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Junior Year Abroad in Germany, Kathleen Shedd experience, 1937-1938

Although political tensions in 1937 ran high, causing many colleges, including Smith, to cancel or suspend study abroad programs, the intercollegiate Junior Year Program continued to offer American college students the opportunity to experience life in Munich.  Among the students who attended in 1937-1938 was Smith College junior Kathleen Hadwen Shedd.  She wrote letters to her parents and family in Hamden, Connecticut, for the duration of her stay.  These letters now reside in the Smith College Archives and provide a rich perspective on the experience of some of the earliest college students to study abroad.  Shedd’s letters in particular portray a striking juxtaposition of everyday exchange student woes and experiences unique to that historical time period.

History of the Program

A National Advisory Committee made up of American university professors worked to develop and establish the Junior Year Program in 1931.  For the academic year of 1938-39, its board included professors from the College of the City of New York, Mt. Holyoke, Vassar, and Bryn Mawr, as well as President William Allan Neilson[1] of Smith College and other prestigious figures from the world of international education.

Studying abroad often proved a challenge because of the discrepancies between universities in different countries.  In Germany, the difference in semester lengths and continuity between levels of courses provided the greatest difficulties.   The language barrier facing students only complicated these issues further.  Through a special arrangement with the university in Munich, American students who traveled with the Junior Year Program received the same benefits as German students, “including free admission to the museums, reduced entrance fees for the art galleries, theaters, opera and elsewhere.”[2]

Travel and Arrival

The Junior Year Program students traveled together to Bremen.  They included women not only from Smith but also Vassar, Mt. Holyoke, Bryn Mawr, Swarthmore, and Northwestern.[3]  Shedd’s anecdotes of the ship voyage are full of new friends, excitement, and a sense of adventure, the latter heightened when a wave washed over the stern deck one evening, “knocking down several people + flooding into the halls.”[4]  The students, banned from the stern, spent their night forward, singing songs and drinking beer – a recurring theme throughout the year.

Shedd’s descriptions of meeting her host, Frau Lüttgens, sound eerily like any complicated coordinated effort of today; simply substitute an airport for the train station and the setting could be any major modern American city, with a mother or host “raising her hands to the disinterested heavens in painful despair.”[5]  Shedd describes her accommodations, reassuring her mother “you don’t need to worry about my being either cold or hungry.”[6]

Everyday Life

Initially, Shedd gloried in the ease of her life in Munich: “No responsibilities, no jobs to be done, few rules, nice people, beautiful country – gosh.”[7]  However, by May she was writing her parents about a heavy workload: “I am so lazy by nature & yet some terrible fire inside of me makes me slave like a dog”[8] and staying up late studying for oral exams.[9]

Throughout the year, Shedd discussed finances with her father; she budgeted her $25 per month allowance in order to have extra money during the holidays for traveling and presents.  Coordinating tuition, fees, allowances, and unforeseen circumstances was further complicated by the lag caused by steamer mail.

Reading the letters also reveals Shedd’s growing proficiency with German.  Even in the first letters, a phrase or word would creep in – apparently the English “more heart than head” did not communicate her meaning as well as the German “Mehr Herz als Kopf”[10] – but as the year progresses, the proportional amount of German grows.  There are a few examples where it is unclear if she intended to use German or English – slipups with small words like mit (with) or er (he)that are similar enough they seem to be the products of unconscious substitution.

Like any exchange student, Shedd also suffered from occasional homesickness.  In various letters she bemoans the lack of communication not only from her family but also from friends at Smith.  In a letter to her mother, she not-so-subtly closes with “Hoping to get a nice letter from you soon.”[11]  She later resorts to even more direct methods, berating her entire family at one point: “Have you all come down with paralysis of the right arm? … I waited expectantly for the arrival of the Bremen, the Hansa + The Queen Mary all in vain.  And I have heard nix from Lawrence House,[12] either.”[13]

Shedd’s letters portray the typical progression of exchange student acculturation.  She moves from early euphoria about her countless new experiences through struggles with foreign cultures and expectations.  Eventually Shedd achieves a high level of understanding and empathy; she is able to see not only the American perspective on issues but also how Germans view current events.  Her political commentary reflects this in particular; shortly after her arrival, she sees the Duke and Duchess of Windsor on the street, an experience she finds exciting but nothing more.  Later in the year, tales about every political event or figure are accompanied by her opinions.  This is due in large part to her growing comfort in, and understanding of, German culture, but probably also because she grew as a conscientious adult during the year.

