Friday, January 21, 2011


There are few institutions that can match the University of Santo Tomas (UST) – Asia’s oldest university, renown for its doctors and artists, steep in history.

It kicks off a year-long quadricentennial celebration this month.

Last month, a small group of alumni led by husband-and-wife Thomasians, Drs. Rey and Zorayda Lee-Llacer, formally launched the UST Alumni Association in America (USTAAA) in the DC suburb of Arlington, Virginia to time with the celebrations.

The Pontifical and Royal University of Santo Tomas (named in honor of its patron, St. Thomas Aquinas) was established on April 28, 1611.

That’s antedated, according to some accounts, by the death of Manila Archbishop Miguel de Buenavides in 1605 who bequeathed his personal property for the establishment of an institution of higher earning; but the process of getting King Phillip III's blessings for the new college and bringing his royal decree back to Manila took 6 years.

The sprawling campus seems to have shrunk over the years as more structures were constructed – it is one of the largest universities in terms of enrolment (about 38,000).

Her teeming community is perhaps more representative of Filipino society – not as elitist as UP or as exclusive as DLSU or as proletarian as UE, perhaps.

The UST community is, for the lack of a better definition – middle class. It’s a microcosm of the Filipino youth.

In my brief stint there, we studied under the belief that UST somehow drew “average” students and turned them into outstanding professionals.

It has produced four presidents (Manuel L. Quezon, Sergio Osmena, Jose P. Laurel and Diosdado Macapagal); six Supreme Court Chief Justices; countless doctors and nurses; 18 national artists in architecture, literature, music, theater and visual arts (and one national scientist); newsmen and pundits; bankers and athletes; and yes, nine saints.

There was something about UST that leaves the impression – at least where we were concerned – that one would get a truly rounded education.

The campus is self-contained with a choice of fast-food establishments, stores and even boasts of one of Manila’s top-notch hospitals.

But for students on evening classes, the lure of watering holes and aroma of grilling barbecue along Dapitan and its lively side streets sometimes prove more powerful than the Dominican’s admonition against doomed souls and we find ourselves on an entirely different kind of discovery.

The UST campus is uniquely situated in the heart of Manila.

We subscribe to the belief you are not a bona fide Thomasian unless you’ve experienced wading through the flood waters along Espana or Dapitan or Gov. Forbes.

Or tried slowly walking the top floor of the main building after the lights have been switched off and past the cadavers medical students use for their anatomy lessons.

During World War II, the Japanese converted the campus into a concentration camp where they reportedly abused, tortured and occasionally executed their prisoners. Hunting for ghosts was a virtual rite of passage for freshmen, at least when we were there.

Sadly, we never got to share in the glory of the Growling Tigers. In our time, they were likely still cubs.

There are plans to open satellite campuses in Santa Rosa, Laguna and General Santos City in Mindanao.

It will be a grand 400th year birthday celebration for this unique learning institution.

For those who’ve walked her quiet sidewalks, drew valuable lessons in and out her classrooms or just lounged under the shade of that old tree outside the ArtLets building, UST leaves a lot of good memories.

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