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Student perspective: The core of my year in Norway as a Fulbright felt surprisingly close to home

On my way home recently one afternoon in Bergen, Norway, I passed a group of people who were chatting while they walked down the road with picks and trash bags. This was not an uncommon sight. Dugnad, I thought to myself, smiling. Directly translating to “work or support,” dugnad is the Norwegian practice of working together to accomplish something for the community. In other words, dugnad is working toward the common good.

After graduating from the College of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s University in 2022, I moved to Bergen on a Fulbright U.S. Student award through which I have been working as an English Teaching Assistant since last August.

As I prepared to move, I expected to embrace a life and ways of doing things that were different than what I grew up with in both my hometown, Winona, Minnesota, and what I experienced in college. When I arrived, the heart of normal daily life did feel significantly different in some ways. However, as I watched the group of Norwegians continue down the road that day earlier this spring, something felt familiar. And, in that moment, it dawned on me. I realized that the values that motivated these seemingly different ways of living were quite similar to the values at the heart of one of my favorite places in the world — CSB and SJU. Saint Ben’s was founded by sisters from the Order of Saint Benedict and Saint John’s was founded by monks from the Order of Saint Benedict. As a result, the colleges are rooted in values that stem from the Rule of Benedict. These values are intended to support the common good: a priority that is also central in Norwegian life as exemplified both through and beyond dugnad. However, working toward the common good is only where the overlap between my Norwegian neighbors and the Benedictine community begins. Of the 11 core values identified by the colleges, three are clear in Norwegian society as well.

The first of these is community living. When I think about my understanding of community living as a student at CSB and SJU, what immediately comes to mind is the common courtesy of holding the door for the people behind you. Bennies and Johnnies know that holding the door is unusually common on campus. In fact, I can recall talking about it with my friends and orientation leaders during my first year. They told us it is something everyone does and to do it, too. Not long after, it became so integrated into my routine that if, for whatever reason, I did not hold the door for the person behind me, it felt like a mistake. While it seems like a simple act, I felt recognized and supported by having someone hold the door open for me, and I wanted to be a part of creating that environment. Holding the door was a constant reminder that I was a member of a community.

In Norway, the same value of community living stems from the Law of Jante—Janteloven—which is a social code that derives from Danish-Norwegian author Aksel Sandemose’s fictional book titled: A Fugitive Crosses His Tracks (En Flyktning Krysser Sitt Spor). In the book, Sandemose lists 10 laws, which articulate that the individual needs the whole. Because of their extremism and neglect of individualism, these social codes are met with pushback today. However, Norwegian society still emphasizes the importance of wholeness. This is clear in what people expect from the community and how they treat each other. For example, Norwegian sharing is frequent and encouraged. The widespread belief that everyone should have access to all sectors of the community is evident in everything from free education and universal healthcare to free rentals of sports equipment for youth and the right to camp nearly anywhere.

This is also seen in daily interactions, such as how Norwegians treat personal space. Avoiding eye contact with others is typical and standing, rather than sitting next to someone on the bus, is common. While this initially seemed cold and uninviting, conversations with friends and colleagues helped me realize that it is an enactment of community living. Norwegians appreciate their own space and privacy and believe that they are extending that same respect to those around them through these actions.

Norwegian respect extends beyond the people around them to a reverence for and commitment to the environment, which leads me to the second overlapping value: stewardship. When I think about stewardship at CSB and SJU, I specifically think of Collegeville, and a slew of beautiful memories — skiing in the arboretum, eating maple syrup on ice cream, walking to the chapel on Lake Sagatagan, and reading books on my favorite bench along the shore come to mind. Those experiences were made possible through the monastic and college communities’ commitment to protecting and caring for the Earth. As a result, spending time in nature at CSB and SJU was bliss and undoubtedly one of the most treasured parts of my time in college.

Norway is one of the cleanest countries in the world, which is not a coincidence but rather because of how dedicated and diligent its people are in their care for the environment. On a national level, Norwegians have laws and systems in place to support this. For instance, Norway has what is known as the “pant system,” which monetarily rewards recycling aluminum and plastic bottles. And there is a public transportation system far more advanced than what we experience in the U.S. Individually, this commitment is also felt. Norwegians love spending time outdoors and follow the national rules to support a clean Earth.

The Norwegian love for the outdoors brings me to the final value of comparison — moderation. The interpretation of this value at CSB and SJU is that moderation is “to be content with living simply and finding balance in work, prayer and leisure.” In my own experience at CSB and SJU, living simply was most evident in how I spent my leisure time, which was, again, often in nature or simply in the presence of friends. I believe this stemmed from attending college in St. Joseph and Collegeville. Looking back, for me, that remoteness was something extremely special about my CSB and SJU experience. Admittedly, my college life was not always balanced and moderate. However, I admired the monastic communities for living this value. Specifically, I admired their routines and disposition toward everyday life.

While it may look somewhat different, I’ve felt a similar awe in how Norwegians approach life and believe that it stems from a value that could also be labeled as moderation. On Sundays most stores in Norway are closed and the mountains are flooded with families and students spending the day in nature. Many celebrate with hikes rather than commercial activities. Moreover, many Norwegians lead more balanced lives.  While there are always exceptions, work does not seem like such a monopolizing force. Generally, life moves at a slower pace, and people enjoy small moments more.

My housemates taught me this through their approaches to life. Before moving to Norway, Sundays were crammed with preparation for the week, hikes were a scenic workout, and I often took my coffee to go. My housemates taught me that Sundays are for rehashing the week and catching up, hikes should always include tea and soaking in the sun, and coffee should be enjoyed at the shop. A final example of this point is the stop, drop and soak mentality that comes when the sun is shining. On average, it rains 98 inches in Bergen each year. So when the sun is out, people stop and enjoy, often even if that means studying or working less that day. I admire the spontaneity and appreciation that exists here for life’s small moments.

Being surrounded by people who are committed to these three values — community living, stewardship and moderation — greatly impacted my college experience and my year living in Norway. What has come from this realization is twofold. First, I have a new appreciation for CSB and SJU and the impression that attending universities with these values left on me. Without that community, I would not recognize the importance of these values, admire those who live through them, and strive to do the same. In that, I think something would be lost because, as I have continued to grow closer to them this year, I have felt more joy filled and inspired by the world. Secondly, I have discovered that learning about new places and new people can help us understand where we come from even more; recognizing the interconnectedness between Norwegian values and those of my alma mater helped me gain a deeper appreciation and feel closer to both places.

Sarah Broghammer in Norway

Sarah Broghammer ’22 explored much of Norway during her year as a U.S. Fulbright Student in Bergen. She worked as an English Teaching Assistant and, during her free time, visited places like Bryygen, which is considered the “old town” portion of the city, which connects to the North Sea.

Sarah Broghammer hiking with her housemates

Sarah Broghammer ’22 and her housemates celebrated her birthday last fall with a hike of the mountain Rundamanen (one of seven mountains near Bergen).

Sarah Broghammer pausing for coffee

Coffee is crucial to getting to know a city and its vibe. Sarah Broghammer ’22 found many unique places to indulge in some caffeine in Bergen. This photo was taken in one called Kaffemisjonen. She routinely ordered an oat milk latte and recorded some of her experiences in her blog, Discovering New Grounds.

Mountain view in Norway

Sarah Broghammer ’22 provided this photo from her hike on Sandviksfjellet, one of seven mountains around Bergen. During her stay in Norway, she hiked them all at different times and once, during the spring, hiked all seven as part of an event called 7-Fjellsturen through the Norwegian Trekking Association.