Yesterday once more

Reliving glory: the college facade five decades back

By Zubeida Mustafa

Though St Joseph’s College today Is not the renowned institution it once was, it still has an edge over other colleges. Can it be revived to its former high standards?

St Joseph’s College is celebrating its golden jubilee — belatedly — this month. Actually it was in June 1998 that the college completed its 50 years. This provided me with the much needed excuse to pay a long over-due visit to the college. My initial reaction was that of relief. The hum of activity was reassuring. The college was alive. For me even that was something great after the depressing stories I had read in the press about the ‘lifelessness’ of colleges once admissions were over. But, without any disrespect to the present teachers, who must be admired for plodding on in adverse circumstances, I looked in vain for that air of excellence St Joseph’s had been famous for once upon a time.

In those days of yore, when I was a student there, little things had symbolized to my youthful mind the perfection that was the hallmark of the college. There was the sight of Raheemdad, the peon, who would polish the brass doorknobs practically every day till they glittered like gold. There was Mr Angelo clanging the bell at the dot of the hour — not a minute early, not a minute late. There was Mrs D’Abreo forever alert who would nab you just as your attention began to wander and brought you back with a jerk to some verse of Shelley or Keats she was paraphrasing in tedious details.

Sister Mary Alban with begum Beig, wife of Administrator Karachi, the
Chief Guest at the opening of the St Joseph’s College

Today the college is no more in a position to uphold the standards of yesterday. It has been a long haul in the last 50 years. Enrolment has jumped up nearly 40-fold from 66 to 2,555 students. But the staff strength has not grown correspondingly. It has increased from eight to 63. The pressure built up in the aftermath of nationalization when the floodgates of admissions were opened. There came a time when St Joseph’s College had to struggle against heavy odds to provide a decent education to the “chosen ones”, as the students who managed to enrol liked to describe themselves. Still living on its past glory — and the dedication of a shrinking band of teachers who are the ‘left-overs’ of the days when Sister Mary Emily ruled the roost — St Joseph’s College continues to be the most sought after institution of higher education in Karachi. What testifies to this better than the crowds which converge on it at admission time followed by the famous “lists” of recommended names the principal receives from the higher quarters. On one occasion this process was reinforced by visits by gun-toting rowdies.

Head start: Sister Mary Bemadette with Begum Ra’ana Liaquat Ali Khan viewing art exhibits in 1948

It is a strange paradox that the very students who complain so vociferously are the ones who would not want to go elsewhere. The fact is that St Joseph’s College still enjoys the prestige it had yesterday. When the Daughters of the Cross set out to establish the first girls’ college of Karachi, they made sure that it was an institution, which would set exemplary standards of academic excellence, extracurricular performance and character development. This posed quite a challenge for those were times when women did not as a rule go in for higher education—that is if they were educated at all. Society was in a state of flux. The college advertized 120 seats in 1948 but only 70 girls were admitted — probably more did not qualify or there were not enough applicants, we would not know. The courage, vision and dedication of the Catholic nuns were the biggest assets the college could ever have had.

Winning streak: students of the college in a 50-metre race at the Karachi Athletics meet

In keeping with the times, the first prospectus defined its aim to be to prepare students for sustained service in managing the home and bringing up children. But more significantly, it stated that the college also aimed at preparing students for “public service”. Always in the spotlight was this theme of serving society and country as Sister Mary Bernadette, the second principal, said in her message to Minerva, the college magazine, in 1956 that it would be a great pity if the students who profited by the education offered by the college remained unmindful of the “needs of their country and their less fortunate sisters”. Significantly, the latest prospectus does not even define the goals of the college. The parents who bring their daughters for admission, however, confide that the prospects of marriage visibly improve for a girl who has studied at St Joseph’s! One cant miss the irony in the situation.

Mrs D’Abreo inspecting the National Guard

The rules listed in the 1948 prospectus show how avant garde was the founder of the college, Sister Mary Alban, who wanted to produce students who were perfect citizens of the “brave new world” of Pakistan (these words have been borrowed from the first independence day report of the college). One rule said that every student was expected to spend 45 minutes reading in the library every day. Another forbade absenteeism from PT and games without a medical certificate of ‘unfitness’. Yet another rule urged the students to join organizations, which were said to foster a spirit of discipline and harmony.

To impart comprehensive all round education to groom the mind, the spirit, the personality and the body (to quote from the prospectus) the college employed six teachers of high calibre. One of them was a PhD from Osmania; two others were BA Hons from London and a third an  MA from Boston.

Once it had taken roots, the college consolidated itself. The fifties and sixties were the period of expansion. The college grew not just in numerical strength but also in the sweep of the subjects taught and the faculties. In the university and board examinations, St Joseph’s was on top with pass percentages soaring sky high. In some examinations the college bagged all the positions and each and every student who sat for the exam would pass. The college sportswomen were winning trophies by the dozens. There were debates, cultural shows and athletic meets. The college was alive with activities. Many of the Josephians having imbibed the values, discipline and training from the founding Sisters went on to make a mark in life.

Fifty years have brought many changes in St Joseph’s College — and its culture. But the college is still at the top. Since 1992 it has won 11 shields for meritorious performance and the first Dr Abdul Qadeer Khan gold medal for physics went to a St Joseph’s student. In sports, it has won the General Championship for 25 years running and has bagged 76 trophies in various games in the last 20 years. Its stately grey coloured building with the exquisite dome and the expanse of its sports grounds continue to stand out for their elegance when compared to the dilapidated and shabby structures of other colleges in the city.

