There have been few academic exchanges between communist-dominated East Germany and the US. Both Geographic and ideological barriers have kept the two nations apart.
But last year Colby College in Waterville, Maine, after a great many negotiations between the two governments, secured a visiting professor. She was , according to Colby students, a lively young woman apparently as devoted to finding out as much as she could about them as they were to finding out about her.
Efi Schneidenbach, a professor from the Friedrich-Schiller University in Jena , East Germany, had never before visited the US.
Yet, because she teaches American studies in East Germany (and got her doctorate in that field), she was prepared for a change.
After two semesters at Colby, a coeducational liberal arts school with an enrollment of nearly 1,700, Dr. Schneidenbach expressed astonishment with the lack of political savvy among American students. "They just don't want to discuss politics, especially international politics."
North America, she says, is isolated geographically. In Europe "you are just forced to have an opinion." She adds, though, that Colby students were interested in listening to new political ideas.
Student reaction to Dr. Schneidenbach, who taught German culture courses and a language course, ranged from enthusiasm to slightly bored approval. She encouraged discussion, several said, and was not just interested in hearing what she could agree with.
Freshman Allison Lary remarked that being taught by the native German "gives you a better feel for what they really say and how many things are idiomatic."
Dr. Schneidenbach lived on the special langauge floor in one of the dormitories and learned something about college life.
Most students called her "Elfi" instead of Dr. Schneidenbacn. "It's new for me," she said. "In the GDR (German Demoncratic Republic) it's a little more formal."
"It's been very good for me staying in the dormatories," she remarks, adding with humor, "I never fell lonely here." This is, she explains, her first experience with American stereos and lively college parties.
Social life is important in East Germany too, but it takes a different form. There are clubs, she says, but these are integrated into the community where the schools are located. The advantage to this? "After your studies are over you have to work with these people."
Dr. Schneidenbach's special interest is in how women are treated in the United States. She believes that their progress has slowed. "A lot of values have to be changed in business and in families."
She herself is married to a physicist, who remained in East Germany with their four-year-old son.
During a discussion with this writer, she said it is her experience in East Germany that there is no discrimination against women. But when asked whether the number of women and men holding high level positions was equal in East Germany she remarked, "We haven't achieved what we want to achieve. That's not due to discrimination. Some women do not take advantage of the opportunities open to them."
Dr. Schneidenbach noted differences, too, in how American education is managed. In East Germany a student, assisted by guidance counselors, decides what courses to pursue by 17. If it's higher education (which, she says, is free to everyone) one subject is studied without the liberal arts diversity of the US, which she labels as "ineffective."
Dr. John Reynolds, a Colby professor who played a large role in the negotiations that brought Dr. Schneidenbach to Maine, says the college has again lined up an East German professor for this school year with the help of the East German Ministry of Higher Education.