The student in the boardroom

by J. Mikhail Solitario, UP MPRO

On her first Board of Regents (BOR) meeting, Student Regent Ma. Shari Niña G. Oliquino admitted her overwhelming anxiety. UP President Danilo Concepcion turned to her and asked her for a few words. Commission on Higher Education Chairperson Patricia Licuanan then prompted her to discuss a student issue.Shari took the chance to inquire about the tuition collection policy of the University. This helped her realize that while she now had the task to put student issues on the table, it was not an impossible task after all. 

In the past, according to Shari, only a student observer was allowed inside meetings of the Board of Regents, the highest policy-making body of the University. The student observer could raise student concerns during discussions but he or she had no voting power. Eventually, the Katipunan ng mga Sangguniang Mag-aaral sa UP campaigned for genuine student representation with voting power in the BOR, to participate more directly in crafting policies affecting students. Today, the Student Regent represents the biggest constituency in the entire UP system. (The BOR also includes a Faculty and a Staff Regent.)

Oliquino believes that the Office of the Student Regent is crucial in light of the signing of Republic Act 10931 or the Universal Access to Quality Tertiary Education Act, which grants free tuition and other subsidies to qualified undergraduate students in state universities and colleges. She sees obstacles remaining for students of law and medicine, as well as those struggling academically. She asserts that education is a right to be enjoyed by all regardless of socioeconomic status, and hopes for the support of all UP students from Baguio to Mindanao, knowing she can’t possibly succeed in her advocacy alone.

SR Oliquino takes her oath before members of the Board of Regents- University President Danilo Concepcion and CHED Chairperson Patricia Licuanan. (Photo from SR Ma. Shari Niña G. Oliquino)

Accepting the challenge

Asked what made her decide to accept her nomination as Student Regent from UP Mindanao, her response was short: “I didn’t even think twice about it.” Graduating with honors with a degree in Broadcast Communication from the College of Mass Communication in Diliman, she could have taken a break from being a student leader from her grade school days in the UP Integrated School (UPIS).

But in the midst of an intensifying campaign for free education, she couldn’t refuse the call. “I wasn’t going to do it for myself, and serving my fellow students had become my passion, so why not?” she added.

Shari considers former Student Regent and human rights lawyer Krissy Consti as her model. Shari admires Krissy’s boldness in staging mobilizations all by herself even before other students had assembled in the Palma Hall lobby. Conti was also instrumental in the recent release of Maricon Montajes, a Film student and political prisoner.

While her dreams of being a lawyer like Conti remain intact, Shari also recognizes former Student Regents as mentors in addressing multiple and sometimes simultaneous concerns from eight constituent units in the University.

During the selection of this year’s Student Regent at the UP Visayas Miag-ao campus through the General Assembly of Student Councils (GASC), Oliquino presented her vision for forging unity among students in sustaining campaigns. As she went around the System, she saw more specific problems, such as huts being used as men’s dormitories in UPV Tacloban. She also stressed the need to preserve UP’s public character by ensuring that idle assets are used for academic and research purposes. She called for unity with other members of the UP community, such as the manininda(vendors) and ordinary employees, recalling an exchange during the GASC where a representative of UPV’s College of Fisheries and Ocean Sciences drew attention to the concerns of fisherfolk.

What’s work like for the Student Regent? After scheduling and prior to leading student summits for Luzon, Visayas, and Mindanao spread across September and October, Oliquino takes care of requests for interviews, especially on free education. She also meets with student councils regularly, apart from the monthly BOR meetings.

Starting young

Oliquino traces her roots in student-leadership to her formative years in UPIS. She characterized UPIS education as “progressive,” where they were taught societal issues such as the disparity between the country’s natural resources and levels of poverty. She vividly remembers an Araling Panlipunan class where her teacher drew a can of gasoline with wings and strings tied to basic goods attached to the can.

At a young age, she was exposed to issues that had to be discussed within the University. She served as president of the Grade 3-6 and Grade 7-10 councils. She used what she learned in her History classes as joined UP campus politics, moving from classroom to classroom and consulting student organizations about projects, events, and services.

SR Oliquino joins a USC mobilization in her days as an undergraduate student leader. (Photo from SR Ma. Shari Niña G. Oliquino)

When she entered UP, Oliquino held key leadership positions in her organizations such as the UP Broadcasters’ Guild and UP Beta Sigma Ladies Corps. As early as her freshman year, she was asked to run for the University Student Council (USC), but she declined. After a year, she ran twice for the same position and won, ranking fourth among 12 councilors. She eventually headed the USC Committee on Students’ Rights and Welfare. The major difference, according to her, was that party lines are drawn more sharply in university politics than in UPIS politics.

Holding the position of Student Regent is a different challenge as the SR should be a unifying, rather than dividing, force among students, and is expected to be more inclusive and more consultative. A bigger challenge lies the dynamics between the SR and members of the BOR who are mostly administrators, legislators, and Malacañang appointees.

Moving forward

Looking back on what her term has accomplished so far, Shari considers the signing of the free education law a leap forward and the fruit of years of student activism from campaigning in the streets to lobbying. However, she warns that the movement must not rest for the fight is far from over until all mechanisms to make students pay cease to exist.

She is currently enrolled in the Master in Community Development program in the College of Social Work and Community Development, believing it to be the best program for her to be able to integrate with communities. “If we want genuine social change, we need to fight alongside other sectors.”

In eventually pursuing law studies, she aspires to become a people’s lawyer who will expose and oppose the system by freeing political prisoners, upholding human rights, and strengthening the mass movement. She envisions her legacy to be the actualization of free tuition after decades of struggle. At the same time, she wants to be remembered as an approachable and accessible Student Regent. “I never want to be too far from my constituents!”