It was around this time last year when I lined up outside the UP School of Economics building along with the rest of the UP Law hopefuls as our temperatures were checked before taking the Law Aptitude Exam. Little did we know that one week later, classes would be suspended, and the first of a series of lockdowns would begin.
By the time the list of passers came out, my husband had already been furloughed. He was one of the many employees affected when the travel and hospitality industries took a severe beating. After completing the two-week preparatory program implemented in lieu of the interview screening, I saw my name in the final list of passers. I was both thrilled and worried. I had written in my application that I would not be needing financial assistance, never expecting that things would change drastically in just a few months. It was a good thing I was included among those who qualified for the UP Law Scholarship.
I have heard many stories of the difficulties that await the freshman law student: the voluminous readings, nerve-wracking recitations, handwritten digests, and long exams under time pressure. But I was not prepared to face all of these while trying to adjust to life during a pandemic. Instead of going to school for our separate classes, I have had to share internet bandwidth with my two sons in high school, and go through connection issues, either on my end or my professor’s. I had to endure my discomfort of being on camera for two-hour classes. I had to choose between missing my class or a Parent-Teacher meeting. I was teaching my sons, while working on my own studies. It felt good, however, when I could help them understand the 1987 Constitution and other political issues for their Social Science subject by sharing my learnings from our classes.
My first semester was truly a semester of firsts. It was the first time I attended classes without setting foot on campus, without meeting any of my teachers in person, and without getting to spend time with my blockmates. It did not help that I was the lone mature student in the block (my student number was older than my classmates’ birth dates!). This was a different kind of connection issue. But throughout the semester, I have come to appreciate my blockmates’ intelligence, drive and humor. I was also older than most of my teachers. But I was inspired by the breadth of their knowledge and experience, as well as their passion for teaching, despite their busy schedules.
It was also the first time, in my years of undergraduate and graduate studies, that I felt inadequate. Enduring humiliation during a bad recitation was extra painful because it happened in my own home. In the past, I could disassociate from an unpleasant school experience and shake it off once I step out of the classroom and go to Sunken Garden to commiserate with friends, or once I reach home and see my family. This is harder to do with the online setup where private and public spaces are blurred. I did learn a few things: to accept the ambiguities of life (such as spending all night reading cases only to be called on the one case you did not read) and to not be reduced as someone cuts you down to size by having a balanced perspective and an unshakeable belief in oneself.
Adjusting to law school and to the new normal, worrying about my family’s health (I had lost my aunt in New York to COVID-19, and my sister is a medical frontliner), and helping my children adjust, left me overwhelmed at times. I was sorely tempted to give up before the semester was over, especially after three members of our block gave up their slots a few days to a week after classes had started. During a low moment, I decided to send a message to the Mental Wellness helpline of the College. I received words of comfort and encouragement from one of the volunteer professors. He said that law school will be more difficult for me with my additional responsibilities, the age gap with the majority of students, and the years since I last attended school, but “these challenges are not insurmountable.” I realized that I would not have been given this opportunity if I were not meant to use it to help others in the future. I have the chance to go through this hardship and see what I can become on the other side of it. My grandfather, who had just turned 100 last December, was happy to hear that I was following in his footsteps. I think of him, my family, and the people I wish to help in the future when things get rough.
The semester lasted for about three months, but I have learned so much in a short span of time: constitutional law, our criminal and civil laws, legal bibliography, statutory construction, and legal history, where I saw how laws were used to create injustice and to settle a score. There was some disillusionment because the more I learned about laws, the more I realized how many people do not uphold the rules that are supposed to guide one’s conduct. But there are cases which have given me reason to hope: good does prevail, eventually.
A new semester has just begun, and I am already feeling the weight of the workload. It will certainly be more difficult than the first (with a 5-unit subject, no less), but I will take each day as it comes and face new challenges, armed with lessons from my mistakes, and buoyed by my love for learning, as well as the support of my family and friends. Self-doubt, exhaustion and loneliness will return, but I will overcome them, keeping in mind that I can never be defined by my age or my grades, just by how I use my abilities. Someday, when face-to-face classes are finally allowed, I can look forward to acquainting myself with Malcolm Hall, my classmates and teachers, and fully savor this unique, life-changing experience that is law school.