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Birzeit University is preparing to celebrate the 50th anniversary of its transformation into a four-year university. Fifty years ago, Birzeit College President Hanna Nasir announced that students who enrolled that September would graduate from Birzeit University four years later with bachelor’s degrees.
The founders’ vision was based on a deep belief in the intimate relationship between institutional building, the strive for liberation and education’s role in cultivating the Palestinian identity and resistance. This vision reinforces Birzeit’s primary mission: investing in Palestinian youth; as liberation movements around the world have proven that the shortest path to freedom and prosperity is through building a generation more conscious of national and human rights, more willing to accept diversity and advocate for social justice, more capable of creative thinking and armed with knowledge.
Fifty years ago, Birzeit University offered a limited number of undergraduate programs for around 400 students. Now, Birzeit has over 14,000 students, nine faculties and more than 120 academic programs that lead to bachelor’s and master’s degrees, higher diplomas and PhDs.
Underpinned by principles of academic excellence, national commitment and community engagement, Birzeit University seeks to develop its academic programs and infrastructure to enhance its status as a leading university locally, regionally and internationally
“Probably the biggest challenges we faced were the repeated and prolonged closures. Birzeit was closed in December 1973. We launched a media campaign; as a result, the closure did not exceed two weeks. However, in May 1979, the University was closed for two months; the pretext in that case was an incident in which students threw stones at Israeli settlers marching through Birzeit in celebration of Israel’s independence day. During that two-month closure, administrators, faculty members, and some students worked together to figure out how we would handle classes and make up for lost time. We developed a system so that everyone knew what to do and off-campus facilities were lined up for alternative classrooms. Later, when the new campus was built, we met there when Israelis closed the old campus. And sometimes the new campus would be closed, and we would hold classes in the old campus. We had to hold classes through the summer so that students could complete course requirements and make up for lost time, which was not easy.”
Gabi Baramki was the dean of Birzeit College in 1953. He guided the development of the college into a university in 1972 as vice-president and served as acting president until 1993.
“I remember the day of the first graduation in 1976, a historic event not only for the University but for Palestine, because it was the first university graduation on Palestinian soil.
Nobody could have realized how much work had been put into the preparation for that day. We had to start from scratch because this was our first experience with a university graduation; there was no tradition to build on. The diplomas were designed by Commercial Press in Jerusalem, which did an excellent job; we commissioned the In‘ash al-Usra Society to make special embroidered stoles to give the attire of the graduates a Palestinian touch. The caps and hoods had to be ordered from abroad. We had taken the head size of each graduate and faculty member, so that when the caps arrived, everything would be in order. To our distress, the caps arrived only a few minutes before the graduation. Faculty member Kamal Shamshoum raced to pick them up from the airport and returned barely in time, but then everyone was going crazy trying to fit a cap without even bothering about sizes.
Being in charge of all the logistics for that great day, I was ready to collapse as the music started, but I had to be there. I felt very proud of the legacy that was handed over by my family to the Palestinian community."
Samia Khoury was a member of the administration staff of Birzeit College in 1954-60 and 1974-79. She is also a founding member of the Board of Trustees.
“Right away at Birzeit, I feel at home like I had never felt before and that my life has expanded by almost 2,000 new people, the number of the student population then. I feel more Palestinian! I am not just with my relatives and classmates from Ramallah and Jerusalem. My new classmates, Mohammad, Ibrahim, Ghada, Nasser, Suheir, Ra’fat, and many others, are from various parts of Palestine. I am meeting people who speak different dialects, coming from Palestinian villages, refugee camps and cities I’ve only known by name in the past. Not only the student body was a coming-home of a people, but also our professors represented that as well. Carmela, the math instructor, was from inside the Green Line; Marwan, another math teacher, has just returned from the US to teach us. Zaki, the chemistry instructor, had studied in Russia. Birzeit University campus felt like a camp for us all Palestinian refugees of one kind or another, taking shelter in the brilliant hope of education."
Ibtisam Barakat (Class of 1986) is the acclaimed author of the international memoir Tasting the Sky: A Palestinian Childhood.
It took me eight years to earn a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering because of successive closures of Birzeit University by the Israelis. The final closure during the first intifada lasted for more than four years. We attended “classes” in apartments in Ramallah and Birzeit. While students all over the world like to show their student ID cards, we had to always remember to hide them so that we would not be mistreated at Israeli roadblocks.
Jihad Mas‘oud (Class of 1992) is a mechanical engineer working in Palestinian Standards Institution.