I am one of the most ancient surviving WUS alumni. I was secretary of the local WUS committee at my university in Ireland, while being President of the island-wide Irish Students Association 1955-1956. It was in that capacity that I got my baptism of fire in international student politics through attending the International Student Conferences of 1955 in Birmingham, UK, and 1956 in Peradinya, Ceylon (now Sri Lanka). The university- and student-led Hungarian Revolution of October-November 1956 and its brutal suppression by Mongolian and other “Soviet” troops, brought me directly to the heart of WUS, which opened a Field Office in Vienna to succour and find placement and scholarships for Hungarian refugee teachers and students. I spent eight months co-directing that Office with two successive outstanding personalities, the Norwegian Thorvald Stoltenberg (later UN High Commissioner for Refugees) and the Canadian Charles/Chuck Taylor (later Professor at McGill University, Montreal, and the world authority on Hegel).
One feature of life with WUS has indeed always been to meet remarkable people. My time in Vienna enabled me to deepen earlier contacts with two people who became lifelong trusted companions and ultra-reliable friends:
- John M. Thompson (1923-1981), Administrative Secretary of the International Student Conference, later Secretary General of the World Confederation of Organizations of the Teaching Profession, and Treasurer of WUS International.
- Hans Dall (1930-2019), President of the Danish Student Union, later General Secretary of WUS International, moving then to FAO and ending his career there as an Assistant Director General.
Vienna Field Office
Over 200,000 Hungarian refugees fled to Austria and Yugoslavia, and with a high percentage of them being university teachers and students, the WUS Vienna Field Office was at its peak some 15 people, dealing with relief and lodging in camps and hostels, finding university job openings, attributing scholarships, and arranging onward travel around the world. On Christmas Eve many of the WUS team went to the deep snow of the Hungarian border to assist refugees who crossed the Andau Canal during the night, under the threat of the soviet troops ready to shoot from their miradors on the Hungarian bank.
The world reaction to the soviet crushing of the Hungarian Revolution gave rise to a major outburst of solidarity and generosity, one consequence of which was that WUS received very substantial funds for its programmes of assistance to Hungarian refugees, and soon found itself cooperating closely with the UNHCR, the International Committee for European Migration (later the International Organization for Migration), the Red Cross Movement (both the ICRC and the-then LORCS), and of course Austrian authorities and associations. There was regular coordination with the Austrian Union of Students (ÖH), though Austrian national sensitivities were skin deep, the country having only just recovered independence after being under Allied military rule following its role in the Second World War.
After a little over a year, the Vienna Office was closed and the ongoing Hungarian programmes (which totalled well over one million Swiss Francs) were managed from the WUS International Secretariat, which I joined in May 1957 – and rather logically I was assigned to the operation and supervision of these programmes.
My time in the International Secretariat (1957-1964)
Bernard Ducret, then General Secretary, rather rapidly also put me in charge of developing WUS programmes in Africa, and I made visits over the following years to sixteen African countries (and doubled that number in my later careers with the International Council of Voluntary Agencies and the Red Cross).
One of my earliest experiences set me off on the path of inter-NGO cooperation, which has been a leitmotiv ever since. My first visit to Egypt was focused on WUS funding a new student hostel. To my surprise I found on arrival that another large international NGO, also based in Geneva, was in the process of funding such a hostel about 2 kilometres from the site allocated to WUS. Yes, I’m sure the University of Cairo could well use two student hostels, but wouldn’t it have made economic and planning sense if the two NGOs had known of each others’ intentions. I learnt the importance of working outside our silos!
Another incident of some “amusement” was when I was bound for Congo-Kinshasa but could not land there, going instead to Congo-Brazzaville. I hitched a lift to Kinshasa on a UN helicopter, but that of course meant I had no entry visa for Congo-Kinshasa in my passport. So on departure the border guard at the airport gave me the most severe and threatening grilling of my life, and I realized that survival sometimes depends not on the law but on theatrical skills!
