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Head to Head: OPRES bets Alex Brotonel, Jasmine Paras vows ‘back-to-basics’, ‘inclusive’ efforts in assessing student needs

At the cusp of the 2021 General Elections, Alex Brotonel of Alyansang Tapat sa Lasallista and independent candidate Jasmine Paras both received discriminatory remarks about their mental health. One was vying for the position of college assembly president for the College of Education Government, and the other was fielded as a candidate for the vice president for external affairs position—only to back out before the campaign period. 

After a year, both return to show the student body that one’s disability does not equate to one’s passion for service. 

The LaSallian: Both of you were involved in various projects that the USG (University Student Government) has conducted over the past few years. How have your experiences prepared you for taking on the USG president position?

Jasmine Paras (Independent): One thing that has really prepared me to become USG [president] was my position as director for Student’s Rights and Welfare both for Office of the President and FAST2019…during [former USG president] Maegan Ragudo’s time. I was able to learn about how to become more consultative towards the students as well as how to lobby for policies that will greatly benefit the students…Kasi even though we can create a lot of policies [on] our own, it requires a lot of consultation as well which is something that I greatly value in my leadership. 

Alex Brotonel (Tapat): Bilang two-time elected in one of the smallest batches in the University and also being a college president in the smallest college in the University, a lot of people might see [me] as [at] a disadvantage, because hindi naman ako [galing sa college na] kasing laki ng CLA or COB. But as a student activist and a hopeful educator, nakikita ko ‘to as an edge. Because of those experiences, I was able to become a personal leader. Natuto ako makipagtao-sa-taoNauunawaan ko ang mga bagay in different perspectives; nakikita ko siya sa iba’t-ibang lente ng estudyante. And of course, that allows me to come up with pros to the agenda that I will bring in the [USG] as their [executive] president.

The LaSallian: What programs do you intend to prioritize once you step into office?

Paras: One of the things that I intend on prioritizing is really ensuring our right to accessible education. With my past three years of working in the USG, I have realized that although they don’t have a lot of resources themselves, there are a lot of external institutions that are partnered with the USG that are more than willing to help. And through this I was hoping and planning to partner with these external institutions and organizations to create more scholarships, grants, as well as subsidized fees. 

Because of the tuition fee increase, as well as inflation and the additional costs of the hybrid setup, we are starting to realize how financially taxing [it] is going to school every day in comparison to the past two years….I would like to be able to provide them with more scholarships, grants when it comes to their thesis, possibly equipment, and other grants that they would need, as well as subsidized transportation, and especially medical costs…for the safety of everyone as well as for education to be more accessible for everyone.

Brotonel: Meron akong three-point agenda for a pro-student education and experience. Una dito ay [i-lobby] natin ang compassionate academic policies…We want to remove failure due to absences since attendance does not equate to learning…[and] the mandate that allows professors to require students to turn on the cameras during online learning. Kelangan natin tandaan na not all students are in equal privilege to have a conducive learning space at home. 

Ang ating second agenda naman to establish comprehensive learning modality guidelines…Kelangan natin ‘yon gawin to ensure that students’ [demands] are forwarded. Also, we want to create these learning modality guidelines para ang University at ang [USG] ay hindi mangangapa kapag may shift to any learning modality. Kasi ‘pag nangapa ang University, ‘pag nangapa ang [USG], sino ba ang talo? ‘Yung estudyante

Third is [to] support [the] security of students in a multi-faceted approach…One is improve [the] SOGIESC policy…Ang gusto ay allow students to use their lived and preferred names and pronouns in their DLSU emails and their Canvas (Animospace) accounts, apply it in the graduation rates, apply in the ID system of the University, and soon apply a comprehensive sexuality education in the Lasallian curriculum. As for the health response…a proactive and responsive COVID-19 response. Gusto po natin magkaroon ng strict COVID-19 contact tracing procedures. And also, one of the things that I would be proud to lobby is that add ay COVID-19 health coverage in our pre-existing insurance, para magamit naman ng mga estudyante na pwede nilang makapitan ang insurance na binabayaran nila termly for these types of accidents or sickness. 

The LaSallian: As the highest position in the USG, what will be your approach in gauging the needs of the entire student body?

Brotonel: We acknowledge na napakahirap magpagawa ng napakaraming surveys ngayon since we do not get the commitment of the students to answer [so] many lengthy surveys. So, ibabalik natin ang student census…para derive na lang ng derive ang [USG] ng information para sa mga rushed or prompt policies, for example, nagkaroon ng bagyo [o] kailangan ng academic easing.

