Mike Oliver and Judy Burns in Rome
Study Abroad, Chico State Style
Fifty students. Five professors. Nine countries. Ten months. Seven VW vans. One heck of an adventure. Fifty years later, alums still consider their grand tour of Europe a high point of their college experience.
By Marion Harmon
“We were a group of rag-tail, small-town kids, most of whom had never been out of the state, let alone on a cross-country plane trip; heaven forbid, a cross-Atlantic ocean liner,” says Mary (Peter) Kamian (AB, Language Arts, ’60). “Definitely novices in the world travel department but, as it turns out, a resilient group, a really tough crowd of previously sheltered, wide-eyed Northern California kids who were committed to the long haul.”
When 50 Chico State College students boarded the SS Atlantic in New York on Aug. 23, 1959, they were experiencing many emotions: excitement, wonder, dread, happiness, twinges of homesickness—an overload of feelings that were hard to process. After all, this was the biggest adventure most had undertaken to this point in their young lives.
“I remember vividly my first glimpse of Europe from shipboard,” says Kathryn “Kitty” (Kiechler) Kasselman (AB, Spanish, ’61). “I was thinking that at least I had seen Europe, and I could now die happy.”
Fifty years later, Kasselman is one of a dozen participants in the Chico State College Study Year Abroad, 1959–1960, who have shared their story, painted in pictures of historic sites and quaint settings, intense learning and epic adventure, spirited hijinks and singular moments.
“The scenery, countryside, and mountains were more striking and beautiful than I had imagined,” says Jerry Hill (AB, Biological Sciences, ’62). “The scale and history of the cities and villages were so different from what I was used to in Northern California, and most everything was neat and well kept. We used to joke that in Switzerland even the weeds grew in formation.”
During the course of the trip, the students formed bonds, some of them lifelong. “We got through the pain of separation by forming our own cluster families and complaining a lot, really a lot,” says Kamian. “How the adults could stand us is beyond me.”
The adults were five Chico State professors, headed by history professor Lew Oliver, whose brainchild this 10-month, nine-country tour of Europe was. The other four were Bob Souders (English) and his wife, Jean Souders (Art), John Haupert (Geography), and Virginia Socolofsky (Music). The tour took place in seven Volkswagen microbuses. Total cost for tuition, room, board, and transportation (including the VWs) was $2,000 per head.
The fee included books, admission to museums, the opera, and concerts, says Ted LoPresti (AB, Social Science, ’61). “Personal expenses varied, of course,” he says. “It was the bargain of a lifetime.” Sam Cody (AB, Spanish, ’61; Credential, ’62) was surprised by how much was offered for the price paid. “The price even included two large metal suitcases with our name stenciled on them,” he recalls. Those who completed the tour (some went home early) received 34 units of college credit.
“[Geography professor] Dave Lantis told me that Dr. O had been to Europe three or four times and was absolutely infatuated with it,” says LoPresti. “He came up with the idea and proposal entirely on his own because he thought it would be the ultimate way to study the area, i.e., by actually being there.”
Academics and adventure
Although the students carried a full academic load during their time abroad, Hill says “exploring a new city was usually my first priority and homework was second.” Hill loved traversing a city with other students. “We would leave the hotel and explore the city by foot,” he recalls. “It did not matter how tired we were because the excitement was too much and the fear of missing a gem was too great.”
Gary Heaslet (AB, Psychology, ’62) says that as they traveled from place to place and their confidence and independence increased, “this exploring and discovering effort approached an art form. Various students would come back at dinnertime and brag about something they had done or a place they had discovered. It was friendly competition that in effect expanded the travel experience considerably.”
Along with earning credits toward his social science degree, LoPresti wanted to see as much of Western Europe as possible and to meet some of his relatives in his father’s birthplace of Prizzi, Sicily. He says the trip exceeded all his expectations. Among his fondest memories are meeting his relatives.
“Probably most dear to my heart is the one involving my two uncles on my father’s side and visiting the home in Prizzi where my father was born and raised until he migrated to the United States at age 17 and never got the opportunity to return,” says LoPresti.
Others appreciated the classes they took before the trip that gave them some helpful background to the historical places they were visiting. “Two classes I took on the Chico campus, for which I am eternally grateful, are History of Western Civilization and Art History,” says Kamian. “Without that background, much of the wonders of Western Europe would have been lost on me. My favorite class while on the trip was Roman History with Dr. Oliver. I still regret tearing up those notes after final exams in London.”
The participants emphasize that the coursework was challenging, and many found it changed the way they studied when they came back to Chico. “When I returned to the Chico State campus, I became a more committed student,” says Mike Oliver (AB, Psychology, ’62), no relation to Lew Oliver.
