Graduating with distinction

published on March 24, 2013 - MST 

Sarwell fits his graduation cap and gown days before the ceremony.
Photo from the FB page of his classmate, Rorie Reyes Fajardo. 
Sarwell Meniano’s three-year-old daughter is excited. It will be her first time to ride an airplane. She will be travelling from Tanauan, Leyte to Manila to witness her father’s graduation ceremony on Saturday, March 29. Sarwell will be obtaining his MA in Journalism from Ateneo de Manila University as a fellow of the Konrad Adenauer Asian Center for Journalism.
Obtaining a graduate degree—and on full scholarship at that—is a feat in itself. But Sarwell’s real achievement transcends the academic. In November 2013, Sarwell and his family went missing for days. Their coastal town was severely battered by typhoon Yolanda. They, like millions of other Filipinos in the central Philippines, nearly lost everything they had.
Sarwell and his townmates heard about the coming typhoon days before it made landfall, receiving ample warning as far as the wind speed was concerned. The possibility of a “storm sturge” was also mentioned in the Regional Disaster Risk Reduction and Management meetings, “but there was no explanation from anyone that it is like a tsunami.”
As early as noon on November 7, he made sure that his wife and child were in a nearby Latter-Day Saints building, which received evacuees, Mormon or not. Sarwell stayed home to write his stories but soon followed his family, making sure they had a 72-hour emergency kit.
On Friday, November 8, everybody woke up to very strong winds. The winds soon opened the locked doors and shook the building. Part of the roof was blown away. Sarwell and family were hiding under a table when they noticed that the seawater had seeped into the building, and that it was getting higher, fast. He carried his child, stepped on anything he could step on to climb to the ceiling, and clung to the beams.
When the water receded, Sarwell realized the extent of the devastation. “In our village, about 200 people perished, and in our town, there are about 1,500 dead bodies retrieved. Some went missing for more than a month...I will never forget the smell of death.”
On the sixth day, Sarwell walked 24 miles to a town near Tacloban just to be able to text his sister in Manila and tell her that they had survived.
His Ateneo classmates and instructors chipped in to raise funds for Sarwell and his family.  He was able to go to Cebu to get a laptop, pocket wifi and food suplies. At that time, banks and shops were still closed. He also brought a bicycle so he could go from Tanauan to Tacloban and back. On the last week of November, Sarwell started filing stories again. He was eager to get back to work to recover what Yolanda had taken from him and his family. 
When Yolanda struck, Sarwell was on his last semester of graduate school, the one devoted to writing the Masters Project. Two days before the storm, he proposed a thesis topic on community broadcasting even as he was still unsure of how to go about finishing his paper.
The effects of the disaster took their toll on Sarwell’s ability to cope with academic demands. The MA program—designed for practicing journalists all over Asia—had an online platform which students had to check regularly for readings, assignments, discussions, and deadlines. Sarwell was not able to log into the system for two months. After Yolanda, finishing his MP was just not a priority anymore. 
That is, until he interviewed a 13-yearold boy whose entire family had died because of the storm, but who returned to school in January anyway to fulfill his dream of becoming a soldier. That is, too, when his daughter talked about the prospect of riding an airplane for the first time.
Sarwell knew he had to catch up, and fast. He recast his proposal so that he would now study how Yolanda—Haiyan—was framed in the local and international media, finding out that the Philippine Daily Inquirer highlighted the politics angle while the New York Times dealt with the disaster response angle.
Working on the paper was not easy. There was no electricity in Tanauan. Sarwell used a borrowed car battery, charging it for P80 good for two nights’ computer use. During the day he went to the city, downloading materials after writing some stories for the newspaper. Back at home, he made do with solar lamps to read whatever her had downloaded and write his thesis, well into the wee hours.
“What really helped me was the absence of online distractions like Facebook...I stayed focused on reading and writing.”
This back-to-the-basics mode is one of the lessons Sarwell has gained from the whole Yolanda experience. “One thing I learned after Yolanda is that we can live a simple life...I also realized that we had been keeping a lot of things in our house that we didn’t really need.”
He continues to look at the positive side by saying that after everything, “the storm brought us a lot of opportunities. For journalists, there are lot of interesting stories to write. For carpenters, there are lot of houses to build and rebuild. For hotels, there are lots of guests to accommodate. For poor people, it’s time to replace palm roofing with GI sheets. Those who couldn’t afford to buy 3 kilograms of rice in a day before the storm; they have now sacks of rice in house from the government and humanitarian groups.”
A life-altering experience like Yolanda would be enough to shatter the most optimistic person. But not the many people in the Visayas, and certainly not Sarwell. On Saturday, he will proudly march to get his diploma. He plans to keep doing what he is doing as a local journalist in his hometown, armed now with the theories and insights from his studies, and perhaps even teach part-time at his college alma mater.
We hear many disheartening stories about what happened in the Visayas during and after the typhoon. Sarwell’s journey reminds us that there remain pockets of good news and success stories worth telling, and learning from.