Second is [to] have a continuous dialogue with different student sectors in the University and doon natin makikita ang totoong problema ng bawat student sector. Naniniwala ako that the Executive Board (EB) and the Executive Committee (EXECOM) [under my leadership] will practice a bottom-to-top approach. The USG will not assume kung ano kinakailangan ng mga estudyante, but will rather listen and consult them for any policies that we have in mind for a pro-student agenda. 

Paras: I believe that one thing that is important when it comes to lobbying for policies, as well as initiatives for the students, [is] representation in data…It’s one thing to disseminate surveys and all that but now that we’re in a hybrid setup, it’s so much easier now to get to know [the] students…As USG leaders from being elected and appointed or even as someone who just applied to become a member of the USG…we should be able to approach them, talk to them, ask about their experience so that we’re able to create a genuine connection with the student body. 

Not only that…one of the things that I wish to do is to further empower the commissions. Current USG [president] Giorgina Escoto established a commission which represents a lot of different minority groups here in the University. One of the things that they wish to do is to empower these commissions to become more community-empowered…It’s very important that we’re able to represent different minority groups within the University because they also have unique circumstances, they also have unique needs that need to be addressed within the University [dahil] madalas, it’s either nahihirapan tayo maglobby ng initiatives for them or there are needs na nakakaligtaan natin. 

The LaSallian: With the return to full face-to-face classes nearing, how do you plan to ease the transition of learning modalities for students?

Paras: In order to ease the learning modalities of students…[the] first thing that we definitely have to do is to address ano na nga ba ‘yung mga additional concerns ng students ngayon…So first, we need to recognize ‘yung mga problemang unresolved back from 2019–back from 2020–na hindi naresolve dahil nagkaroon ng pandemiya

Pangalawa, tignan natin ‘yung mga bagong challenges ng students ngayon na may inflation, ngayon na may tuition fee increase, ngayon na bago na rin ang presidenteTayong mga students, gusto lang natin mag-aral. We just want to graduate, we just want to pursue the chosen career paths we have. But unfortunately, it requires a lot of money…Sobrang nadidismaya ako as a student because accessible education is our right and..I hope I’ll be able to support the student body with scholarships and grants that will make pursuing education much easier and lighter for them.

Brotonel: Unang-una, naniniwala tayo sa data-driven learning modality guidelines na gagawin ng USG EB and EXECOM once I [am] seated as their USG president. Aside from that, I could personally see to help students transition…is to acknowledge that there are still students who can’t afford face-to-face classes. Hence, hybrid or [pure online learners] should still be a considerable option for students to take for certain courses. Case in point, may mga students na ang pamilya ay takot pa rin sa COVID-19, may mga pamilya na mas namamahalan ang expenses for face to face classes. 

I’d just like to echo ‘yung sinabi ni Jazz na education is a right. Kaya ilalaban talaga ng [USG EB] na tanggalin ang tuition fee increase. Gusto kong sabihin na we had a 3-percent increase. And ano ang mga natanggap ng mga estudyante? Kadalasan, kapalpakan mula sa administration and that’s not something reasonable, not something justifiable.

The LaSallian: With the increase in red-tagging of previous groups and youth leaders, what measures will you enact to ensure student safety within and beyond the vicinity?

Paras: One of the things that I found challenging as I [went] through my many years of leadership is that feeling [of being] alone in the fight, which is why with the red-tagging and all that, I want to ensure that there are protocols in place that will make sure that students feel safe within the University, feel safe in expressing their views, feel safe in expressing their views, whether it be about the University or even about the national government…I want to make sure that we have better anti red-tagging protocols in place to make sure that each student feels safe on airing these views, at least within the University, and that they know that there are institutions that are more than willing to support them.

Brotonel: I will re-lobby and improve the Anti Red-tagging Policy, and also conduct a partnership with DLSU Law Clinic to provide legal support and representation for students whenever necessary…Another policy pala is together with our [Legislative Assembly], ilalaban natin ang campus journalism protection…You have my commitment that I will fight and I will work with different offices to allot a democratic space in our University…that space is free for students to mobilize and protest during nationwide mobilization days. In terms sa gagawin natin sa labas, we want to first lobby a nationwide youth agenda with Samahang Lasalyano…and second is, of course, support our student [activists] and kahit yung mga hindi student activists pero gustong ma-try mag-mobilize, you have my utmost commitment that I will fight to provide logistical support, and allow you to borrow mobilization related equipment, from the University and from the [USG].

The LaSallian: During last year’s general elections, you were both scrutinized on social media for your supposed inability to lead due to mental health concerns. Do you have plans on redefining the stigmas around mental health as USG president?

