Campus News

Commencement Speech: "My Bowdoin Education Began in September of 1947

Story posted May 26, 2001

My Bowdoin Education Began in September of 1947
Christine Anne DeTroy

Speaker Saxl, Honorands, Mr. Kurtz, President Edwards, Distinguished Guests, Members of the Bowdoin Community, and Friends:

My Bowdoin education began in September of 1947. It was the month when my husband Pete, a veteran of World War II, matriculated at Bowdoin, and it was only a few months after I had arrived in this country from Germany. My education, although it did not take place in a Bowdoin classroom, began by becoming a part of the College community, getting to know the faculty and students at social functions, becoming a member of the Bowdoin Wives Association, a group of women whose husbands were attending Bowdoin College on the G. I. Bill, and getting involved in volunteer activities. I tutored some of my husband's fellow classmates in Beginning German, wrapped Christmas presents in the bookstore, and worked in the Art Museum during on semester break. It was a brand new world for me, a time of learning and listening, reading and discussing, and late night typing of my husband's papers on an ancient manual type writer.

Everything about Bowdoin and Brunswick was new and exciting for me after the years of the oppressive Hitler regime, the years of World War II and the post-war years. Here was no fear, here was no hunger, at least not from my limited perspective. There were people who smiled, people who wanted to be friends, people who helped me to adjust to my new environment. There was that famous Bowdoin hello, a greeting one extended to those one knew well and to those one barely knew. It was an amazing experience.

But it was also a time when I learned about segregation and racism, even at Bowdoin. Although, of course, it was not sanctioned. The institution of segregation between the races in the United States was something about which I knew nothing when I arrived here in '47. Having read the Bill of Rights, I did not question that equality among the races was a commitment that all United States citizens freely acknowledged. I was very young and na´ve, eager to believe in democracy's promise of universal equality and justice..

What did I learn at Bowdoin while my husband worked toward his degree? I believe I matured and learned to have self-confidence in my ideas, self-confidence to express myself, self-confidence to go against the grain of set behavior and traditions if they were contrary to my principles. Having grown up under the dictatorship of the Third Reich during World War II, my life had been based on survival, which included quiet obedience to public commands. Even as a child I was aware of the regime which not only controlled all information and action, but which actively encourage spying, even among children. In school and on the playground I had to look around and check who listened before I could open my mouth. Listening to a foreign radio station was a punishable crime and when we did turn to the BBC station our radio was put on a pillow, the sound turned way down, my sister would listen with the ear right next to the speaker, while on of us looked through a slit in the curtain to make sure no one was standing out near the house. Now, living in a new world, I was not willing to live in silence ever again and I must acknowledge my husband's understanding of my need to speak with an unfettered voice.

In February of 1950, a few months before my husband graduated from Bowdoin, Senator Joseph McCarthy began his crusade against Communism in this country, actually a crusade against anyone who did not share his political fears. Using the tactics of guilt by association and casting doubt among people about what it meant to be a "loyal" American, he created uncertainty and distrust. People everywhere began to be afraid to discuss progressive ideas because they might not be considered to be a loyal American. Even Bowdoin was affected by the presence of McCarthy, although discussions among some students continued freely. McCarthy and his methods of intimidation and persecution frightened me, not because of the issues themselves, but because the division he created within the United States threatened open discussion and the freedom to disagree. Was I intimidated by McCarthy? No, I had feared speakers like the Senator in Germany, but now my personal fear was gone. I know that my ideals were seeded and nurtured by my mother and our friends in the artist colony in Northern Germany where I grew up, but certainly Bowdoin was the first environment where I was able to test my beliefs and where I could express my thoughts on the major issues of justice and freedom.

After my husband, and our two children, and I left Bowdoin in 1950, we moved to Wesleyan University, from there to Columbia University, back to Brunswick, and many other locations around the country until my husband and I returned here in the fall of 1989. In the intervening years our family had grown to include seven children and all of them grew up with a sense of political independence, which was an essential component of our family. Yes, we marched for Civil Rights and for peace and human rights in Washington and Chicago. Yes, I insisted that even as children they be aware of injustice and oppression and accept the consequences of an unpopular stance. I hoped that the voice I had to struggle for should be equally important to them, not to be taken for granted or ignored.

After our sojourn of forty-eight years, years spend in tending to our family and the public and private causes which moved our spirit, our return to Bowdoin was a homecoming for both of us! Within the year my husband was attending math courses at the College and I was working at the Career Planning Center. With the financial assistance of a Bowdoin employee benefit program, which allows staff members to attend classes and matriculate, I embarked on a course of study which has brought me to this point - a member of the graduating Class of 2001. Pete has been my inspiration all these years. That he is not with us to share in the joy and excitement of this day is a source of great sadness, but although absent in body, Pete's spirit has always been present - as it is today, even though he could not respond to my please for help during late night struggles with difficult reading and essay assignments: I would say, "Pete, why aren't you here to discuss this with me?"

My classroom education has been a singular experience for me. Yes, I knew that I had a lot to learn, but I did not know that I knew so little. My experiences had been in the practical worlds, wife, mother, and activist plus a few jobs outside the home. It was time to back up my ideas and ideals with sound knowledge.

What has been most remarkable for me in my course of study ahs been the self-knowledge that I have gained over the past six years. German being my native language, but actually knowing very little about German thought and imaginative writing, I began my classroom education at Bowdoin in the German department and chose to be a German major. My study of German literature has given me insight into myself and has broadened my understanding of myself within my native culture. I have accepted that, for better or for worse, I did not create the person who I am, but that I was impacted by German culture and the events and experience during the Nazi regime. I acknowledge that the Holocaust ahs been and continues to be the singular and most painful part of my German heritage. I submit that I cannot do anything but grieve for the innocent victims of the Holocaust, for nothing can alleviate or erase the pain it has caused.

The knowledge I have gained in my German literature courses, in the courses of African-American literature and history (I am an Africana Studies minor), and other courses, have added immeasurable to my life. How will I use this learning? No, I am not embarking on another career, but I shall return to community activism with a deeper understanding of the issues that face all of us. Primarily, I am interested in working with young people, a field in which I had been engaged for several years before our return to Maine. Some of my most meaningful years were spent directing a community center in east Norwalk, Connecticut, and I would like to be involved in a similar program again. I envision a center in Brunswick for and with young people, which does not focus on conformity, but on individualism within the context of self-respect and common concern. Did I mention that I have twenty-two grandchildren and two great-grandchildren? I would like to spend many more hours with them so that we can get to know each other better.

Why have I told you my story? Not to offer anyparticular wisdom I may have gained along the way, but to encourage my fellow students, as well as their families, actually all of us all around the campus today, to use our education beyond the marketplace, beyond the golf course and the racquet club; to know that you have a voice with which you can speak up, in common cause with people everywhere. My personal advice - longingly given: be inclusive and liberate yourself from selfishness and elitism; apply the insights you have gained through your education in all situations, but do not assume that you education automatically entitles you to a leadership position; do not believe that an individual nor a nation is singled out to be a leader among others because of wealth and power; contribute your learning and who you are to achieve equality and justice among your neighbors and people everywhere. This is what our liberal arts education has prepared us for!

It's been nearly fifty-four years since I first arrived at the College and began my Bowdoin education. Today I am thrilled to be able to stand before you as a candidate for the degree of Bachelor of Arts. I thank God and the whole Bowdoin community for those wonderful years.

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