Smith JYA Spain and President William Allan Neilson
Smith College is often recognized for its successful Junior Year Abroad programs, providing students with abundant opportunities to study in foreign countries for either an entire year or a semester. It was one of the first liberal arts colleges to offer its students such a wonderful opportunity with the introduction of its program in Paris in 1925. Today, through the Office of International Studies, all students (regardless of backgrounds and incomes) have a choice to study in one of fifty-three countries that span seven regions of the world (and over 40% of third-years choose to do so). It was during his presidency at Smith College from 1917-1939 that William Allan Neilson established the Junior Year Abroad programs. These programs were just one of the major endeavors that Neilson undertook in order to build Smith College as an institution. Others areas of development under Neilson’s leadership included the building of the Great Quadrangle, the purchase of houses in Northampton (Sessions, Talbot etc.) in order to expand on-campus housing, and the establishment of the Special Honors program.
Under Neilson’s guidance, the Study Abroad program expanded to include countries such as France, Italy, Mexico and Spain. Because many of the students were leaving to go abroad for the first time in their lives, Smith tried to make the transition as easy as possible. Students who chose to do their Junior Year Abroad in Spain arrived in August and “spent [the month] at a summer school in Santander in the North of Spain” improving their proficiency in the Spanish language (considering that many students arrived with only the minimum requirement of two years of the language. By September the group was moved to the capital of Madrid, where they spent another two months of three hours of daily private instruction in conversation, followed by grammar and composition lessons, in preparation for the opening of the university year in Madrid; it is obvious from Neilson’s letters that he expected much from the young ladies abroad. Students, once established in their host countries, were not even permitted to travel abroad during the Christmas recess “for fear that visiting another country would interfere with their progress in Spanish.” The students continued their studies until June, when they returned home. The cost of a year abroad in the 1930’s was $1,000 per student, not including traveling or incidentals. Through an investigation of President Neilson’s correspondence during his time at Smith, it is obvious that the study abroad programs were one of his top priorities and its success was something he considered near to his heart. In his letters to parents and Smith faculty abroad, he often expressed concern over the quality of living and education that was made available to Smith students. Even when problems would arise in the host country, Neilson would take it upon himself to remedy any issues or concerns, from the hiring of new instructors (for which he spared no expense), to improving the quality of food for students. His interests extended to concern with the individual academic and personal performance of students while abroad. Many a letter was written by parents to Neilson concerning their daughter’s class standing, all of which Neilson personally answered; his level of concern and consideration cannot be overlooked. In Spain during this period, the program was entrusted to Smith Professor Caroline Bourland; beginning in 1936 the college would also include Professor Ruth Kennedy as one of its leaders abroad. While Neilson, with the cooperation of Kennedy and Bourland, did his best to maintain the program in Spain, with the conclusion of World War I in 1918, Europe in the nineteen-twenties and thirties was a place of tumultuous politics and unstable governments. Although the Republic’s flag flew in Spain from 1931, in 1936 the Republic was overthrown.
In 1931, Spain ushered in a newly elected (and much desired) Republic. The monarchy was dead, and at this time few seemed willing to revive it. A Republic seemed like a logical choice when the popular vote elected a socialist and republican form of government. This newly elected government came into office with a myriad of hopes and goals for constitutional liberties and freedoms for the people of Spain. It aimed to turn a country around whose focus remained its glorious past. They sought to rid Spain of traditional political structures and domination by the upper class and by the Catholic Church, almost as if they were aspiring to build a utopian society. However, the Republic itself was not popular enough to muster the support needed to proceed with such major changes. There were too many differing and opposing factions with different goals and objectives, leading to chaos in Spain. In the elections of nineteen thirty-six a referendum passed calling for the establishment of a republic which actively included all of the social classes, but there were many right wing parties that opposed this. The Spanish military was included in this group; they preferred a known hierarchy and order. Formally uniting as rebels behind General Francisco Franco, it was the Spanish military that seized control and kept it throughout the ensuing civil war. Such world events did not go overlooked by the Smith Junior Year Abroad programs. Because the health and safety of Smith students was Neilson’s priority, when the Second Republic of Spain began to have political difficulties, Neilson made the decision to withdraw the students from the country and to send them, initially, to Paris. In President Neilson’s correspondence there is a Western Union telegram with instructions to Ruth Kennedy on the precautions to be taken because of the political turmoil, “Take group Paris arrange Spanish lessons there. August suggest Reid Hall Four Rue Chevereuse for living accommodations probably return here September.” Once the conditions began to deteriorate, there was an immediate call to evacuate the Smith students to Paris and to discontinue the JYA program in Spain during the Spanish Civil War, as this letter from President Neilson to the father of a concerned student implies: “The course of events in Spain has rendered it very improbable that we shall be able to carry out our plans who expected to spend their Junior year there.” Some writings in the file indicate that a program at Golbert College in Mexico City might serve as asuitable alternative for Smith students who had planned to go to Spain.
There is no way of telling what President Neilson’s sentiments were about the impending Spanish Civil War. The only indication of his opinion is contained in a letter to Caroline Bourland stating “From this distance things seem to be sufficiently calm and there seems to be a prospect of the Republican Government having a chance.” This is the only sign that would imply President Neilson’s opposition to General Franco’s rebellion.
Works Consulted OIS, Office of International Studies. “Smith College Study Abroad.” http://www.smith.edu/studyabroad/programs.php (accessed 11/28/2008). Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. New York: A Harvest/HBJ Book, 1952. Thomas, Hugh. La Guerra Civil Española. Barcelona: DeBolsillo, 2003. William Allen Neilson Personal Papers, Box 52 and 33 , Smith College Archives.