UP Sablay: After 18 Years

by Seneca Moraleda-Puguan

Eighteen years.

This is the number of years Helweena Sadorra, ‘Wennah’, waited before finally wearing the renowned University of the Philippines (UP) Sablay.

Graduating na ako for 18 years. Kung sanggol ang diploma ko, madedebbut na siya this year. Sa department namin, binansagan akong “Student Emeritus.” Kailan daw ba ako ga-graduate?” she wrote.

(I am ‘graduating’ for 18 years. If my diploma was a baby, it would be celebrating her debut this year. In our department, I was labeled as “Student Emeritus.” They are asking when I will graduate.)

These are some of her words in her very long Facebook post that has gone viral. Her story was picked up by different news outlets in the Philippines.

In her post, she listed all the 18 “manna” (God’s provision) that sustained her throughout those years, and she took time to thank all the people who have walked with her and helped her in her journey to graduation.

But Wennah, or Ate Wennah as I call her, is more than just the subject of a story that has gone viral. She is a very close friend of mine.

In fact, we are so close that we shared a bed. We would watch movies together, laugh and cry with each other. Even on my last night of singlehood, she slept beside me.

We were roommates for several years before I went to South Korea. She even stayed with us when she came to visit. I knew her story. I have seen her heartbreaks.

I have witnessed her hard work and persistence amidst all the odds stacked against her. When she announced that she was finally graduating, my heart couldn’t help but rejoice and be proud of her. It was a long delay, but she made it!

Wennah passed the UP-College Entrance Test in 2000 but she entered Cagayan State University because her parents couldn’t afford to send her to Manila. She was able to transfer to UP Diliman in 2001 with the help of her aunt who convinced her father that she could be a working student.

With only 500 pesos in her pocket, Wennah traveled to Manila in summer of 2001. She entered UP with a degree in BA Filipino and later shifted to BA Philippine Studies.

To survive UP, her Tita Neneng paid for her first tuition and blessed her with monthly supplies. To be able to support all her fees, she would apply for different scholarships and would receive help from the church and generous people around her.

She would also help her relatives in the fish market so she could have an extra allowance. While studying, she would also serve as a student assistant in their department, would take different research works for extra funds, and take student loans.

She also served as a Research Assistant, Registration Assistant for the Registrar’s Office and Resident Assistant in UP’s freshmen dorm. Along with this, she even thought of campus governance and running for different positions in the student council.

Along the way, she took on many jobs, both freelance and part-time jobs. From being an invigilator and clerical marker for the British Council to working for the Korean Embassy.

She became a Filipino language tutor to foreigners and was even hired by Star Magic to teach the local language to some famous actors and actresses, including Sam Milby and Catriona Gray (who also became her respondents for her thesis).

She also went to South Korea as an exchange student in 2008. She also became a part of Vice-Presidentiable Kiko Pangilinan’s campaign team during the past elections.

With so many things happening in her life and with the need to provide for herself and help her family, her thesis as the final requirement for graduation has taken a backseat. To confront it was also her biggest fear.

This year was her last chance (after so many appeals) to graduate. With the help of many people around her, her courage, faith and motivation, she pushed for it and the rest was history.

At 40 years old, Wennah received her long-awaited diploma and got to wear the UP Sablay.

She could have given up. She could have let her diploma go. But she didn’t.

She told me that there are people who are criticizing and bashing her saying that UP should have kicked her out. But they are outnumbered by the many people inspired and blessed by her story. Wennah, my Ate Wennah, is an example of what it means to not give up. She makes me really, really proud.

After 222 units enrolled in 30 semesters with summers/midyears, zero failing grades but 13 incompletes, 4 organizations, 3 dormitories and 8 serious crushes who served as her inspiration, in July of 2023, Helweena Barrientos Sadorra finally signed off as a ‘student emeritus’ and was one of the thousands of UP graduates who formally marched the halls of the premiere University of the Philippines for one last time.

In one of her interviews, when asked what her plan is after her graduation, she confidently replied, love life! This is my prayer for her, too.  Now that she’s a graduate, I believe she’s ready for love.

Sunflowers along the stretch of University Avenue in UP Diliman, the state university’s entrance, have been a fixture during graduation season since the 1970s. These flowers symbolize adoration, loyalty, and longevity.

According to Wennah, she would evade going to the university when the sunflowers are in full bloom because it pains her heart. But after 18 years, she finally got to enjoy the sunflowers knowing that these were also for her.

As the sunflowers lift their heads to the sun, Wennah can finally lift her head high and proudly wear her sablay.

To my Ate Wennah, PADAYON! Mabuhay ka!

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