Sister Mary Emily—building the ‘builders’

By Zubeida Mustafa

“IT is a wonderful thing to work with young people,” says the Principal of the St. Josenh’s Government College for Women. “What thrills me most,” she continues, ”is the awareness I have that I am helping to build the builders of tomorrow.”

Any one who has studied at St. Joseph’s can understand her feelfngs fully for every student of the college has heard the principal speak again and again about what the goal of college education should be. She repeatedly emphasises that a college should prepare its students to face life as mature and responsible adults.


St. Joseph’s has changed in many ways over the years. The building, although the basic structure remains the same, has been expanded in some places. And, of course, the enrolment has grown phenomenally.

There are many many more students around clad in white. The teachers, barring a few exceptions, are no longer the same. But the ideals and principles the College stands for remain unchanged mainly because its affairs have been presided over with great dedication by the same individual for twenty years. And that is Sister Mary Emily.

When Sister speaks of the various problems the College faces or about education generally, she speaks with a wealth of experience behind her.

Before she became Principal of the College, she had been the Vice-Principal for four years. But that is not all. A double MA, in English and Economics, she had already been teaching for sixteen years in Calcutta before she came to Karachi in 1907.


Speaking about the nationalisatin of colleges in September 1972, Sister Emily recalls how the St. Joseph’s survived the experiment in ‘egalitarianism’, as she calls it. From 1100, the College enrolment jumped up to 1400 overnight (it is 1752 now). The extra 300 students, especially in the science section, put unprecedented pressure on the teachers as well as the classrooms and laboratory facilities available.

Initially there were many problems to be tackled, some classes had to stay on late in the evening to cope with practicals which were arranged in shifts.

But things are not that bad now for more accommodation has been provided. But the pressure of t he large number of students the College has to admit remains. This has affected the standard of education the College can offer, Sister feels.

She is, however, quite satisfied with the admission policy which obliges her to admit students entirely on merit. Thus, she says, she gets the cream of the students and the College need not admit anyone who does not qualify.

Sister Emily points out that under the new system the teachers are in some wavs better off. Their pay scales have been improved they have better career prospects since they can even end up as principals of degree colleges. Their leave regulations are more generous. But nationalisation has brought problems in its wake.

The principal of St. Joseph’s College points out that some of the gains which have accrued to the teachers and parents have been offset by other disadvantages. Thus the growing inflation and the decreased spending power of money has left the teachers really not much better off than what they were before, in spite of their enhanced salaries.


As for the parents they have certainly gained in terms of fees. Ihey now have to pay only Rs.15 (science) and Rs. 10 (humanities) per month for their daughter’s college education instead of Rs. 35 and Rs. 30 of the pre-nationalisation days.

But given the limited financial resources available, the College cannot impart the same quality of instruction as before. As a result there are many parents spending as much as Rs. 200 to Rs. 400 per month on private tutors. Sister Mary Emily understands the difficulties faced by the Education Department, but then she also has her own problems.


Thus according to rules no substitute is provided for a teacher who goes an leave upto three months. Even in other cases, it is often five to six months before a replacement is sent for a teacher who has reslgned. has been transferred or has gone on long leave.

For a principal who feels very conscious of her obligations to her students and and traditionally provided a substitute for a teacher who went on even a week’s leave, such absences are quite painful. They affect the standard of education and Sister Emily suggests that the Education Department should arrange for a pool of teachers who could be sent to substitute for lecturers on leave. In spite of these problems,

St. Joseph’s has maintained a good academic record. Sister Emily modestly Insists that this Is to be attributed to the dedication of her staff. Most of the lecturers are punctual and regular, she tells me. Although Sister is not willing to take credit for It, the administration has something to do with the dedication of the staff and general discipline. There is great emphasis on regular attendance. tests and tutorials. Examination admit cards are not issued to students if their attendance, test and tutorial records are wanting in any way.

Sister speaks strongly in favour of Urdu. “How can you impose a foreign language with its alien contents and idioms on a child who thinks in his mother tongue?” she asks.

Talking about education generally, she feels the standards have declined and the curricula need to be expanded. There is need for more research, she emphasizes. But this does not upset her unduly, as she remarks, “What’s there in a curriculum. A college can make it or break it at will!”

Hence irrespectivc of the prescribed books, Sister Emily insists that every teacher should provide a reading list to her students since 45- minutes lectures and the prescribed notes are not sufficient to make a student a scholar. Sister feels every student must put in at least three hours of reading every day. Often the curriculum is very limited in scope, she thinks it can be stretched and a lecturer can always go into the depth of issues. “Thus every good student knows much more than what is contained between the two covers of her books,” says Sister Mary Emily.

And Sister Emily means this. for there is no better confirmation of this than the importance she gives to knowledge than the college library. Containing 12.000 books on all subjects, the library is a model for any educational institution and Sister is rightly proud of it. With analytical catalogues to aid her, the highly qualified and experienced librarian, Lena D’souza. not only knows where the book’s are but also guides the students as to where to look for material on a given topic. It is with regret that Sister Emily informs me that the college once also had a Students Reading Roam and a Teacher’s Staff Study which had to be converted into classrooms to accommodate the expanding numters of students .


But it is not all work and no play. The College has many feathers in its cap in sports too. Sisler Emily speaks of the importance of sports in education. They lake the strain off the students’ mind and provide them physical exercise. But not all students avail of the filities available.

Again Sister regrets that she cannot really insist on that because facilities are limited. There is only one P.T. teacher and the classes are much too big. If all the students in a class were to turn up for sports there could be problems, she informs me.

Another interesting feature of the college is the informal counselling service provided to students at the time of admission on subjects such as Mathematics and languages aptitude tests are also he!d.

But, Sister Emily points out that the College cannot really do much of counselling for two reasons. First, under the admission policy the principal cannot refuse admission to a student who has qualified on merit, whether she has the aptitude to study a subiect or not.

Secondly, vocational guidance even on an informal level does not make much of a difference because in our society parents want to decide what their daughters should study even though this proves disastrous at times for a young girl who is not necessarily inclined to study the subjects of her parents’ choice.

Of course parents should take an interest in their children’s studies. But not to the extent of choosng their careers fnr them, Sister encourages parents to come and see her and discuss their daughter’s progress. She is satisfied with the parents’ response at College functions and she hopes to form a Parents-Teachers Association, which would probablv be the first of its kind in Karachi.

Before I conclude.I decide to ask Sister her views on the medium of instruction, which is the talk of the town. Her College is an English medium one and I expect her to defend English vigorously. But to mv pleasant surprise. Sister speaks strongly in favour of Urdu. “How can you impose a foreign language with its alien contents and idioms on a child who thinks in his mother tongue?” she asks.

Urdu, she insists, is a uniting force and a bond of cohesion. She finds it strange when little children sing. “The farmer’s in his den” without even having a vague idea about what they are singing. “The College will switch over to ‘Urdu whenever the decision is taken.” Sister Mart Emily declares. “I am all for Urdu,” she continues, “but English should be taught as a second language as it has its own value. It will help young people in communicating with the outside world.”

And what is her ambition? After retirement – she has received three extensions – she will do research and study the methodology of Urdu teaching. She feels enough has not been done in this field.

From Dawn Archives

Published in Dawn on June 22, 1981