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Xavier’s campus to African canvas

The gift of a blue blazer on Friday turned Mamata Banerjee into someone she “never got the opportunity” to become as a student: a Xaverian.

“We never got the opportunity to study in a good school or college. So what? We have worked hard and come up to where we are. I still managed to work my way through Calcutta University, law college and BEd. But I feel for it (the need for quality education),” the chief minister said with characteristic candour while laying the foundation of St. Xavier’s College’s second campus at Rajarhat.

Mamata, who had first revealed her desire to become “a member of the family” at the Park Street institution’s fifth convocation in January 2012, said the plot where the second campus would come up was an investment in the promise of quality education.

“This (land) is not a gift. This is an intention with a vision for tomorrow. St. Xavier’s College is a name and it will be a university tomorrow and gain fame not only in Bengal but the world. Even today many of our students leave for Hyderabad or Bangalore for training. But there will come a day when everyone will come to Calcutta and West Bengal for education. And St. Xavier’s should show the path,” she said, wrapping herself tighter in the blue blazer.

The 16.64-acre site in Rajarhat’s Action Area III is a short distance from the first turn on the expressway leading to the airport from the Bypass.

“I am very emotional. St. Xavier’s College has come very far, carrying its heritage and tradition. I believe this St. Xavier’s College will go even further ahead. This day is an important milestone in its path. Many new subjects will be taught on this new campus and because of that many more students, especially rural and marginalised students, will receive higher education. We hope our development plan for this campus will materialise soon,” the principal, Father Felix Raj, said.

The archbishop of Calcutta, Thomas D’Souza, blessed the campus site.

Mamata had played Santa Claus to St. Xavier’s last Christmas, pulling out of her bag the plot of land where the institution will raise a full-fledged campus.

In her speech on Friday, again timed with Christmas, the chief minister underlined her commitment to “excellence” in education, citing her own example as someone who had to work doubly hard to make up for the lack of opportunity to study in a reputable institution.

Mamata said one of her handicaps was that she could not speak a word of English when she first became a Lok Sabha MP in 1984. Each of these personal anecdotes drew cheers from the gathering that included, among others, Father provincial Jeyaraj Velusamy, Father rector Dominic Savio, education minister Bratya Basu and urban development minister Firhad Hakim.

The chief minister set a new challenge for St. Xavier’s — to establish a medical college — as part of her government’s vision for education. “I would request St. Xavier’s to start a medical college as well. Yes, you can. Your asset is your alumni association. They (the alumni) are spread out across the world. If you tell them you are starting a medical college, they will come forward with funds,” she said.

The prod to St. Xavier’s to expand further is in line with Mamata’s plans for excellence in higher education and autonomy of educational institutions. She had created a mentor group headed by Harvard professor Sugata Bose after becoming chief minister to help turn Presidency University into a world-class institution.

Mamata iterated those goals on Friday, urging everyone to stand by St. Xavier’s. “I would request the local people, especially those from the neighbouring areas, to cooperate with them and help them, even in laying a brick or two, because your children who have to travel very far for studies will get the opportunity to become a Xaverian,” she minister said.

The loudest cheers were reserved for the chief minister’s offer — she described herself as “your family member now and forever, even as a commoner” — to help St. Xavier’s College through her paintings. “You carry on growing. If need be, I will help you through my painting exhibition,” Mamata announced.

Many Xaverians also thanked the chief minister and MP Derek O'Brien for “transforming” Park Street on Christmas this year.