In January, I had the privilege of co-leading a course with Professor Jim Martin-Schramm in Norway. The course, entitled “Twenty-First Century Challenges in Norway,” focused on contemporary approaches to immigration, urbanization and environmental sustainability.
The richness of study away courses lie in their intensity—one is “on” all the time, whether through learning about public transportation, cultural norms and language. Our twenty-four curious and thoughtful students ventured to three cities (Oslo, Lillehammer and Bergen) during the month. In conversations throughout the course, what struck me again was that for a place like Luther, whose history is so connected to Norway and a Norwegian-American identity, what study away in Norway does for students is not just engage them in the questions of the course, but also challenge their conceptions of Norway.
Norway has a special lure at Luther. One cannot go far on campus without seeing symbols or names invoking connections to Norway:
- The Norse head logo
- Musical ensembles - Norskkor and Nordic choir
- Campus buildings carry markers of our Norwegian roots: Ylvisaker, Brandt, Dahl Centennial Union, Preus Library
- Rounding the corner to Water Street, one sees Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum
These are just a few of the markers that tie our campus intricately to our historical roots as the first Norwegian-Lutheran college. Programmatically, Luther maintains also strong connections to the region. The College remains one of the few in the country to offer Norwegian language and a Nordic studies program (with both a major and a minor!) and the Richard L and Judith A Torgerson Center for Nordic Studies provides endowment to support and foster partnerships with the Nordic region today.
However, the power of our January course experience was talking to students about how our historical roots as a college can inform a new way of thinking about and being in the world through a Nordic lens. While many of our students are initially overwhelmed by the natural beauty of a city like Oslo that is so intimately tied both to high elevations and the fjord, the focus of our course over January challenged our students to look beyond the apparent beauty. One student was struck with the cosmopolitanism of the city—the diversity of people and of lifestyle. Oslo is no longer a city that “looks” what one would expect to be Norwegian.
We visited Social Geographer Ingar Brattbakk, professor at Oslo Metropolitan University, he shared his research on the social development of neighborhoods throughout the city. Oslo is one of the fastest growing European capitals, putting immense pressure on housing and accessibility. Brattbakk’s research focuses on Grønland, a neighborhood in central Oslo that has been inhabited primarily by people of immigrant background. New pressures on the city are influencing the flavor and diversity of this neighborhood—raising questions about how the city is shaped, who has the power to decide on the city’s structure and integration of all people into the city.
In our 90-minute session with Brattbakk, he raised questions that stretched our students’ perspective on Oslo and what Norway is today. Our academic discussion was furthered by a site visit to Skaperverket, a cafe in Lillehammer run by the Salvation Army and the Norwegian Labour and Welfare Organization, for women who would like additional language and job skill training after the two year integration program that the Norwegian government makes available to new immigrants. These women from Afghanistan, Vietnam, and Pakistan communicated with our students about the challenges of integrating into Norwegian society, but of the hope they felt by being part of an organization like Skaperverket.
Both these interactions challenged our students to think about Norway as a lens for their own milieus in the United States and at Luther College. Brattbakk and our visit to Skaperverket raised questions about community. How do you shape an inclusive community? How do our communities impact the way we understand ourselves and our relationships to others? What types of spaces foster safe space for conversation?
The Norse head logo, and even the word “Nordic,” are problematic. Vikings are often seen as pillagers and criminals. Some white supremacist groups use the word Nordic as a rally call behind their mission. These are exclusionary narratives, ones that do not invite others to participate in conversation or to be a part of the narrative.
But that’s not our Luther narrative, that’s not our Luther Norse. Our story is one of curiosity, discovery, and inquiry. Vikings were some of the most sophisticated ship builders, exceptional global traders, and they inspired international exchange between cultures. Today, the Nordic region is advancing creative and innovative models for addressing the challenges associated with immigration, urbanization, and environmental sustainability, models that often challenge the American mode of thinking in binaries. It is these modes that I hope we expose our students to through study abroad and through our course work. Our past informs our present, and so discovering our Norse is about taking a critical look at the ways our connections to Norway can enhance and enrich our learning and our community.