A Bachelor's Degree Generations in the Making

April 21, 2019
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When Elzbieta Bidwell receives her Bachelor of General Studies degree from IUPUC, it won’t be without purpose. Her journey toward a college degree is spun from her desire to honor the dreams of her parents, whose own educational opportunities were cut short in 1939 when Poland was invaded by the Germans and Soviets.

Her father, who at that time was just 20 years old, had spent a couple of years in vocational tech school and was ready to begin his pursuit of an engineering degree when the invasion occured. Instead, he joined the Polish underground movement and was eventually captured. He spent the remainder of the war years imprisoned in a number of concentration camps including Auschwtiz, Birkenau, Mauthausen, Natzweiler-Struthof, and Schomberg.

In 1939 her mother was 15 and just beginning high school with a keen interest in studying medicine in the future. She was kidnapped, loaded into a cattle car and sent to a sawmill in southern Germany as a forced laborer.

“For my parents, said Elzbieta, “staying alive was their education.”

Her parents met in a Displaced Persons Camp for refugees in Germany after the war, married six weeks later, and soon started a family. Elzbieta was born in a camp in Bad Saulgau Germany and two years later boarded the SS Nelly with her parents en-route to Sydney, Australia as part of a Refugee Resettlement program.

“I knew the struggles my parents went through – the war, the loss of everything they owned, particularly the loss of many family members, and the arduous journey to make a new life for themselves without any English skills, and poor beyond all means. We lived in several refugee migrant camps until they saved just enough for a very modest home. My mother worked hard in many factories; my father became a chef at the migrant’s camps where we lived. He became a fine pastry chef, and mother's meager income were able to give us a comfortable life, but for both this was a far cry from their original dreams.”

Because her parents spoke no English, Elzbieta was somewhat handicapped during the early years of her education, getting little help with homework from them. But she persisted and when it came time for her to consider post-secondary education, she battled her father’s old-world philosophy that it was a waste of money to send women to the university, so she instead attended a technical school to learn secretarial skills and began to work.

After a few years of secretarial work she was offered the opportunity to become an IBM programmer, however, in 1969 fate introduced her to a young man from Bloomington, Indiana who was almost finished with his tour of duty in Vietnam. “Needless the say, my programmer career was a non-starter,” said Elzbieta.

The long-distance friendship ended up with a marriage proposal and a year later she found herself in Indiana where her husband was a student at Indiana University. Upon his graduation they lived in North Carolina and Virginia until he was offered a job with Cummins back in Indiana where they have lived ever since, raising a family of five children who all graduated from IU.

So, with her children successfully through college, Elzbieta decided that she would go back to school to get the education that her parents never had the opportunity to attain. She is leveraging the writing and research skills she attained at IUPUC to document her parent’s story. This past year, she received a grant from the IUPUC Office of Student Research to work on that documentation and presented her work at IUPUC and IUPUI, as well as the Hope Public Library, and St. Bartholomew School in Columbus. After graduation, she plans to continue her research and to write a memoir about her parents. 

“It has been a long journey,” said Elzbieta, “raising five kids, working full-time at St. Bartholomew School, attending classes at IUPUC, and until two years ago being the care-provider for my mother who came to live with us for almost nine years. But my story does not compare to the extreme hardships my parents went through and it is for them that I continued my education.”