How much agency do you have over the direction of your life?

For the lot of us in the cities, going to school seems like a chore, a part of a routine requirement, a mere segue to realizing our destined purpose. Education, for many, has become a mere stepping stone to better things ahead—achieving a career, a profession, a dream. As it stands, education, alongside the access to growth opportunities, comfort, safety—are but some of the privileges which come naturally for the more fortunate portions of society—and as these privileges become available to more people, the more we fail to see the real value of each. What others consider success is really just an offshoot of privilege.

Indeed, for the privileged, opportunities seem to be a predictable given; and staying on course would eventually lead to success. But, for those who are not so fortunate, predictability leads them somewhere else—not to a plethora of directions for growth, but a choice between a difficult path for self-improvement or one of comfortable stagnation. Staying on-track means staying disadvantaged, so going the extra-mile and choosing the difficult road is the more compelling choice, if one desires growth.

For one Eric Yanoyan from Pagadian City, Zamboanga Del Sur, the choice of path is obvious: it is that which is paved through hard work and grit.

Eric hails from a family of farmers. His formative years were not showered with privilege and social advantages. At 21 years old, he is a college student currently taking up Bachelor of Science in Biology, majoring in Molecular Biology at the Provincial Government College, Cagayan City Campus. For this young man, education is not a mere act of going through the motions, it can very well spell out his socio-economic future.

Eric’s story came into the limelight when he was featured in the Department of Information and Communications Technology’s (DICT) official Facebook page on the 22nd day of November 2019 as a freelance worker who utilized the Free Wi-Fi for All program—which provides free Internet access in public places. Wanting to hear more of his incredible efforts, the team sought him out late last year until we finally got in touch at the beginning of 2020.

Beaming with excitement, Eric met with DICT’s regional staff to tell us his story over the course of a day. As he introduced himself, Eric gave the impression of one who has been through his fair share of troubles, yet emerged stronger for it. His single-minded dedication to succeed opens doors, one of said doors leading him to the training center wherein DICT provided free Wi-Fi hotspots.

We start his story in the middle—the part where he is still arriving at the answers, where the questions are still demanding to be answered. The primary concern that takes center stage in his struggle is making ends meet as a working student.

“Life in the city is very difficult especially when you don’t have a job. As a student, I am really encouraged to work hard to mitigate the burden of my parents,” Eric asserted.It is no brainer that to obtain a Bachelor’s degree costs an arm and a leg for lower income class families. Matriculation fees, library fees, computer lab fees, textbooks, lodging and meal costs often outweigh the determination of the student to complete tertiary education. Bearing this in mind, as a first-year college student, Eric decided to engage in freelance work to earn extra income to supplement his parent’s financial support for his educational endeavors. 

Luckily for Eric, the DICT has set up Free Wi-Fi hotspots that are available for public use in various strategic areas. He first started using the service during his first year in college to comply with school requirements. Eventually, realizing its economic potential and banking on the free Internet connection, Eric worked as a part time teacher in a private tutorial center during his first year of college. Shortly after, he worked as a freelancer in an online shop, before proceeding to take on the role of an Instagram marketing associate from May 2019 to December 2019.

“At first, I didn’t know that freelancers are allowed to stay inside the office—all I know was that people were allowed to access the Wi-Fi…so at first I only stayed outside…until my friend told me we’re allowed to stay inside, allowed to sleep, and allowed to use the facilities 24/7,” Eric laughed as he narrated his earlier experiences with the program.

Even with this lucky break, the life of a working student is no walk in the park. A normal weekday for Eric starts at around 8 in the morning when his classes start until noon. Afterwards, post-lunch break, he uses his spare time to work on his online jobs. Balancing the demands of school and work requires tireless dedication—a commitment to succeed on both fronts.

There is no shortage of commitment for Eric. He narrates his story with barely a hint of exasperation for his less than ideal situation. In fact, he is thankful for the opportunities afforded to him by the Free Wi-Fi for All program. He credits the significant role of the same in all his work. He claims that it offers better performance than pocket Wi-Fi as it allows for faster online transactions. It is also a more economical option, as before his use of mobile data cost him a lot of money.

“My 2 years of experience as a student here in Pagadian city is very fascinating, however I still experience difficulties, that is why when I undergo a lot of jobs, my burden is being mitigated. So I can say that if you are going to work hard, if you are determined, everything will be okay.”

Soon after becoming a regular user of free Wi-Fi, Eric often brought his fellow students to access free Internet inside the training center. He said that his friend group was grateful for the opportunity to access the Internet 24/7. When taking a break from his work, he also uses Internet to research information for papers or theses required during the course of his studies.

Eric’s story helped us realize the unseen impact of government efforts at providing fast and reliable Internet connection to the public, free of charge. It is a glimpse into a life made easier through DICT’s efforts at providing quality public service. For his part, Eric also recognizes the effect of the program on his professional development.

“I want to thank DICT for the free access to Wi-Fi connection. I utilized it for almost 9 months. It has really helped me to bridge the gap of my needs, especially towards my studies,” Eric expressed his appreciation for the Free Wi-Fi for All Program.

Eric’s stint, however, was cut short when he was diagnosed with pulmonary disease late last year. As Eric is currently taking medication for his ailment, he is focusing on his studies for now. His doctor recommended prolonged rest for recovery. He plans to continue freelance work after his full recovery, and he asserts that he will once again use DICT’s offer of free Wi-Fi. We believe that this setback is nowhere near the end of his story, and the future can only bring bright and wonderful things.

This is a tale we told about the middle, and one we’re willing to see through till the end. The Free Wi-Fi for All has over 5 million users across Metro Manila, 77 provinces, and 782 localities as of November 2019. These figures are not mere statistics—these represent a person, who, like Eric Yanoyan, grinds daily for a dream, like Eric Yanoyan, perseveres to pursue growth.

Eric’s struggle and triumph is one that is uniquely his and recognizably ours. These scenes from his life show a portion of a world known mostly to the working class—those who live and continuously adapt to the expanding digital landscape.

While there’s not much we can do about the inherent privileges or about the social conditions we are born into, we are afforded a choice, especially now more than ever, through ICT. Access is a factor that levels the playing field for people who wish to try their chances with digital jobs.

Eric Yanoyan’s drive to succeed as a working student reveals the adaptability of the modern Filipino to tackle age-old challenges by taking advantage of evolving digital opportunities. His story proves that opportunity is given to those willing to seek it.

ICT gives us more control over our lives by creating more opportunities in the digital economy, allowing us to afford the cost of making choices. ICT similarly enables us to surmount the inequalities caused by privilege by making digital opportunities equally accessible to all.