In the summer of 1944, I gave the graduation speech at Beverly Hills High School about coming to America as a refugee four years earlier, not speaking a word of English. In September of that year my mother and I drove to my new dorm at Scripps College, an all-women’s college in Claremont, California. It was a lovely enclave of learning in a small village with one movie house and mostly bicycle traffic.
We were two hundred girls divided into four dorms. There were only three foreign students at the time, and each of us was assigned to a different dorm. I was the tentative 17-year old with red braids and a French accent living in Browning Hall. To assure our integration into college life, we were not allowed to go home the first semester. By the time I could go home on weekends, I had become a newly, independent woman.
In the 1940s, Scripps required a four-year humanities program with only one elective per semester. It covered most of what happened on our planet from antiquity to the present time. This included world history and literature, science and art, and diverse religions and philosophies. (I chose to major in philosophy, and psychology was my minor). I still have the oil painting I did in art class of one of the Scripps gardens. There is little that I come across today that doesn’t trigger a memory of something I learned back then. So often when someone mentions an early scientific discovery or the name of an author long gone or a historical event, it feels familiar to me. It is part of a large database somewhere in my brain—stored in those college years between 1944 and 1947.
There was a curfew: 10 o’clock on weekdays and midnight on weekends. It was wartime, so we were often bussed to USO dances. I remember dancing with one of the soldiers. When I told him I was born in Paris, he told me he had flown over it everyday during training. I was surprised, but it turned out to be Paris, Texas (not France).
My memories of college and myself at that time are that I was a very studious girl who loved books, my professors, and college life in general. When I recently found my diary, I discovered that at 17 all I wrote about was boys.
In May 1946, I was shaken to my core and out of my self-indulgence by a call from my mother who had just received a letter from her uncle Venia. My grandparents had been shot by the Nazis, and my cousin Rivatchka was taken on a ship, raped by German soldiers, and thrown into the ocean. These events colored my life forever. I take nothing for granted.
When I turned twenty-one in October 1947, I was finally able to obtain my American citizenship. I had to pass an exam in American history and government in front of three judges. Since I had just taken such a course, I was able to answer all the questions. For fun, the judges kept asking me harder and harder questions, which I kept answering correctly—one of the proudest moments of my life!
Scripps College gave me an amazing education. In these times of specialization, I am a strong advocate of knowing the basics of not only our culture, but the histories and cultures of other countries. Scripps College not only taught me subject matter, it imbued me with a love of learning which I still pursue today.
The scrapbook I found along with my diary was filled with photos of camping trips, boys in uniform writing from far-away war zones, dance cards, letters from my mother admonishing me to concentrate on my studies, letters from my father in Russian, and confessions of crushes on professors or having necked with a boy in the rumble seat. I had not looked at that scrapbook in seventy years! The teenaged girl that emerges from those pages is vaguely familiar. There are parts that still exist in me today: the silly, fun-loving parts as well as the penchant for deep philosophical discussions about the meaning of life.
At the retirement community where I live I am reminded of the all-night dorm room conversations — except now they occur at breakfast. As students we quoted the philosophers we were studying; now we quote ourselves and the experiences of our lifetimes. We had a wide open future then; now, we have a well-lived past with new knowledge continuing to knock on our doors.
Natasha Josefowitz is the author of more than 20 books. She currently resides at White Sands Retirement Community in La Jolla. Copyright © 2019. Natasha Josefowitz. All rights reserved.