Folkehøgskole: Norway’s best-kept educational secret

Photo courtesy of Laura Aanonsen Laura Aanonsen stands atop Kjeragbolten during her year at folkehøgskole.

Photo courtesy of Laura Aanonsen
Laura Aanonsen stands atop Kjeragbolten during her year at folkehøgskole.

Emily C. Skaftun
Norwegian American Weekly

There is much about higher education in Norway that Americans might like to know. For example, who knew that Norway had more than 200 master’s degree programs taught in English, with free or near-free tuition even for international students?

But Americans are at least familiar with the concept of university-level education. A more unusual approach are the folkehøgskoler. Translated to “folk high school” in English, these 77 one-year boarding schools offer both academic and non-academic subjects. They aren’t “high school” in the sense that we Americans think of it (they call that videregående skole, literally “secondary school”); these are separate from the rest of Norway’s education system, open to any student 18 years old or older with any educational background. They conduct no formal exams and offer no degrees, focusing instead on “learning for life.”

If this sounds like a dream come true, the good news is that they are open to students from all over the world. They’re tuition-free, though students are required to pay for room and board, study trips, and teaching materials (on average around NOK 102,000, or about $12,000 USD). The only downside for most American students is that, with the exception of a few of the schools, which offer Norwegian language as a course option, instruction is conducted in Norwegian. On the upside, at the end of the year you spend living and learning with your mostly Norwegian fellow students, you can expect to be relatively proficient with the language.

I had a chance to ask a couple of current American folkehøgskole students about their experiences so far. Laura Aanonsen is an 18-year-old from Bergen County, N.J., who fell in love with Norway on yearly family trips to Lillesand and is using her year at Folkehøgskole Sørlandet to learn the language her farfar and farmor spoke. Sarah Taylor, from Fergus Falls, Minn., turns 19 next month, and she’s using her gap year at Borgund Folkehøgskole in Ålesund to travel and explore the Norwegian outdoors before starting school at Luther College in the fall.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Taylor One of the many cliff’s-edge photos that Taylor has sent home to her parents.

Photo courtesy of Sarah Taylor
One of the many cliff’s-edge photos that Taylor has sent home to her parents.

Emily C. Skaftun: How did you learn about the folk high schools?

Laura Aanonsen: Both my farmor and farfar were born and raised in Norway, so my family and I come to Norway for three weeks every summer. Every year for 14 years I have been in Norway, and I have grown to love it more than any place I have ever been before. I am lucky to have so much family in Norway that is so genuine and amazing that they introduced me to the idea of Folkehøgskole.

They told me about it when I was going into my sophomore year of high school, so I had plenty of time to research about it and see if it was something I wanted to do. I was nervous at first because I knew that all of my friends were going off to college the year after we graduate high school, and I knew I was going to be different. But after thinking it through, I knew that this was for me.

Sarah Taylor: When I was 14 years old, my dad received a Fulbright scholarship to teach at the University of Agder in Kristiansand, Norway, for one year. This meant that instead of experiencing my freshman year of high school together with my friends in Fergus Falls, I would be diving head first into a foreign country, culture, and language. I couldn’t understand a word of the Norwegian, and I didn’t know a single soul in the town we were moving to, but I was up for the challenge. Although there were many tough times over the course of the year, I left with new lifelong friends and a better understanding of the world.

As soon as I got home, I was desperate to go back. Folkehøgskole was a great option to take a break before continuing my studies and get back to the country I love. Also, my mom and older brother both attended a Folk School, so I grew up hearing their fond memories of their time in Norway.

ECS: Has it been easy to make friends? Have you found the Norwegians welcoming?

LA: The first day of school, of course I was nervous walking into a school all by myself knowing nobody and not understanding the language they were speaking, but within a couple minutes of being alone, a blonde-haired girl walked towards me and said with a smile from ear to ear, “You’re Laura, right? My farfar knows one of your family members and told me all about you.” She was the first friend I ever made in Norway and we are best friends now, five months later. I will never forget how relieved I felt when I had someone to talk to in a room full of strangers. She sat next to me and translated what was going on.

Photo courtesy of Laura Aanonsen Visiting high places seems to be a theme of the folkehøgskole experience. Aanonsen at the famous preikestolen (preacher’s pulpit).