Memories for a lifetime
Academic learning and rigor were of course emphasized, but many non-academic memories were also made along the way. “The fun lasted the entire 10 months of the trip,” says LoPresti. “Fifty college students, five instructors, living and studying in close proximity, generated a constant stream of fun and games in addition to some serious study. Each of us returned home with a trunk load of memories.”
Too many to put to the printed page, according to Kamian. “Three highlights for me of this amazing trip—besides the friendships I made, some of which have endured for 50 years—were the colors of autumn while our VW buses made the trip through the Alps, the art in Amsterdam, and the half-price ticket booth in London. Attending those plays when I should have been preparing for final exams got me through the last, most agonizing month of homesickness.”
It was natural for them to form close bonds over the many months they spent traveling, studying, and living together. “The students became like sisters and brothers to me for the months that we traveled together,” says Dorothy (Marshall) Peterson (AB, Education, ’61; Credential, ’62). “We took chances that created character building and trust between us.”
Peterson recalls the two Christmases they spent together: one in Italy and one in Spain, with New Year’s Eve between the two. “The two countries celebrated their Christmases on a different Christian calendar year,” she explains. “A group of six of us girls on the trip heard that the USS Saratoga was in Cannes on the Riviera in France, in between our traveling from Rome to Barcelona.”
The six of them convinced their professors that they would stay together and catch up with them in five days by train and not miss a single day of classes. “Off the bus we went and cobbled our funds together to survive,” she recalls. “We crowded all six of us into one B&B with the owners turning a blind eye; bought our train tickets right away, and then decided the only way that we could get enough food was to date officers on the USS Saratoga.”
The ship had been at sea for three months, and they were the first American girls the officers had dated for a long time, says Peterson. “We shared the breakfast that came for four persons, but the officers took us out for fine dining, several times with the other officers on the aircraft carrier. This would never have been something that I’d have done in the States.”
Day-to-day activities also remain among the alums’ recollections. “We waited for mail call at every stop, we coveted the rooms with a shower, we searched for a record player so we could play our Johnny Mathis and Kingston Trio records, we played cards, we played cards, and we played cards,” remembers Kamian.
Meeting new people was another bonus of their time abroad, says Tonya (Smithousen) Koblick (AB, Life and General Science, ’60; Credential, ’64; MA, Biological Sciences, ’65). “It was fun to meet other college students from different parts of the U.S. and to compare our thoughts and attitudes concerning life,” she says. “There were many long nights of philosophical discussion where we solved the world’s problems.”
Although World War II had ended 14 years before their visit, reconstruction was still underway. “We saw occasional damaged or destroyed buildings serving as reminders of that conflict,” says Oliver. “Bad Voslau was a small town and spa near Vienna. As I recall, we were told that the Russian army had occupied it during and after World War II. When they left, they took much of the infrastructure with them, such as rain gutters and plumbing. Bad Voslau was still suffering from the effects of that occupation in 1959.
“When I returned in the late 1990s, I was impressed at how the town had recovered. It is now a thriving, modern city with little resemblance to the struggling village we visited 40 years earlier.”
One poignant event that several trip participants still talk about occurred during a field trip to the Austria-Hungary border. “When we arrived, we saw a woman and her father being reunited after having been apart for 10 years,” says Oliver. “She was living in the U.S., and he in Hungary. I spoke with her and learned that his visit to the West would be limited to two weeks, after which he would be required to return to Hungary. I found that to be incredibly moving. It gave me a stark appreciation of the freedom we take for granted in the U.S.”
Also during their trip there was a U2 incident when an American pilot was shot down over Soviet territory. “I remember sitting in an upstairs ‘classroom’ of a hotel in Spain discussing what might happen to us if the incident escalated to war,” says Marlene (Maselli) Schuessler (AB, Language Arts, ’60). “It was intense to say the least.”
Side trips came with their own brand of learning. “Four of us took a week ‘off’ and drove a VW Bug behind the Iron Curtain visiting East Berlin, East Germany, and Czechoslovakia,” says LoPresti. “Large expanses of East Berlin and Dresden were still in ruins from World War II. The communists were apparently in no big hurry. We celebrated New Year’s Eve in our hotel in Prague along with some of the natives. East Germany was pretty depressing.”
In visiting Berlin this summer, LoPresti found the city quite changed. “Our guide mentioned that it is obvious that the part of Germany including Berlin that was behind the Iron Curtain has still not caught up completely with the rest of the country in rebuilding, and I would agree, but the progress they have made is impressive,” says LoPresti. “I recall from my first visit to Berlin the blocks and blocks of destroyed buildings and endless piles of rubble. Today all of this is gone, sort of. Scattered throughout the city are huge, grass-covered mounds, mountains almost, where the Germans simply pushed the debris into piles and then let Mother Nature have her way with them with a little landscaping help from the Berliners.”
