The school’s campus is a peaceful sanctuary. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Computer skills are required at Mar Ivanios College in Trivandrum, Kerala. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Students are selected for degree programs regardless of gender, caste or creed. (photo: Sean Sprague)
Test scores for Mar Ivanios students are among the highest in India. (photo: Sean Sprague)
The college is a center of excellence for postgraduate science studies. (photo: Sean Sprague)
After rattling through hot, noisy streets in an auto-rickshaw, it can be a relief to pass through the shadow of a stone arch carved with the inscription Mar Ivanios College.
The college campus is a peaceful sanctuary located in the northern suburbs of Trivandrum, capital city of Kerala, the coastal state in southwest India where literacy is valued and education is prized.
Founded by Mar Ivanios, first Metropolitan Archbishop of the Syro-Malankara Catholic Church, the college recently celebrated its golden jubilee.
The present head of the church, Cyril Mar Baselios, said: In the 1940s, Mar Ivanios was our only cleric to hold a postgraduate degree. Perhaps this is why he saw education as a continuous process of information, formation and transformation.
He believed this process would develop values like compassion, justice and truthfulness in young people. Today, college faculty members take such character building seriously. In this way, the teachers help the students become involved in transforming our society.
For Mar Ivanios, social change was the ultimate goal.
Kerala faces the rich Arab Gulf states, and Keralas citizens many of whom migrate back and forth to the Gulf as laborers have consequently been exposed to diverse cultures and traditions. There is less local poverty because of the work available and in many ways this familiarity with other peoples has helped the state avoid much of the roiling ethnic tension that plagues India.
The state has a population of about 30 million, and of that number 20 percent are Christian, 60 percent are Hindu and about 20 percent are Muslim. Traditionally, Christian schools have contributed to the high literacy rate in Kerala, but it was Mar Ivanios who believed there was a need to provide an institute of Christian higher education. Ironically, Kerala, a communist-run state, has a strong government-supported continuing education program from which no one is excluded. The state mandate of education for all and forever echoes Mar Ivanios philosophy of education as a means of social transformation.
Kerala is only one of a handful of communist states in India along with Tripura and West Bengal. The Communist Party of India was founded in the 1920s to create an alternative to the existing Congress Partys anti-imperialist agenda. The communist movement grew out of economic revolt and was pitched against the class system, both British and Indian. The Communist Party in Kerala has been in power regularly, though not consecutively, since 1957 when Kerala became the first place in the world to democratically elect a communist government.
In 1949, Mar Ivanios purchased 200 acres of land spread over seven hills. There, he began to realize his dream of establishing a college.
At present, about 3,600 boys and girls study in the 70 primary schools managed by me, Mar Ivanios wrote when requesting permission to start the college that had been originally affiliated with the University of Travancore (the former state name for Kerala). I believe it is time to expand my involvement to include these students higher education.
However, Mar Ivanios also realized job skills must be part of the education process in a nation where high unemployment can be directly linked to poor, or no, training. Mar Ivanios sought to supplement the college curriculum by offering courses not then available in Kerala such as business administration. That tradition continues today and the students of Mar Ivanios are encouraged to integrate academia with courses in computer technology and other practical skills.
When he began the college, Mar Ivanios also wanted to offer courses in Syriac and scholastic philosophy. He felt these would be useful for the religious communities working in the Syro-Malankara Catholic Archeparchy of Trivandrum. Years later, in 1983, a major Syro-Malankara Catholic seminary, St. Marys, was built on campus.
In 1949, 145 students enrolled in the new Mar Ivanios College. Today, there are more than 2,500 students pursuing degrees in 10 undergraduate programs and seven postgraduate programs. Degree programs include economics, the sciences and liberal arts, tourism administration and mass communications. There are 120 full-time teachers at the college who are paid by the state.
Shirley Stuart, who for more than 30 years has taught at the college, said teachers must retire at 55 to help ease unemployment. But she said Mar Ivanios, unlike state-run colleges, does not require newly hired teachers to make a crippling high dowry-like donation to the school a practice that is common throughout India.
Students are admitted to Mar Ivanios regardless of caste or creed. However, special consideration is given to those who come from underprivileged castes or tribes and other minority populations. Mostly, the students are from the middle and upper classes.
George Thomas, a 20-year-old majoring in tourism administration, said Mar Ivanios is too good because of its excellent professors and curriculum. The National Assessment and Accreditation Council has recently ranked the school as one of Indias top 10 English-language colleges.
The newly constructed Mar Ivanios Institute of Advanced Studies has a state-of-the-art computer lab as well as a language lab offering courses in five languages. The main library has more than 52,000 books and subscribes to 73 professional journals.
At exam time, the hallways of the colleges vast lecture rooms are lined with backpacks and satchels while inside, diligent students labor over tests. In a chemistry lab, students concentrate in front of bubbling flasks and test tubes. In the same building, botany students peer through microscopes and physics majors carry out experiments in electromagnetism.
Mar Ivanios students excel not only academically, but they also excel in sports. In this cricket-mad country, Mar Ivanios is home to an award-winning basketball team.
In an effort to maintain contact with the community, the college has begun an adopt-a-village program. Students construct houses, build latrines and roads and also teach adult education classes in chosen villages.
At the golden jubilee celebrations, Mar Baselios said: I pray Mar Ivanios College stays true to the dreams of its founder and continues as a torch spreading its light.
The motto of the college, veritas vos liberat (the truth will set you free), is embodied by its graduates who have been shaped by the Mar Ivanios philosophy. Moving forward, serving their nation as liberators, the graduates of Mar Ivanios College are prepared to work at transforming their ancient nation.
Our correspondent at large, Sean Sprague, travels throughout CNEWA’s world.