Historical Experiences

These quotidian worries’ setting, on the other hand, was anything but.  During her stay in Munich and travels to neighboring countries, Shedd witnessed some of the key Nazi party moves in their aggregation of power.  When describing her planned bicycle trip to Dachau, Shedd comments “I hear that there is a concentration camp there as well as a nice old Schloss [castle] + a charming village.”[14]  Shedd also writes in some detail about two particularly striking events: the Anschluss, or annexation of Austria (with its subsequent general mobilization of German forces) and seeing Göring, already an important figure in the Nazi party, speak in Salzburg, Austria. 

Shedd described the day of the Anschluss as “the most exciting” she had ever seen.[15]  That Friday she and some friends took a bicycle trip to Augsburg and spent the evening in a small village along the way.  Shedd paints a poignant picture of the of the villagers’ attitude to the army trucks rumbling by:

We talked with the men + you know the awful thing – they didn’t have any idea what was happening.  Lots of their young men had already gone + more were to go; their horses had been requisitioned.  They shook their heads.  Yes, it’s probably down in Austria.  There’ll be a war.  They thought it was a general mobilization – the whole Reich.[16]

 

Perhaps even more interesting, however, are her thoughts on being sent home:

I kept thinking that I’d only been to the alte Pinakotech once, hadn’t been to the National museum yet + had only seen a couple of exhibits at the Deutsches Museum.  Also I hadn’t bought anything for anyone but myself!  Such are the momentous thoughts which torture one as a nation goes to war.[17]

 

As Shedd herself points out, everyday or seemingly insignificant worries plague even the most historical experiences.  However, she maintains a fairly impressive sense of perspective, wondering how the world will react and recognizing that the past day or two had indeed been “history before our eyes.”[18]

Shedd’s comments about Göring’s speech in Salzburg also provide thoughtful and astute observations.  In response to his description of Hitler’s motivation for annexing Austria – namely, freeing the poor oppressed populace – she questions whether his eyes will truly remained joyfully trained upon Austria “or will he be looking towards Tchech now.  Ho hum.”[19]

Conclusions

These few details from Kathleen Shedd’s extensive correspondence give only only the most superficial overview of Kathleen Shedd’s year in Munich; her letters are packed with fascinating anecdotes and pointed remarks.  Because she lived in what was essentially a pension, Shedd had the opportunity to speak with average German citizens and hear their opinions on events.  Her contact with the United States provided another perspective.  Additionally, she clearly was unafraid to form her own opinions, although the same intimacy that enriches her letters also deprived her of a larger sense of perspective.

While viewing history from an appropriate distance offers many advantages, it is indeed true that the victors write history.  These letters offer a glimpse of a moment in time that is often overlooked, and do not face the modern stigmas concerning National Socialism and Hitler.  For example, Shedd firmly believed that

the persecution of the Jews … is certainly one of the most awful aspects of N.S.  But some things are good.  I really have no doubt even but what a lot of good will be done for Austria through N.S.  There are not slaves, or unemployed or beggars in Germany.  There is actually a lack of workers + that is something when one considers the unemployed of the U.S.A.[20]

 

Shedd was no Nazi sympathizer whose letters can be dismissed as glorified propaganda.  For this reason and many others, passages like this provide some of the richest opportunities for deeper research and analysis.  To the modern reader, it is perhaps unbelievable that foreign students were allowed to remain for the duration of their year despite the general mobilization of the German forces in March, among other actions.  However, for exactly those reasons these experiences offer some of the most striking and inspiring examples of college students who were not afraid to think for themselves – a trait highly valued to this day.

Endnote

After being elected to Phi Beta Kappa as a junior while abroad in Germany, Shedd returned to Smith and continued to achieve academic excellence.  As a senior she was once again a member of Phi Beta Kappa.  Her senior honor’s thesis “Thomas Mann’s Short Stories” provided a capstone to Shedd’s studies in the Smith College German Department.

presented by Annecca Smith ’2015 Global STRIDE Fellow 2011-2012


[1] President Neilson (president of Smith College 1917-1939) advocated strongly and insistently for the importance of international perspectives and experiences.  He played an instrumental role in supporting and advancing international education for Smith students.

[2] Brochure about the JY Program

[3] October 3 1937

[4] Ibid.

[5] October 13 1937

[6] Ibid.

[7] October 22 1937

[8] May 14 1938

[9] June ?? 1938

[10] October 13 1937

[11] March 21 1938

[12] That is, from her housemates at Smith College.

[13] April 13 1938

[14] October 22 1937

[15] March 12 1938

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ibid.

[18] Ibid.

[19] April 4 1938

[20] Ibid

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