A commitment to education

Norwegian immigrants laid the foundation for a number of colleges and universities across North America

By Christy Olsen Field

Norwegian American Weekly

Norwegians have made their mark on higher education in the North America, founding excellent colleges and universities across the continent. The pioneering spirit of the Norwegian immigrants to build a place for learning and service has significantly shaped the identity of these colleges and universities today.

Luther College in Decorah, Iowa

Luther College in Decorah, Iowa

As one of the earliest Norwegian colleges in the United States, Augustana College traces its origins to the Hillsboro Academy in Hillsboro, Ill., in 1835. In the 1860s, the fledgling college was caught up in the westward movement of pioneers. The school moved with its constituents to Illinois, Wisconsin, Iowa, and then Canton, S.D. In 1918, Augustana College merged with the Lutheran Normal School in Sioux Falls, S.D., where it is currently located. Inspired by Lutheran scholarly tradition and the liberal arts, Augustana provides an education of enduring worth that challenges the intellect, fosters integrity and integrates faith with learning and service in a diverse world.

After years of discussions, the Norwegian Evangelical Lutheran Church in America decided in 1857 to found a college. A school was established in 1861 with 16 students, and in 1862, the school was transferred to Decorah, Iowa, and renamed Luther College. For 75 years the school admitted men only; then in 1936, Luther College became coeducational. Today, Luther offers more than 60 majors and preprofessional and certificate programs leading to the bachelor of arts degree. Its mission statement emphasizes faith, leadership, and community service.

Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minn.

Augsburg College in Minneapolis, Minn.

Augsburg was the first seminary founded by Norwegian Lutherans in America. Augsburg opened in September 1869, in Marshall, Wis. and moved to Minneapolis in 1872. August Weenaas was Augsburg’s first president, and he recruited two teachers from Norway: Sven Oftedal and Georg Sverdrup, whose mission was to educate Norwegian Lutherans to minister to immigrants by training ministrial candidates, prepare theological students, and educate the farmer, worker, and businessman. The commitment to church and community has been Augsburg’s theme for over 130 years.

In Minnesota, a group of pioneer pastors, farmers and businessmen laid the groundwork for the founding of St. Olaf’s School (later College) in 1874. Originating in the Norwegian immigrant desire for higher learning, the college has made a significant contribution to American liberal arts education while maintaining an academic center with a strong program for the study of Scandinavian culture.

Pacific Lutheran University was founded in 1890 by a group of mostly Norwegian Lutherans from the Puget Sound region of Washington state. These pioneers recognized the important role that a Lutheran educational institution on the Western frontier of America could play in the emerging future of the region. They wanted the institution to help immigrants adjust to their new land and find jobs. Education—and educating for service— was a venerated part of the Scandinavian traditions from which these pioneers came. Today, PLU encourages its 3,500 students to lead lives of thoughtful inquiry, service, leadership, and care.

Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash.

Pacific Lutheran University in Tacoma, Wash.

Concordia College was dedicated Oct. 31, 1891, only 10 years after the first Norwegian settlers had made their home in the Red River Valley. These settlers valued education and their religious heritage, and one of their first priorities was to establish a quality school. As the country and the Norwegian settlement matured, so did the college. The necessity for adding regular liberal arts courses on the college level to those offered on the academy level was soon apparent. A complete college department was organized in 1913. Today, more than 2,800 students from 40 states and 42 countries attend Concordia.

As the only university campus in Canada with Norwegian roots and one of Alberta’s oldest post-secondary institutions, Augustana College was founded by Norwegian Lutheran pioneers in 1910. Originally called Camrose Lutheran College, the school was established to educate young people interested in pursuing the ministry, and it gradually evolved into Augustana University College, a degree-granting liberal arts and sciences institution of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in Canada. On July 1, 2004, Augustana merged with the University of Alberta and became a public institution, with more than 1,000 Canadian and international students.

Today, the colleges and universities draw on their rich Norwegian heritage as a source of pride. In addition, the study of Norwegian and Scandinavian Studies is a small, but vibrant area of scholarship across the United States. Currently, 28 colleges and universities across North American offer classes in Norwegian and other Nordic languages and literatures, several up to the Ph.D. level. NORTANA, the Norwegian Researchers and Teachers Association of North America, was founded in 1987, as the founded as the main professional organization for teachers of Norwegian and Norwegian-related subjects in the United States and Canada.

This article was originally published in the Norwegian American Weekly 120th anniversary issue on June 12, 2009. For more information and to subscribe, email subscribe@norway.com or call (800) 305-0217.

To learn more about U.S. colleges and universities offering Norwegian language instruction, visit www.nortana.net. To learn about the Norwegian American Foundation’s education initiative, visit www.gradusa.org.

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