Taking it all in
Cultural differences were expected by the students, and surprises were part of the adventure they had signed up for.
“Everything was a surprise, and yet nothing was a surprise,” says Schuessler. “The train systems were far superior to ours, the highways in Germany and Italy were very streamlined, the outdoor cafés were more abundant and charming than any in the U.S. We saw public kissing in France (something you didn’t see at all in the U.S. during the ’50s). We tasted the most delicious chocolate in Vienna, great fried calamari in Barcelona, delicious cuisine in provincial France, not to forget the pasta in Italy.”
As is to be expected, the participants report that they experienced growth, both academically and personally, during the trip. “I became more aware, more tolerant, more inquisitive, more knowledgeable,” says Schuessler.
LoPresti appreciated the variety and depth of their learning experience. “Personal growth for me was through cultural enrichment and enlightenment and intellectual stimulation in so many different areas: the museums and all of the wonderful art, the opera, the ancient architecture of the cities, the people, the history, the geography,” he says. “To read about it is one thing. To see it in person is a whole different experience.”
There was growth of another kind for many, much to the chagrin of their parents. “I went to Europe with long skirts in my suitcase and came back with modified minis,” says Kasselman. “My mother was horrified. Hey, by then it was the ’60s, and Europe was way ahead of us fashionwise.”
Kasselman says she maintains a continuing interest in foreign cultures, and the trip inspired her to study several foreign languages—French, Portuguese, Latin, Italian, and German—to varying degrees of proficiency. “I do it for fun,” she says. The study abroad also helped Kasselman get four teaching positions and become accepted to both the masters and PhD programs in the Spanish and Portuguese Department at Kansas University. “Academicians on all levels marvel at the scope of the Chico State College Study Year Abroad,” she says. “To my knowledge, none can match it.”
Along with commenting on the unique nature of the program, many participants mention how grateful they are to Lew Oliver for putting together such an amazing learning experience and, as LoPresti puts it, “actually pulling it off with no serious consequences.”
“It was unique; it was the trip of a lifetime for most of us; it was unbelievable!” says LoPresti. “I think everyone who participated will agree that Dr. Oliver earned the respect and admiration of the entire group.”
Heaslet, who says it must have been like herding cats for 10 months, says that Oliver set the bar very high for international study programs. “He was an amazing man. As time has passed, I have grown to admire him more and more for having the imagination, knowledge and insight, financial talent, tolerance of students, and personal integrity and fortitude to bring this dream to reality.” Oliver, a Chico State professor for 26 years, retired in 1971 after serving as acting president of Chico State College for a year.
Quite a few of the group have revisited the places they toured on their study abroad. Kasselman returned five years later with her parents, loosely following the Chico State itinerary for three weeks. Several have lived in Europe—Oliver and his wife maintain a flat in Paris—and in August 2009 Kathleen (Dunn) Noneman took a 50-year commemorative trip with her husband. “Although we have lived in Europe and visited there many times,” she says, “I tried to see it again through the eyes of that 21-year-old.”
Special thanks to alum Mike Oliver, whose idea this article was and who helped gather the interviews and photos. And thanks to all the alums who contributed their thoughts and memories.
Working for a Dream
Raising the $2,000 for the Chico State College Study Year Abroad seemed like an impossibility for Kathleen (Dunn) Noneman (AB, Language Arts, ’60), who says she had no money, lived at home, and worked 40 hours a week for United California Theatres in Chico.
“The trip was announced in the spring of my freshman year,” she says. “It was like a dream come true because I had always wanted to travel and try to understand the world. I asked Dr. Oliver if I could go on the installment plan. I started making payments in fall 1957. I saved $300 that summer and proudly took it in to Dr. Oliver for my first payment.”
Along with working to save for the trip, Noneman received help from many in the Chico community. “I bought no books, thanks to a librarian allowing me to check out textbooks from the library, a big no-no in those days, and my fellow students lending me theirs,” recalls Noneman. “I was cashier at the Senator Theatre, and when my classmates came to the movies, they would hand me their textbooks for the duration of the film. I learned to speed-read and remember everything I read, knowing I might not have a chance to reread anything. The Chico State cafeteria manager provided me with free coffee and tea, and students shared their lunches. It became a game to see if I could make my $2,000 goal.”
Achieving that goal extended her learning well beyond the trip itself, says Noneman. “Being able to go on this trip and having so many people share in my success taught me everything I needed to know about becoming successful in life,” says Noneman, family court master for the Second Judicial District Court in Reno, Nevada. “I learned much about the world on this trip, but the goal setting, planning, hard work, and especially receiving the help from so many people in our community taught me so much more.”