3rd October 1999
The University of Jaffna is celebrating its 25th anniversary this month. Kingsley Bernard one of the first batch of students to the Jaffna Campus, of the University of Sri Lanka that was established in October 1974 shares his nostalgic memories.
I qualified to enter university in the science stream and may have ended in the convenient and convivial environment of Katubedda or any other campus of the University of Sri Lanka. Yet when the challenging prospect of being the first batch of students of the Jaffna Campus arose quite by chance, a group of anxious university entrants of diverse communities boarded the train to Jaffna.
The Jaffna I knew was much more than what the rest on the "night-mail" knew. Most of them anxious to gain a degree knew no more than Jaffna peninsula being "barren land, listless landscape of sand, studded with palmyrah trees". I had learnt more of the culture and wealth of educational heritage, industry, diligence and hardworking disposition of those in the Jaffna peninsula. I was primed proper to face the new environment. It did not take long for all of us from the so-called south to accept the values and value systems of the north.
I am a son of the soil of Avissawella, from a background of educationists. My father and mother, both schoolteachers thought, lived and worked tirelessly to promote "education" in the broadest sense of the word.
I owe it to my nurturing that I matured in thought even in childhood sans phobias of race and religion, though born into a Sinhala family with deep roots in the south.
We, the few from the south were received initially with doubt, distrust and turpitude by not only our compatriots but also the man on the street.
We were "foreigners" but it did not take much time for us to feel like one in a wholesome environment of acceptance, trust and respect for our values. Our values were obviously recognised as being trusting and respecting the value systems of those engendered in the lifestyle of the peninsula.
On the subject of the lifestyle of those in the Jaffna peninsula, it would be remiss not to appreciate the psyche of those who were hard working. The man in his plot of land was seen to toil-watering the soil by 4.30 a.m. I could visit my tutor, lecturer or even the professor by 6.00 a.m. to seek tutorial clarification. My respect for the acceptance and accommodation of the people of Jaffna towards the Sinhala and Muslim brethren from the so- called south grew by the day.
The day arrived for me to contest the post of President of the Science Students' Union. I could not believe that I was elected unanimously.
The day came when I was prompted to contest to be elected to the post of President of the Students' Council. If one were to doubt communal harmony, the lasting testimony was that I was elected the first President of the Students Union of the University of Jaffna. This election was in the second year of my four- year academic life at the university.
It must speak volumes for the camaraderie and esprit de corps that we enjoyed, that I continued as the President of the Students' Council till the last year of my eventful academic career.
There are many who speak of ethnic harmony, many are the views published in the media about "rights" of communities. My personal experiences gained after having lived and learnt with diverse minority communities is that they seek not so many "rights" but acceptance as competitors on an even playing field. We were not in Jaffna on a whistle- stop visit.
We lived for four years, initially to face scrutiny, and thereafter to merit unreserved acceptance.
The erudite academic staff of the University will always be revered for their quality of commitment, for the unquantifiable knowledge they imparted with dedication and for the lasting values they instilled in us.
It is relevant also to record that value for learning in general and education in particular was so high that when we students went to the government hospital for medical attention, the Medical Officer would prescribe that "students" be treated first. This is just but one example of well founded priorities. They sought education through intense industry but yet they did respect superior intellect and leadership on merit.
In the final analysis, the people of Jaffna from the illustrious academics to the humble industrious farmer, accepted us as humans of the same ilk. They accepted us as humane as those who had grown up on the peninsula. It was more than evident that they sought to merge in thought and deed than divide. The alumni of this prestigious and premier university - which has produced over 10,000 graduates todate - will endeavour to forge much, much more than so-called communal harmony.
It is relevant to quote from Cardinal Newman who valued university education in the widest and the most appropriate perspective: "If I were to describe briefly what a University was, I should draw my answer from its ancient designation of Stadium General (School of Universal Learning).
This description implies an assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot from all parts, else .......and in one spot, else, how can there be any school at all?"
This pertinent reference to "an assemblage of strangers from all parts in one spot" worked miracles in the minds and attitudes of all those in the milieu who had the good fortune to appreciate the wealth the University of Jaffna afforded us, the first intake of undergraduates.
I learn that the distinguished Benjamin Disraeli said in the House of Commons as far back as March 11, 1873, that "University should be a place of light, of liberty and of learning". Drawing from the thoughts of the statesman Disraeli was, I wish to amplify that the University of Jaffna afforded all of us "commoners" the light and liberty that we sought in our youth. Most of all, the "LEARNING" in the campus of Jaffna was far beyond even the definition of "EDUCATION" by Cardinal Newman. It was the well primed venue for the meeting of minds from diverse backgrounds to weld lasting relationships. The excellent academic exposure apart, we learnt the lesson of a lifetime: "United we stand divided we fall."
I wish the University of Jaffna prosperity and progress to foster further educational excellence. We the alumni of the Colombo chapter are hopeful of going to Jaffna to seek our academic roots. Most of our mentors are no more, but the few of our yesteryear colleagues have promised to meet us at the airport - not at the old railway station!
I wish to conclude by a thought expressed by the late John F. Kennedy. "Progress does not come from revolutions of human beings but by the evolutions of institutions" .
Evolutions of institutions such as my revered seat of learning must evolve to greater heights. That is the fervent desire and hope of all of us alumni.
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