Then why the litany of complaints? The fact is that St Joseph’s College as a government managed institution has fallen victim to the same malaise, which grips the education sector today. With no autonomy in administration and policy making and constrained by acute financial stringency, the college management has little leeway to weather the crisis. The present principal, Mrs Kaneez Jafar Abidi, sums up the problem in one word, “overcrowding”. Each and everyone I talked to echoes this observation. The optimum capacity of the college is 1,500 and we have over 2,500 students on our rolls,” Mrs Abidi explains. She offers the break-up of the subjects offered in the college and the number of classrooms and their seating capacity — this information having been typed on a piece of paper and pinned on the notice board in her office as a constant reminder. There are 32 subjects taught to the eight classes — 20 to the Humanities group and 12 to the Science section. The 16 classrooms (their number having been stationary since 1962) can decently accommodate 725 students. The capacity of the hall, which is the biggest room, is 90 and each section of First Year Science has 200 students.

Unlike other colleges, there is no question of any structural expansion — even maintenance is not up to the mark. The building belongs to the Congregation, which receives as rent a princely sum of Rs 22,500 per annum. Can it, in all fairness, be expected to build new classrooms?

This is all a far cry from the vision of the founders. In 1955, Sister Mary Bemadette observed, “Many applicants have had to be turned away but, if education is to remain education and not mass production, it is essential to remain firm on this point.” Given the government’s generous admission policy, it is not strange that the classes are packed like sardines. This also explains why the serious students are disgruntled. Even though the classes are generally held on schedule, the students have problems. “In a 45-minutes period, a lot of time is taken up by the roll call. How much can a teacher teach in the remaining few minutes?” a student asks me. So most science students in keeping with the trends of times head for the coaching centres in the evening and some of the male lecturers are known to be moonlighting there.

Mrs Abidi complains of staff shortage. Vacancies are generally not filled promptly and the college has to function with less than the sanctioned staff. Others, especially students, also complain of the quality of the teaching. “A number of teachers are lackeys of the Directorate officials and get the choicest postings,” someone remarks. It is generally felt that the staff, which the college inherited from the prenationalization days — now only 12 out of 63 — is sustaining the reputation of the college. They were trained by Sister Mary Emily who preferred to take young teachers with no experience so that she could motivate them to develop the qualities she found essential in a teacher.

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A tribute

When you are asked to write a personal piece on a college you left 38 years ago what are you expected to say? A nostalgic piece tends to become too sentimental. It is like making a journey to the town you have lived your childhood years in and looking for the landmarks and the faces you remember. Inevitably, they are not there and you feel shattered.

So this will not be a down memory-lane stuff. It is more a tribute to the College as it was then, I was sorry when my four year sojourn in St Joseph’s College ended. The only way I could have prolonged it was by falling in my BA exams. But that would have been too high a price to pay. The culture shock that greeted me at the University of Karachi in my post-St Joseph’s age was so great that I nearly decided to abandon my studies soon after I had enrolled.

In fact, I even stopped going to the campus. One never knew when a lecture would be held.

At times you had the feeling that there was no focus to hold the students together. People came and went as they pleased. After the St Joseph’s where the emphasis was on learning and scholarship, It called for a lot of adjustment at the university.

It was Sister Mary Bernadette, the principal of St Joseph’s College, who literally pushed me into returning to the university, I had gone to visit her and she simply refused to believe that I would accept defeat so easily. “You have to go. There is so much more to learn,” she had insisted, I am forever grateful for that shove she gave me although I was technically no more under her wings.


That is how St Joseph’s College was. Once a Josephian, always a Josephian and it would never, never let you go. Many years later when ever I dropped in to meet Sister Mary Emily, who had been the Vice-Principal of the college in the fifties and became the third and longest-serving principal, she always welcomed me with the same caring concern as she did when I was a student and pestered her with problems, which now seem so petty but were earth-shattering then.

This sense of belonging and shared pride is something which Josephians of my time have found most remarkable. This was born from the personal interest the teachers and principal took in the students. What symbolizes this better than the fact that Sister Mary Emily addressed each and every student by her name — there were 300 of us then. I believe she could recall the names of all the students when their number had grown to 1,700 after the college was nationalized.

Within this sisterhood, there were higher values which the College stood for and attempted to inculcate in us. I feel that those traditions make all the difference. As Mark Twain said, “Training is everything. The peach was once a bitter almond; cauliflower is nothing but cabbage with a college education.”

Many of us old Josephians might still be the cabbage which never became the cauliflower despite the college education but what has been important for us is that the quest for academic excellence translated itself into a search for perfection in every walk of life. It is the spirit of striving for the best which has really mattered even when we have failed to achieve it. Similarly, no Josephian could remain untouched by the College traditions. That stress on integrity, loyalty discipline and devotion to duty left an imprint, however faint, in some corner of the heart and mind. For as Ms Asteria deSa, our sports mistress, would remind us again and again, “It is not important that you win or lose but how you play the game.  Zubeida Mustafa (nee Hasan)

Source: Dawn 1 April 1999