The Telegraph
Sunday , May 4 , 2014
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The A-team

S.K. Singh couldn’t hold back his tears when his students came to visit him in hospital and gave him a cheque for his treatment. For Arun Dalmia, an old boy of Birla High School, and his batchmates “there were blessings in those tears”.

The Birla High School Alumni Association formed a trust in 2010, at the initiative of Vinod Neotia, to provide financial help to teachers every year.

The 1986 batch of St. Xavier’s Collegiate School put together Rs 2.15 crore for teachers, non-teaching staff and their alma mater.

The St. Xavier’s College alumni association initiated a “buy-a-brick” scheme to raise money for a new hostel building.

It is as much the desire to give back something to their alma mater as to connect with old buddies that brings ex-students together. What started as reunion dinners has now gone way beyond with alumni groups doing their bit for the institution and also for society.

When Dalmia, who passed out of Birla High School for Boys in 1974, went to visit his Hindi teacher at his Bhowanipore address and learnt from neighbours that Singh had been admitted to “some hospital in Kidderpore”, he lost no time in tracking him down. “He was happy to see us and when we handed him the cheque for his treatment he started weeping. He was not in a condition to talk to us but he spoke to us through his tears and blessed us. It is these small things that make us happy,” said Dalmia, who has a business of textile and laser engraving.

The South Point Ex-Students’ Association (Aspex) has a care wing that looks after retired teachers and provides them financial, medical and emotional support, even taking them on picnics or pandal-hopping during Puja.

Funds pledge

The St. Xavier’s College Calcutta Alumni Association (SXCCAA), started in 1985, plays a three-pronged role — it undertakes social projects, contributes to the development of the alma mater and builds an alumni network across the world. One of the strongest alumni networks in the city, it is involved in both academic and infrastructure development.

“The alumni are a great source of support and have been very generous and contributed greatly towards the college, not just financially but academically,” said Father Felix Raj, the principal of the college and the president of the alumni association.

For the college’s new hostel building coming up on AJC Bose Road, the members of the alumni association have raised around Rs 75 lakh with the buy-a-brick concept at Rs 10,000 per brick. In a similar initiative two years ago, project Lakshya invited ex-students to pledge a contribution of Rs 1 lakh each towards the development of the new campus of the college at Rajarhat. The corpus is already Rs 10-crore rich.

Buddhadev Bose of the 1986 batch of St. Xavier’s Collegiate School believes alumni associations should not be restricted to networking with old pupils. “One needs to collect funds to make the school independent,” Bose said.

Alumnorum Societas (Alsoc), the St. Xavier’s School Old Boys’ Association, has introduced extra-curricular activities for classes III to XII. “We have about 350 children but we plan to include more. With professional help and specialised coaching the level of training and also exposure is far more advanced,” said Aditya Lodha, the honorary secretary of Alsoc.

Pooling in resources

It’s not only about funds but also resources and expertise of past pupils. “It’s important that old students engage with the school because they have a lot to contribute not only in terms of the finance, but the experience and the leverage that they have in the society. We gain from their experience, because of them coming and speaking about colleges, universities or even unusual jobs like astronomy,” said Sunirmal Chakravarthi, the principal of La Martiniere for Boys. The school has had the likes of industrialists Vijay Mallya and Harsh Neotia, educationist John Mason, orthopaedic surgeon Ronen Roy and astrophysicist Puragra Guha Thakurta addressing the students.

Modern High School for Girls too has invited old students to conduct workshops for teachers and students. “I like the aspect of students coming back to teach because in that way some of the tradition is maintained. But it has to be a healthy mix of the old and the new because we also have to get new ideas,” said Devi Kar, the director of Modern High School.

The Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur, which boasts one of the largest alumni networks spread out across the world, is also very active. Not only do the alumni act as mentors to students, they also take on the role of guest lecturers. But what is most significant is the way the IIT alumni group is invested in the growth and excellence of the institute.