My most politically significant and challenging African assignment was undoubtedly getting a WUS counter-apartheid programme up and running, given the ultra-racist practices that became the norm in South Africa after the Afrikaner government was elected in 1948. I was already the co-author of a 1956 International Student Conference report on the effect of apartheid on education (the report was banned by the government…), so knew some of the circumstances and the actors. WUS became a major donor to the African Medical Scholarship Trust Fund (AMSTF) and I made five visits to South Africa carrying in rather large sums of cash for deposit in AMSTF bank accounts in several cities, as a way of escaping discovery by the government: this was in pre-internet days. On some occasions government trackers were only one city behind me! Ultimately the government caught up, and I received what has become one of my most precious documents: a letter from the South African Minister of the Interior withdrawing my entry “privileges”.
WUS can be immensely proud of its role in AMSTF and other awareness-raising projects in South Africa, which led on to SACHED and future activities that will be written about by later staff. WUS was perhaps a small cog in the worldwide anti-apartheid movement, but its role was critical in helping to preserve university autonomy, in keeping the flame of hope alive in many parts of the academic community, and in maintaining the assurance of solidarity with African students just when their lives and aspirations were being most curtailed.
I should also make reference to a different WUS “political” programme for which I had responsibility and which has been virtually forgotten. WUS obtained from the Ford Foundation a grant of USD 125,000 (worth vastly more in the 1960s than today!) to provide scholarships for Algerian students in the closing years of French colonialism. We set up an entirely new mechanism, in cooperation with the Union Générale d’Etudiants Musulmans d’Algérie (UGEMA), a body viewed with antagonism by the colonial authorities. UGEMA officers enlightened us that they considered themselves simply Algerian students, but that the word Musulmans in their title was an imposition by the authorities, who did not recognize an Algerian nationality. This successful WUS-Algeria scholarship programme earned me a personal invitation to the Algerian Independence ceremonies in 1962! The entire WUS programme for Algerian students ran from 1958 to 1966 and reached almost one million Swiss Francs.
It is evident that with a hundred years of existence, the list of persons whose memories should be honoured would run into many hundreds. There are two cases of former SWUS Presidents that deserve a particular mention because of the nature of their deaths in office.
Dean Everett Moore-Baker (USA) was elected President at the Bombay Assembly in 1950, but died in a plane crash on his way home from the Assembly.
Dr Félix Ulloa was President in November 1980 when he was killed in a gang attack.
Two key personalities: Lo and Georgette
In the International Secretariat, Bernard Ducret was succeeded by Hans Dall and then by S. Chidambaranathan (“Nathan”). But of course everyone knew that every General Secretary only survived thanks to the decades of devoted service given by the Administrative Secretary Charlotte Löhrig (“Lo” to the world) and by the efficient Accountant Georgette Robert, whose scrupulousness was legendary. Lo, a young girl from Germany who arrived in Geneva as the Hitler period began, was still at her desk into her 80s, an unquenchable volunteer and model of service. Lo never allowed a Swiss Franc to be spent without justification, and she made sure that we unruly young staffers learnt office etiquette and discipline. In the 1930s and 40s Lo had overseen the extensive WUS scholarship programme for students victims of Nazism. As many many years later I spent volunteer time clearing up part of the WUS archives, I can personally testify to the extraordinary meticulousness of the files that Lo established on each individual student, with most of whom she exchanged correspondence on their academic progress and careers. Many of these students expressed their gratitude in later life by paying back to WUS some of the grant money they had received, so that WUS could then help others.
That for me symbolizes much of the spirit and ethos of WUS that underlies the commitment to WUS demonstrated – and lived – by so many over the decades.
Cyril Ritchie was the secretary of the WUS committee in Ireland in 1955. Following the Soviet crushing of the 1956 Hungarian Revolution he spent eight months at the Vienna Field Office finding placements for refugee teachers and students. He lived in WUS Geneva from 1957 to 1964, developing WUS programs in Africa. After his time with WUS he became executive director of the International Council for Voluntary Agencies until 1978, followed by a series of positions with international NGOs, currently as president of the Union of International Associations. From 2012 to 2018 he was Visiting Professor at Kyung Hee University, Seoul.