An Alumna Remembers - Global Initiatives 65 Years Ago
By Jo Ellen Warner
“Your bombs had fallen on our cities,” the 85-year-old Austrian Mount Holyoke alumna said, recalling her homeland in World War II. “My father was a former World War II POW. He thought I was crazy to come here after the war. He didn’t know what a campus was and believed it was a type of prison.”
On this bright September day, Dr. Luitgard Knoll sports a new MHC bandana around her neck, her face shining with the light of remembered courage. She was only 18 at the time of her father’s warning, but would not be put off from her dream. (Photo: Eva Paus, Director of the McCulloch Center for Global Initiatives, Welcomes Dr. Luitgard Knoll and her grandson Tobias)
The stars had aligned for Luitgard (whose maiden name was Maresch). In 1950, the year before her high school graduation, the inaugural Austria and American Fulbright Program announced its first student exchange initiative. One of her teachers pushed her extra hard to get good grades and apply. Luitgard was accepted and embarked on a ten-day ocean voyage to Mount Holyoke where Wilder Hall became her new residence for the academic year 1951-52.
Luitgard aspired to study English and French, but Mount Holyoke Professor Alice Stevens insisted she concentrate on her English, despite having aced both English and French placement exams. Luitgard admitted to some difficulties. At the start of her first semester, she found it irritating that Dr. Gregory, her chemistry teacher, a scientist, made so much mention of Adam, only to finally realize he was saying “atom”. “He’s a mumbler,” she wrote home in one of the dozens of letters to her parents. They saved every one.
Luitgard recalls the grand events, the picnics, the ball--and the gown she needed to borrow from another girl. She celebrated her three daily meals, a bounty gone from her homeland in the poverty-stricken years after the war. Her Austrian education, too, had been impoverished; the only textbooks were those sanctioned by the Nazi Propaganda Ministry. When the new government later confiscated those, there was no paper for printing truthful ones.
But what Luitgard was most unprepared for was the college’s democratic values. “Freedom, fellowship, and faith,” are the trinity she recounts, amazed by the diversity of religious and political beliefs, and the openness to express them. “Debating – you never heard of it back home – that your own opinion mattered.”
In the thrall of her college days, Luitgard may not have thought about it at the time, but she was fulfilling the Fulbright vision—“to encourage attitudes of personal empathy, and the rare and wonderful ability to perceive the world as others see it.” She gained perceptions and perspectives that transcend national boundaries, which is the promise of international study. (Photo: Luitgard Maresch graduating in 1952)
After Luitgard returned home, she won her Ph.D. at the University of Graz and built a successful career translating both English and French, exceeding Professor Stevens' take on her abilities.
Luitgard is writing her memoir, which includes the blue folios of airmail letters that her parents saved. With her own large family and a busy career, she never managed to return to the States. Then her grandson Tobias surprised her with a scheme--and tickets--to travel back with her to her alma mater on the occasion of her 85th birthday.
“I had never come back,” she said, “but I was always in Mount Holyoke.”