Brotonel: I believe that time and time again naman leaders like me and Jazz continuously bounce back from that stigma, and show the whole University that students with mental health disorders are not something you should be afraid of in terms of anything. Lalo na makakaasa kayo na we move forward the pro-student agenda…Unang una, gusto po nating itaas ito sa LCIDWell (Lasallian Center of Inclusion, Diversity and Wellbeing) to actually have sustainable projects regarding mental health. Gusto po nating ma-bridge yung learning gap or knowledge gap ng mga estudyante [to show] that mental health problems [are] not something that dapat dini-discriminate or tinitingnan ng mababaw. Pangalawa naman ng gusto natin is to strengthen the routinary counselings na nangyayari sa ating pamantasan…Third is, of course, I understand the lack of other mental health professionals in the University so…ilalaban po natin ang gumawa ng network of volunteers psychologists na para maging 24/7 on-call for the students.

Paras: First and foremost, campaign on mental health…I want to be able to put that information out there kung ano nga ba ang various illnesses that we may or may not know na nag-eexist sa ating mundo ngayon when it comes to our mental health, how to help ourselves and reassure the students, reassure each individual na makakakita ng post ng USG that it is okay to not be okay. The second thing that I wish to do in order to combat the stigma on mental health is really provide the students [with] more support with their mental health needs naman. One of the things that the USG has been attempting to lobby for is definitely to have more mental health counselors, more mental health professionals within the University…One more thing that I’d like to add is a review on the grievance systems and the policies…It will be a system wherein the students are able to air their grievances, and you know, be able to either resolve the differences with one another or to be able hold other people accountable of what has happened to them.

The LaSallian: What are your thoughts on the Safe Spaces Act and its implementation? Do you think it should be revisited?

Paras: You know, since 2019, we’ve made so much progress with the Safe Spaces Act. We were able to negotiate or collaborate with the admins in the creation of LCIDWell na mas tumutugon talaga dito sa safe space issue within the University. But [with] recent issues, and now na bumabalik tayo sa face-to-face classes, narerealize natin na meron pa rin talagang lapses when it comes to the Safe Spaces Act, especially when it comes to, first and foremost, ensuring the safety of students and in their gender expression, ensuring na each student has the resources to learn more about SOGIE (Sexual Orientation, Gender Identity and Expression)Just like what I mentioned earlier, as well with the safe spaces, we need more protocols on how to address grievances of discrimination. Kasi I think ‘yun ‘yung one thing na nagkukulang ngayon, hindi alam ng student body kung saan sila pupunta when they feel like they have been discriminated against, whether it be by another student, by a professor or by just another member of the University.

Brotonel: Yes, it should be revisited, and second, it should be improved…Dapat magkaroon ulit ng survey or FGDs (Focus Group Discussions) and sectoral dialogues to gauge kung ano yung mga hindi na-enjoy ng mga estudyanteng stipulation under that…I believe ang pinaka-pagkukulang talaga sa Safe Spaces Act ay the implementation from some students and also from the administrators. Mahirap kasi minsan na sa sarili nating classroom, pakiramdam ng mga estudyante ay hindi sila sarili nila, hindi sila ligtas…A lot of students namimisgender parin sila. A lot of students feel unsafe when they tap their IDs kasi lumalabas ang dead name nila…It’s very grave for everyone’s safety, and those are things that we aim to improve para ma-improve din yung implementation ng safe spaces.

The LaSallian: What kind of University do you envision under your term?

Brotonel: A University that sees students as the most important stakeholder…If na-recognize ng Pamantasang De La Salle na ang pinakaimportanteng stakeholder ang mga estudyante, magtutuloy-tuloy ang paglaban natin for pro-student agenda. Tuloy-tuloy ang pag-lobby sa mga polisiya para ipabuti at ipaayos ang buhay ng ating mga mag-aaral sa loob ng pamantasan. What you can expect naman in the [USG] under my presidency is back to basics tayo. Wala po ako dito para magbigay ng impressive and out-of-this-world projects para mapangangara ang ating mga estudyante, but rather show my commitment that I will strive to solve the long-standing problems of the student body, kagaya sa enlistment, sa safe spaces, sa security in attaining Lasallian education.

Paras: Under my term, I envision a University that is truly inclusive and progressive…Ngayon na bumabalik tayo sa face-to-face classes, narerealize natin may accessibility issues pala tayo sa University when it comes to people with disabilities o hindi pala masyadong student-friendly ang approval absence ng University…Maybe before, hindi pa natin narerecognize yung problems nito, pero ngayon narerecognize natin na, una sa lahat, hindi masyado (sic) diverse ang food options natin sa University—hindi siya inclusive of everyone na baka vegetarian sila, baka they need halal food…Pangalawa, the buildings aren’t accessible, and not all buildings as well is fit for learning…We have to make sure that each member of the community, of the Lasallian community, is seen, heard, valued and cared for, and we’re able to address their unique needs here in the University.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.

By Magz Chin

By Sophia De Jesus

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