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Experiencing Post War Years through Junior Year Abroad, Geneva

Experiencing the Post War Years Through Study Abroad in Geneva

Students have myriad reasons for studying abroad –some want to experience an alternate educational system, others want to meet new people, some look forward to immersing themselves in a new culture, and some are simply indulging their wanderlust.   Regardless of the reason, everyone emerges from the experience with an enlightened worldview that would not have been possible had they remained safely ensconced in their home institution.  Yes, this has a lot to do with the program they are a part of, and with the professors and teaching styles in the other country.  But more than that, it is the country itself.  It is the new culture, the people, the language that shapes the student’s stay and their new knowledge of the world.  Looking through photographs, correspondence, booklets, and other mementos of past study abroad groups1  gives us a way to see into the lives of the women who traveled across the ocean to study, and lets us see how living in this new country was an education in itself and changed the way they saw the world.  Nowhere is this seen better than in the Geneva JYA groups in the immediate post-World War II years, from 1946-1948, where the Smith College students were able to learn about international politics as well as the war and post-war efforts in far greater depth than they would have otherwise.

 Classes and lectures

One of the most obvious ways of learning in a foreign country is, of course, the program itself.  The courses and lectures during the Post-War years were essential in helping the Smith college group learn about international topics.  One of the most memorable events was a lecture by Eleanor Roosevelt, as students  noted in their year-end report:

“To an audience of students from all over the world, she explained the purpose and accomplishments of the ‘Committee on Human Rights’ in a quiet and impressive manner.  The discussion period that followed was really exciting.  The students asked a variety of questions including ‘what did she think was the possibility of a third party in the United States,’ ‘what could the committee on Human Rights do about the Palestine situation where even the wishes of the majority had been overruled,’ and ‘what was the best way in which we could contribute to the building of a better world.’ She answered all the questions with an understanding of the problems and an impartiality which was unbelievable.  Her response to the last question was one to be remembered and applied: that now, “while you have more time than you will ever have again, you must take the opportunity to gain knowledge and understanding from the books that you read and from the people that you meet so that in the future you will be an influential individual who can guide those about you to more constructive thinking and acting.’  Finally, she made an appeal to the Americans present to carry back to the states our new comprehension of Europe and to fight to overcome the indifference which she was afraid that we would find upon our return.”  -Year-end-report of Director (1947)

International city

But classes can only take up so much of your day.  Luckily for the group, they were situated in one of the most international cities in the world, allowing them to explore and learn about foreign policy in the actual meetings where these discussions and decisions occur.  The year-end report of the 1947-48 group lists some of the many opportunities students had to witness momentous meetings:

“Taking advantage of our hours free from studies and classes, the group has spent a goodly number of mornings and afternoons at “le Palais des Nations” attending committee sessions of the Economic and Social Council. …In true democratic spirit and with very few exceptions they are all open to the public.  In the month of October we sat in on many sessions of the preparatory Commission of the International Refugee Organization.  Although Russia and the Eastern European countries were not represented, we found that a subtle hostility existed between two groups of members.  For budgetary reasons, …the Executive Secretary issued without the committee’s approbation, a ‘freeze order’ which terminated the extension of the monetary program.  The French and the Dutch objected that [he] has since distributed more of the committee’s funds…to special groups such as the Italians and the Yugoslavs, in all probability for political reasons.  We were a bit surprised to learn that political considerations entered so strongly into such a humanitarian effort, but concluded that we could not pretend to be idealists about the reconstruction of the world when confronted with such realities. 

The meetings of the Preparatory Commission on Minorities of the Human Rights Commission next claimed our attention, much of which was centered on the soviet delegate who spoke only in Russian.  As in all the sessions we have attended we were struck by the infinite time spent over technicalities and the different connotations of the same words in different languages.  However, the fact that here was an assembly of the most important nations in the world intelligently and quietly discussing the rights of minority groups was wonderful and significant in itself. 

The first of December the Commission on Human Rights, with Mrs. Roosevelt as its chairman, began holding sessions.  Expecting the whole city of Geneva to be present in the public gallery on the first morning, our contingent arrived an hour in advance and sat knitting and waiting all alone for the meeting to start! Although some others did turn op later we were appalled at the obvious lack of interest indicated by the ‘no-show’ public.  Mrs. Roosevelt we found to be a charming, excellent chairman, quick to discern the basic points of the discussion and to suggest acceptable compromises when the representatives disagreed.  From our attendance at these discussions, we not only realized more clearly the struggle between the desire to maintain national sovereignty and the hope of close international cooperation, but also gained many interesting side-lights on the life and ideas in the different countries.”  —Year End Report of Director (1947)

 Even during vacations, students listened in on central meetings, such as the Military Government conferences in Germany.

