it is too simplistic to blame UP for what happened to you. Suicide is not that simple a concept, they said. You wouldn’t just kill yourself over unpaid tuition, they said. How come you were not able to find a way? You weren’t the only victim. So many others go through what you went through; many go through even worse.
But they fail to see the crucial connection. That of all people, you were the most fragile, with the lowest threshold for pain. And that wasn’t your fault, Kristel. Depression is a medical condition that so few understand. And of all people to be afflicted with a tuition problem, it had to be you. Depression and poverty, though not a consequence of one another, are a fatal combination.
It was a combination that killed 12-year-old Mariannet Amper in Davao City. She was just a child. She didn’t understand depression. She just fell victim, helpless. It’s an illness that spares no one, not even the rich and famous, most notably, the award-winning actor Robin Williams.
Depression and poverty did not spare you: a 16-year-old student always in danger of being expelled, yet who continued to go to class even when she was forced to take a leave of absence. She was also a girl who couldn’t understand the meaning of love. (Kristel’s father told reporters her daughter left a note, in which, she wrote: “Ano ba ang pagmamahal?”)
Of all people, Kristel, it had to be you.
Something, somewhere, failed. Maybe you failed. Maybe your parents. Maybe your teachers. But no one can judge. We didn’t know any of you. But where you failed is also where our leaders did. You were poor. Our leaders are powerful. Is it so bad to expect them to be heroes?
The United Nations created a global standard wherein 6% of the Gross Domestic Product of a country should be allocated to education. In 2013, we only allotted 2.3%. Just this week, the World Bank estimated the government still needs to dedicate an additional 5% of our GDP to education and health.
The budget of the Commission on Higher Education (CHED) for its financial assistance program in 2013 only amounted to more than P500 million, just enough to fund 2.25% of the total number of students like you who needed help.
Your university, the University of the Philippines, has once again revised its bracket system. The new Socialized Tuition System (STS) now makes it even more difficult for students from poor families to get subsidy.
According to data from The Philippine Collegian, only 2% of UP students got to study for free since the revision of the former Socialized Tuition and Financial Assistance Program (STFAP) in 2007. All of these while your government looked you in the eye and said the economy is booming.
A booming economy that is unevenly distributed to only the rich — the same people who couldn’t comprehend the weight of your P10,000 tuition as the cause of your untimely death. They will say it’s not their fault they’re rich. It’s also not your fault you’re poor. It is a complex problem, but one that has a simple point: there are laws that should have protected you and a government which should have done more to save you.
And you have some countrymen who may have forgotten that there are still others like you who live and struggle everyday. The government failed you; we failed you.
You and Mariannet and many others like you. I will never, ever forget you, because every time I remember you, I remember my failure as a Filipino.
May we give you justice, dignity. May we find the courage to fight. So no more dreams are shattered. So no more lives are lost. May we never forget that in your passing, we bear the responsibility to live and make sure this tragedy never happens again. It has been a year since you died, but everyday you remind me that there’s so much more to do.
Kristel, you shouldered your battles with depression and poverty alone. Rest in peace, now. We’ll take it from here.
[Entry 40, The SubSelfie Blog]
Editor’s Note: Lian wrote and published this essay online on March 20, 2013 — five days after Kristel Tejada took her own life. Kristel was a 16-year-old Behavioral Science student at the University of the Philippines (UP) Manila. Lian published the original essay last year in Filipino. You can also read it here.
About the Author:
Lian Nami Buan is the Associate Editor of SubSelfie.com. She leads the #SubStory and #TanawMindanao segments of the website. She also produces special reports for State of the Nation with Jessica Soho. She wants to shift focus to human rights, particularly indigenous people, women and migration. Whenever she has money, she travels to collect feelings for writing material. Journalism 2010, UST. Read more of her articles here.