In the Shadow of Lifjell: My Year in Bø, Norway

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Honors Student and Presidential Scholar, Ellen Ahlness is currently studying abroad in Norway through the MSU Mankato Exchange Program. She received the Lakselaget Foundation’s Scholarship, Folds of Honor Scholarship, and Sons of Norway Myrtle Beinhauer Fund. Below is an update on her travels.

I arrived in Oslo, Norway in mid-August for my one year study abroad. Coming from the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, the capitol of Norway already seemed small with a population of under 600,000 people. Yet that was not yet my final stop. Immediately upon hopping off the plane, I boarded on a train for three hours south to the rural town of Bø. The town has a permanent population of about 5,000 with an additional 2,200 students coming each year to attend Høyskole i Telemark University. This was my first big adjustment—even though my hometown in Minnesota was not exceptional, it seemed particularly large compared to this farming community I suddenly found myself in, right in the shadow of the Telemark region’s largest mountain–Lifjell.

Being a small town, Bø had additional challenges I needed to face in addition to being in a different country. In Norway stores and services have much shorter hours than what I was used to in the U.S. including reduced hours on the weekends and most businesses being closed on Sundays. This includes grocery stores, and in the case of Bø, both gas stations. This gave me the largest cultural shock of my travels, the sudden “loss of convenience” that I had grown so accustomed to in the United States.

After a week of adjusting to life in Bø, I began classes. All of my courses pertained to my Scandinavian Studies major centering on regional identity, language, and Scandinavian politics. In my classes, I am expected to do independent work. This is extremely applicable to my academic career because I have always enjoyed diving deeper into subjects that interest me after covering them in class. Here, the emphasis on independent initiative helps me continue to shift my mindset to help me work effectively in a new academic environment.

My favorite assignments are ones pertaining to cultural components of environmental responsibility and appreciation which are extremely important in Norway. There is even a word that captures the Norwegian outdoor spirit—friluftsliv, literally meaning “open air living.” This describes the importance of outdoor education and recreation as a key part of the Norwegian identity and way of life. To best understand this aspect of the Norwegian culture students are encouraged to go on hikes around the neighboring mountains and terrain. During my first two months in Norway, I went on a hike each week with other students. There we would go swimming and drink from the lakes, pick blueberries and cloudberries, and cook over fires when it got cold. I have never been in a classroom experience that provided me with such an experience alongside theory.

Before coming to Norway, my fellow international students and I were warned that it could be difficult to make Norwegian friends, as the culture in Telemark is very reserved. Students are more likely to hold onto old friendships rather than reach out and make new friends. After the first few weeks, I saw how true this was. I easily made friends within the international student community through activities, meetings, and classes. Unless I was intentional, I would not meet many Norwegians outside of class. I then began working at Kroa, a student organization that hosts activity nights, concerts, and parties. Here I was able to improve my Norwegian, make more friends, and contribute to the student life in Bø.

I still have lots of time left to explore and experience Norway until I disembark June 2015. If I learn as much in the time I have left as I have learned during my first part of my stay, I know I will walk away from this experience having developed my language and academic skills, as well as having developed as a more independent, culturally competent person.

To learn more about Mankato Exchanges and the study abroad opportunities the International Programs Office organizes, visit http://www.mnsu.edu/studyabroad/exchanges.html.

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