 “Then after lunch we were off again, to Wiesbaden, headquarters of the Military Government of Greater Hesse, where we were rushed from the bus to a staff conference which had been shifted for us as the best introduction to the Military Government.  Reports were given from all divisions, information and control, court, public safety, civil administration, public health, transportation, fiscal, public property, and education and religious affairs.  Each divisional head summarized developments within the last two or three week, which gave us some idea of the tremendous sweep of administration and control which this government comprises.  This was the beginning of a brief and intense process of absorption on our part, while statistics and figures, problems and procedures, were thrown at us.  […Later,] a talk by General Clay’s public relations officer threw more facts and problems at us.” —Rosamond Bennett (Smith); March 1947

 Living in Geneva wasn’t just useful in terms of attending discussions and meetings. The group learned other life lessons as well.



“Today I am sending you in the mail $130, insured.  When you receive it you’ll think I’m crazy, and when you hear why I’m sending you’ll think I’m awful.  You see, I just “played the exchange,” which is supposed to be legal, all the banks say it is…I’m also sure you’ll say that even if it isn’t considered illegal, its bad business ethics and I shouldn’t have done it. …To explain the system.  There is a temporary discrepancy between the buying and selling value of the dollar here, so that one may cash dollars at the rate of 4.25 Fr per dollar. …Then the bank will sell dollar bills for 3.40 Fr. …its fascinating isn’t it?  But if you don’t like the idea, either of me succumbing to greed or of sending so small a sum as $130, you may keep money. …Don’t be angry with me.  You can call it a lesson in economics and high international finance.”  – Jane Mead (Smith) ; November 1946



Talks, lectures, and discussions can only go so far to teach people about the world. The people the students encountered throughout their stay gave them first-hand accounts of international incidents as well as a broader understanding and tolerance of different cultures.     These people were most ofent fellow students such as those in the Chalet des Etudiants, a house in Combloux where international students could gather for conferences, or those they met in Prague while on vacation:


“The Chalet had gathered part of the world for a Christmas university.  There were nearly 100 students from France, Holland, Belgium, Denmark, Switzerland, Italy, Lithuania, Poland, Hungary, Romania, India, Trans-Jordan, England, Ireland, Australia, and the US.  French was the official language…the different national opinions made the conference interesting and Christmas and New Years eves were enchanting with glimpses at many national customs, dress, and songs.  We all acquired a singing knowledge of at least four languages!  It will be hard to forget those evenings but harder yet the small discussions after, when we learned respect for minds and education very different from our own.   -Andy Adelman (Smith); December 1947

 “[The Czechs] seemed badly informed about general issues such as the Marshall Plan, but were quick to condemn specific points which were evidently criticized in Czech newspapers.  Although the Czechs have complete freedom of speech, we have heard that freedom of the press is limited by the political parties in control. We met American students who were living in Charles University dormitories…They have organized an informal American information service to circulate articles on American politics and current American books, and they told us the Czechs want to hear American speakers, though they don’t usually agree with them.  The Czechs seemed to us the most idealistic people we have met, and they are fiercely devoted and determined to keep their national liberty and freedom.”  Wynn Mason (Wellesley)2; December 1947


But they could also be officials they met through their visits or lectures:


“…The [German] officers were ready to answer as best they could any and every question we put to them, which were many and varied.  The general impression was that of a very unusual group of men, …very well informed about what they were doing and why and interested and concerned about it. This, to my mind, was the most important of our many brief impressions, and I among others came away more cheered and optimistic than I would have thought possible, for the Military Government was competent, though terribly under-staffed.”  —Rosamond Bennett (Smith); March 1946.


Perhaps most interesting were the everyday citizens they crossed paths with in places like Spain and Prague or even on their boat to Europe:


“Later that afternoon, we were driven around the city, in a taxi, by a wealthy Barcelonan who proved to be an Angel throughout our stay.  …Though himself a monarchist, our friend spoke of the discontent of all Spaniards –with the exception of the ‘nouveau-riche’ military men and government workers –with the Franco regime.  He cited the main cause as being economic for Franco has done little to improve the lot of an impoverished nation.  However the difference between the left and the right is so extreme that up the present time it has been impossible for them to reach an agreement. Then he spoke bitterly of the Civil War in which he had served as an air pilot and watched his best friend bomb his own house; of the millions sent to prison and the many still remaining there. The general feeling in Spain was that the fascist state is doomed to die, but the questions of ‘how soon?’ and ‘what will happen next?’ were answered only by a shrug of the shoulders and ‘who knows?’ While talking our friend had lowered his voice to a whisper and in the taxi back to the hotel was careful to close the glass partition separating us from the driver, before continuing.  As we parted at the door, it was with ‘now, I haven’t told you anything…remember that.’  –Meryle Renie (New Jersey Women’s College)2; December 1947