Many of the schools and specialised labs like Vinod Gupta School of Management, Rajiv Gandhi School of Intellectual Property Law, Rajendra Mishra School of Engineering Entrepreneurship, GS Sanyal School of Telecommunication and VLSI-CAD laboratory owe their initiation to the alumni, who also launched the Vision 2020 project to raise funds for infrastructure development that will put IIT Kharagpur among the top 20 institutes in the world in 20 years.

The Xaverian alumni, who include the who’s who of the business community, sportsmen, musicians, actors and politicians, are also on the boards of studies of the college that take decisions on curriculum revision and upgrade of teaching methods.

Administrative role

Some alumni also play a role in management. The work becomes easier and the acceptance is higher because you know the organisation,” said Krishna Damani, trustee of the South Point Education Society, who passed higher secondary in 1989.

Most principals welcome the idea of academic involvement in moderation and as long as alumni associations “don’t become power centres”. “I don’t like them (the alumni) telling me how to run the school but their suggestions are welcome and they can always bring their experiences and ideas,” said Chakravarthi of LMB .

T.H. Ireland, the principal of St. James’, agrees. “We want them involved and engaged but they cannot decide for the school, that is a right reserved with the school authorities.”

Fringe benefits

Going back to where it all began, past pupils host everything from dinners to debates and medical camps to cultural programmes.

The Association of La Martiniere Alumni (Alma) may be just 10 years old but it has already become an integral part of the schools. “The alumni is a bridge between the past and present students and we are actively involved with our alma mater,” said Jayajit Biswas, vice-president of Alma and Class of 1983.

Alma has gone a step ahead and started organising inter-alumni events in an effort to reach out to the old students of other schools. “When we were in school we used to meet and interact with student of other schools at fests, debates and quizzes. Why should things change now,” asked Biswas.

Good Samaritans

It’s not only about fun, but philanthropy too. Most school and college alumni associations boast an active social arm to provide education. The alumni of St. Xavier’s school, South Point and St. James’ contribute significantly to the evening sections of the schools.

“Initially it was difficult to get students and we had to seek permission from parents but now many from the neighbouring areas would want their wards to come to the evening school. Some of them will also take the National Institute of Open Schooling exam,” said Pratap Daryanani, cultural co-ordinator of St. James’ School Alumni Association.

The SXCCAA has undertaken a host of social projects, including running an elementary school at Paikhala in South-24 Parganas, adopting an Aila-struck village in the Sunderbans where it continues to contribute for development and organising medical camps in remote areas like Hatimara in Jharkhand. “Most of the funds we raise are used for social projects. We feel that we need to do all that we can for making the world a better place,”said Firdausul Hasan, honorary secretary of the organisation.

Birla High also adopted a school, Bijoynagar Adarsh Vidyamandir, in Gosaba. “We gave them furniture and stationery and built a room for lady teachers. We gave them about 70 cycles to help girls commute,” said Dalmia, former president of the alumni association. “I still remember the school was a half-a-kilometre walk from the motor boat and we were showered with red petals all our way.”

Takeaways such as this inspire busy professionals like Dalmia, Daryanani and the rest to take time out. “When it is working for the school, it’s more of a stress-buster. We cut down on our leisure time to work for the school,” said Daryanani, a restaurateur by profession.

Running an alumni association is no mean job, especially if like the SXCCAA it is spread over eight international (Bangkok, Singapore, Dubai, Dhaka, London, Las Vegas, Toronto and Melbourne) and four national chapters. “Many chapters fizzle out because of lack of involvement of members. What you need is a handful of members willing to put their alma mater first. We meet regularly, travel to the other chapters to make sure they are clued in. It requires love and passion,” said Hasan, a businessman and film producer who may not visit his own office everyday but drops into “Room No. 5”, from where the alumni operate, at least twice a day.

Looking forward

Expansion is on the cards at St. James’. “Our boys are there all over the world now based in the US, the UK, Australia and we are going to start building international chapters. We want the alumni to be a little more involved with the school and expand and grow,” said principal Ireland.

Principal Felix Raj would love “every single student to come back and remain a part of this institute”.