Three decades is a relatively short period in the history of a university, but the impact that the Aga Khan University has had in its formative years is not to be underestimated. And while the institution may be young, its spirit is far older.

Thirty years ago, the government of Pakistan granted a charter establishing the Aga Khan University as the country's first private international institution of higher education. AKU marked this anniversary – together with several other milestones – at a special convocation held on 19 December, which was presided over by the Chancellor of the University, Mawlana Hazar Imam.

Three decades is a relatively short period in the history of a university, but the impact that the Aga Khan University has had in its formative years is not to be underestimated. And while the institution may be young, its spirit is far older.

If the Aga Khan University could be likened to a species of tree, it would surely be a Kandi. Native to much of South Asia, it is small in stature but has deep roots. Its roots permit it to survive, even under extremely arid conditions that would prove fatal to other trees.

One-hundred-fifty years ago, a civil servant in Delhi set out on a path towards social reform that held education at its core. Sir Syed Ahmed Khan established the Scientific Society at Aligarh, with the purpose of translating Western works and making available a modern, science-based approach to knowledge and education in the traditional languages of pre-partition India.

Over the next several decades, Sir Syed would go on to found the Mohammedan Anglo Oriental College, patterned on the universities at Cambridge and Oxford, but infused with Muslim values. The MAO College became the crucible for the Aligarh movement, which outlived him in its drive to establish a Muslim university of the highest calibre.

While the torch of the Aligarh movement was carried forward by many, none took it so far as a young Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan, the 48th hereditary Imam of the Shia Ismaili Muslims, and grandfather to Mawlana Hazar Imam. A fervent fundraiser in the effort to realise Sir Syed Ahmed Khan's dream of establishing a university, Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah inspired passion and drew crucial support with his vision of an institution that would be decidedly Muslim in its outlook, yet impart education at an international standard.

“Aligarh should not only turn out learned and capable men, but good Musalmans,” said Mawlana Sultan Mahomed Shah, addressing the Trustees of the MAO College on 26 January 1910. “We want amongst the students that atmosphere of self-sacrifice and true devotion and pity for suffering, that sense of dependence and responsibility towards an infinite power, the light of which can only be known through our emotions and whose influence must permeate every moment of our lives.”

Nor, in his conviction, was education to be the exclusive dominion of males. The Imam was a tireless advocate of the rights of women to an active role in society and the importance of educating girls: “Personally, if I had two children, and one was a boy and the other was a girl, and if I could afford to only educate one, I would have no hesitation in giving the higher education to the girl.”

In 1907 a school for girls was established at the MAO College, and in 1920 the College became the Aligarh Muslim University. That university would lay foundations for a better future for Muslims in the sub-continent, and in turn, the Aga Khan University.

Where the Kandi tree grows, it is said that nearby grasses and crops do better, not worse. Its fruit and bark are edible, and are known to have saved many lives during the Rajputna famine of 1868-69. Its wood can serve as an excellent fuel or to build a sturdy structure, and over the centuries the Kandi has been a source of medicines used to nurse many ailments.

Dr Rozina Karmaliani is an Associate Professor at the School of Nursing and Midwifery, and in Community Health Sciences at the Medical College of the Aga Khan University. She began her journey into the field of Nursing as an AKU student in the 1980s, soon after the School of Nursing opened its doors in 1981.

“When I started going to clinics, all the patients used to think that I must be from a very poor family and that my father and brother cannot afford to send me to university so that is why I have joined nursing,” recalls Dr Karmaliani. “Another group of people used to think that I was not good at studies, that is why I have joined nursing.”

Sadly, this was an all too common attitude. Despite nurses being held in high esteem since the earliest days of Islam, the profession was accorded a low status, and families would often discourage their daughters from pursuing it. This was part of a wider paucity of educational opportunities for girls and women. From its founding in 1981 – prior to the granting of the AKU Charter – the School of Nursing sought to correct this.

“The School of Nursing's primary mission is to raise the standards and standing of the profession itself, so that it is accorded the recognition and prestige earned and deserved by the women whose working lives are dedicated to the demanding and honourable task of caring for the sick,” said Mawlana Hazar Imam at the School's inauguration. “We are confident that the nurses in our hospital will be rewarded with the respect, appreciation and remuneration their integrity and loyal commitment justify.”

The Imam's confidence was not misplaced.

Today the Aga Khan School of Nursing is sought after for the quality of its education. Of the 23 schools of nursing licensed to deliver the BScN in Pakistan, eight are headed by AKU graduates; seven graduates are chief nurses of hospitals; and three hold important regulatory positions for nursing in Pakistan. And lifting the status of nursing has widened the field of educational opportunities for women, with female medical school enrolment now at 52 per cent.

“I think the Aga Khan University has done a big service to higher education in the country,” says Dr Karmaliani. “Over a period of three decades nursing has evolved greatly as a profession in Pakistan. It has gone from the apprenticeship model to the higher education model. Nurses can now complete their undergraduate, graduate, and inshallah soon, PhD in nursing from Pakistan.”

Furthermore, the University's impact reaches far beyond nursing. It has turned out leaders like Dr Anita Zaidi, who was among the AKU Medical College's first batch of graduates in 1988, and was recognised that year with the Best Medical Graduate Award.

“AKU is an important part of my life,” writes Dr Zaidi in a recent edition of AKU-NAMA, the University's alumni magazine. “Had it not been in Pakistan, I don't think I would have been able to acquire the same standard of education that I did when I was a student here. It makes a commitment of excellence and meritocracy to each and every student and it has lived up to this standard.”

She went on to pursue further studies at Duke University and Harvard Medical School before returning to AKU, where she is now Professor and Chair of the Department of Paediatrics. “After I joined AKU as a faculty member in 2002 I realised the opportunities the University provides for people to make an impact. That is what I have been trying to do since I came back. In that regard, throughout, AKU has been ‘a miracle institution' for me.”

Dr Zaidi was recently awarded a $1 million grant to save children's lives. The project that she proposed – selected from among 550 other applications submitted from over 70 countries – will fight early child mortality in Rehri Goth, a village on the outskirts of Karachi, where presently 106 out of every 1 000 children born die before reaching the age of five.

The Aga Khan University's planned Faculties of Arts and Sciences – in Karachi and Arusha – envisions broadening educational opportunities in Pakistan and East Africa. Offering undergraduate and post-graduate studies in a range of fields that will include philosophy, law, the fine arts, and physics, AKU is embarking anew on forming the leaders and visionaries of tomorrow.

Leaders and visionaries like Sir Syed Ahmed Khan and Sir Sultan Mahomed Shah Aga Khan.

Like the little Kandi tree, the Aga Khan University draws deeply from its roots, sharing its nurturing fruits all those who surround it. And may it continue to bear fruit so for decades and centuries to come, that all who thirst may drink of its knowledge.