Smith College, Here I Come! Or: Letters from Paradise Pond

Almost exactly 50 years ago I left for a year of study in the United States. In the summer of 1968, after one year of reading French and German at Bonn University I boarded the “Aurelia” at Calais, waved good-bye to my parents and my grandmother and arrived in New York City ten days later, to attend Smith College, Northampton, Mass.

How could this happen?

1967, in the summer after my Abitur, my parents gave me an extraordinary present: A seven-week trip to the United States. They had promised me a long trip of my own choosing if I did not smoke before completing grammar school. The trip was organized by the Experiment in International Living and our group of seven young people was looked after by an older student who had spent a year at Smith College one year earlier, Elisabeth Fruehauf [Muhlenberg] (Am.S.Dipl.’1966). We became fast friends and through her good offices I was taken to Northampton and my first glance of the campus was enough to make me try everything in my power to study here. In his song about “The Alma Mater” Tom Lehrer makes fun of “ivy-covered professors in ivy-covered halls”, but for me this campus was magic – the gracious old buildings surrounded by parkland with huge old trees and a lake in the middle. The whole set-up reminded me of Cambridge, England that I had visited at the age of 14 and where I had first felt this urge to study abroad.

At Smith I was granted an interview and I must have left a favourable impression because I was asked to apply for a scholarship to obtain the “Diploma in American Studies”, open to foreign students. Imagine my exhilaration when I was awarded this scholarship which covered both college fees as well as room and board. My generous parents, who had hitherto financed any activity I felt inclined to pick up, could never have given me this opportunity. At that point I had no idea just how prestigious a college I was about to enter, one of the famous Seven Sisters that every American woman would have loved to attend.

In the 1960s a German Abitur was considered the equivalent of an American Bachelor’s degree and therefore, although I had only one year of study under my belt I was considered a graduate student. This way I did not have to share a room with a freshman, but instead had the privilege of a room to myself in one of the two graduate houses, namely 8 Bedford Terrace.

As these were the days where telephone rates for calls between the USA and Europe were outrageous and the internet did not exist I would write postcards and letters to my parents instead. After my parents’ death I found 39 of my letters lovingly assembled in chronological order – and tied together with an elastic band such as my grandmother would use for her jam jars.

Eventually I hope to write down my “Smith experience” with the help of these letters. Today I will concentrate on one of the most important experiences that I had during my stay, namely the election of 1968. As part of my course requirement for Government where I was expected to gain practical experience of the political process I had joined the campaign of a young lawyer, Mr. Alan Sisitsky, who wanted to become a member of the Massachusetts State Legislature. We Smithies were taken to certain rather posh neighborhoods where we distributed flyers and tried to convince people of the merits of Mr. Sisitsky as opposed to the many flaws and misdemeanors of the incumbent who needed to be deposed. In the end our candidate won his seat by a very slim margin – 139 votes actually – and we Smithies felt that this result was, in part at least, due to our passionate efforts.

Of course, the national election whose outcome was a landslide–victory for Richard Nixon was much more important. When I talked to professors or older students who had voted and where I could safely assume that they were Democrats or had at least cast their vote for the Democratic candidate, Mr. Humphrey, I was surprised that they all reacted in a similar fashion: “Yes, we were disappointed, but now Mr. Nixon is our president and we rally behind him.” This acceptance of the outcome of a political process and the show of respect towards an elected official even if he or she did not represent one’s political ideas was amazing to me. I thought of my parents who were Social Democrats and were very much in opposition then to our conservative chancellor Konrad Adenauer and would criticize his political decisions without restraint. I was impressed that Americans were able to show respect towards the office rather than the particular person who is holding down this office. It is the office that demands respect and this respect is given without question.

You will guess which point I am trying to make. Even before President Trump was elected this admirable attitude was no longer prevalent. I will never forget an incident that I happened to see on TV: In 2009 President Obama was addressing both houses when the Republican Representative Joe Wilson from North Carolina stood up and shouted: “You lie!” This was not just a breach of etiquette, this was the revocation of an unwritten social contract which signaled the advent of a new era of bipartisanship which is so detrimental to the functioning of any political system, particularly to the American system which is built on compromise.

I trust that the American institutions of government and their famous “checks and balances” will prove resilient enough to overcome this difficult period undamaged. I will always be grateful for having experienced the United States as an exceptional country which inspired confidence and trust in its political structures.

Allow me to close with a reassuring thought from your own college: In 2012 I wrote a memoir about Miss Edna Rees Williams who had taught “English for Foreign Students” in 1968. I had remained in contact with her and in 1970, in her last letter to me, she referred to the “troubled times we live in” and wrote: “I for one like to pause now and then and just remember that we can rest, spiritually, in the thought that we need not be afraid for the world and the way of life that many of us cherish deeply to be handed into the keeping of the many young who are fine, true as steel, awake, such as you are and a lot of others, right here in this one college whom I could name, – and this is just one place where they are.”

To Kathleen McCartney, President of Smith College
On the occasion of the “Smith–in–Europe” meeting in Brussels, October 2018

Eva Amann-Brockhaus, A.M.S.DIPL.’69 is an alumna of the German Diploma program.

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