“We met a Czech girl who had been in a Nazi concentration camp for 6 years, one of them spent in solitary confinement, and who escaped to join the guerilla forces in Poland.  When we asked her bout the Russia people, she told us something which we had never realized; that the entire area west of Moscow was almost completely destroyed by both Russian and German armies, and that the food and housing problem in Russia is probably worse than that in Germany.”  —Wynn Mason (Wellesley) 2; December 1947


“Really it’s so thrilling to meet people as I have. You just walk up to someone on the slightest pretext and before long you are listening to a most wonderful life history, or some fascinating ideas on almost every subject. My heart almost bursts with ecstasy every time I think of it. Lordy, I never knew the world consisted of such people.”  —Jane Mead (Smith); September 1946



After months of taking classes, listening to lectures, sitting in on committee meetings, and meeting new people, the Smith group had gained a strong knowledge of the effects of WWII and post-war efforts.  Traveling through different countries on their vacations, they were able to take in what they saw and analyze and understand it in a political and social context.


“Many of the Paris monuments still show the effect of the war.  The stained-glass windows of the Sainte Chapelle are not yet completely replaced, the beautiful wood paneling in the Palais de Versailles had been removed but is in the process of being restored.  The Louvre is only about half open.”   —Barbara Nugent (Bryn Mawr) 2; March 1947


“…Verona must be the worst bombed city in Italy.  After we went through, I spent ½ hour over the map hunting for a point of reference to race our route through the city by.  But it was hopeless.  All the wonderful historic treasures Baedeker tells us of are lost.”  —Ann Aldrich (Barnard) 2; March 1947

“[We left] ourselves to ponder the wonders of Italy—the vivacity of the people amidst their material ruin, the amazing amount of reconstruction already accomplished, their heritage of the past, and their apparent enthusiasm for a solidly-built future”  –-Ann Aldrich (Barnard) 2; March 1947


“Some people may say so, but I don’t think all these people were Nazis, or at least knowingly chose to be Nazis, and just as people, I can feel sympathy for them, even though professor Ropke dams them for being blind followers. …The only thing I can say is I wonder why the Italians have picked up, patched up, and carried on, so well, while the German cities are still a mess and the people look so idle. …The Italians aren’t considered the enemy as the Germans are and are pretty much working for themselves, while the Germans are occupied and under constant watch and orders.  If I were in an occupied country, I’d never do a lick of work until I’d gotten rid of the occupiers.  And there are undoubtedly more profound reasons, too.”  —Jane Mead (Smith); April 1947


Studying a language in a classroom can only take you so far, as the Smith College women found out once they arrived in Geneva.  But this real world classroom proved to be incredibly effective in gaining fluency.


“Our French is now really hysterical as we’ve starting changing literally English idioms into French: cold shoulder—donner l’épaule froide; un canard mort—dead duck.”  —Genie Tyler (Smith); September 1946


“We’ve run into another hilarious mistake…one girl had to fill out an export form as she was sending two glasses (verres).  She misspelled this as vers, which means she wanted to export two worms!!  Another incident of the same sort occurred when a girl wanted a bath towel to take a bath.  She called the femme de chamber and asked for one.  About ½ hr later the femme reappeared with a plumber with a blowtorch! We still don’t know what the girl said by mistake.”  –-Genie Tyler (Smith); November 1946


Giving back

When students travel abroad in a cultural exchange, they often forget the “exchange” part.  While they certainly gain a lot, it is important to remember that students studying abroad often teach their host culture some things as well.


            M. Martin, director of the University…told us we had brought a new spirit and new ideas to the University, showed them a new way of life, showed them that professors and students should be closer…and showed the students here that Americans can and do study and therefore perhaps they should try it themselves.”  –-Jane Mead (Smith); June 1947


Though the women in the Geneva JYA of the post-WWII years would probably have gained an adequate understanding of international politics had they remained at Smith, there is really no substitute for the knowledge they gained through their experiences and encounters during their year abroad.



1All quotes taken from the Geneva Junior Year Abroad Records,  Smith College Archives, Northampton, Massachusetts.

2While the groups going abroad were mostly Smith students, the Smith JYA programs were so popular that many women from other prestigious Women’s Colleges joined the Smith groups as well.  This accounts for the quotes from women who did not attend Smith, but were part of the Smith group in Geneva.

[prepared by Sheona Sauna ‘2013]


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