Photo courtesy of Laura Aanonsen
Visiting high places seems to be a theme of the folkehøgskole experience. Aanonsen at the famous preikestolen (preacher’s pulpit).

Even now there are some people in school I don’t know so well, but everyone is so friendly and sweet and care so much. Every day people are always asking how you are and how your day is going, and it’s so nice to have so many people care so much.

ST: This is a tough question to answer. Making friends was not easy. During ninth grade my entire class was afraid to approach me, and I was rarely invited places outside of school. I took it very personally because I didn’t know that that’s just the way Norwegians are. However, about nine months later when I was about to move back home, my peers suddenly opened up to me and I left the country with lifelong friends.

Last August I arrived at Folk School understanding that Norwegians are very reserved at first, but that didn’t make it easier. I was lonely once again, but this time I didn’t have my family living with me to make things better. However, just like ninth grade, they have warmed up to me, and I am already afraid to leave these wonderful, lifelong friends in just a few months.

ECS: How is living in Norway different from where you’re from?

LA: I don’t think I had major culture shock when I started living here, but there are definitely differences. For example, in the U.S. it is very common to complete high school and after that most people go to college for four years and then start working, but from what I have understood Norway is much different, with many more options for students to choose for themselves if they want to go to standard “high school,” or if they want to study for two years and then practice what they have studied for two years. They also have schools in between high school and college like Folk High School. Also University is free for all Norwegians, which is a thought that any American would dream of, considering how expensive a college degree is in America.

I have also found that the people that I have interacted with are very different than the people I was surrounded with my whole life. I lived in a town that was very fortunate in the amount of money the families earned, and with that money came the high-end possessions. From a young age most children [there] think that what car your parents drive or what clothes you wear makes you who you are, where here I have never felt like what I wear or what I own matters, because people don’t compare themselves to one another.

ST: I could write an entire book on the little quirks and differences that I’ve stumbled upon in the land of my ancestors. I feel that Norwegians have a much stronger connection to the outdoors than many people back in the States. Everyone enjoys a hot summer day on the lake in Minnesota, but it is when the weather gets tough that we shy away from the outdoors. Norwegians, however, venture out no matter what the weather. They have the saying, “Det finnes ikke dårlig vær, bare dårlig klær” (There’s no such thing as bad weather, just bad clothing).

One thing that you will find on the streets of Minnesota, but not Norway, is a smile. At home, it’s common to make eye contact and smile or acknowledge people you pass in the store or on the sidewalk. In Norway, awkward eye contact is occasionally made when their gaze is lifted from the ground, but to get a smile is quite rare. It’s not that they mean to be rude, it’s just the culture.

ECS: What has been the most interesting or exciting thing you’ve done or learned while at folkehøgskole?

LA: In the beginning of the year during moose hunting season, my family asked me if I wanted to join them in the event. Knowing nothing about what I was to do that day, I said, “Of course” because I wanted to take advantage of every opportunity that I don’t usually get to do when I’m home. So we got up at 7:00 a.m. on a Saturday morning and split ourselves into groups, the hunters and the herders. I was a herder, which meant that we had to all line up on the edge of a mountain, very spread out from one another, and hike upwards to try and herd the moose to where the hunters would be sitting waiting. So then we all hiked up this very steep mountain and through the forest, on no particular path, just walking up. It was like nothing I had ever done before and I remember thinking how amazing it was when I was doing it that I felt like an explorer walking through unknown land for the first time, seeing everything for the first time.

ST: This year has been filled with one crazy adventure after another. I have been pushed far beyond my comfort zone both mentally and physically, but it has taught me so much about myself. The first weeks of school whipped me into shape as we climbed mountain after mountain on “get to know each other” trips. There were countless times that I just wanted to give up and let my mountain-raised classmates continue, but I dug deep each time and was rewarded with a fantastic view. After each trip I sent my parents pictures of me standing on the edge of a mountain.

Also, I’ve been challenged mentally by living 4,000 miles from my family during my first year living away from home. Unlike my friends in Minnesota, I’m not able to come home for the weekend or even celebrate holidays with my family. I’ve learned how to be independent and responsible for myself, even in a foreign language and culture. Although not every day is easy, I’m extremely grateful to have the experience to attend a Norwegian Folk School.

If folkehøgskole sounds like something you’d be interested in, learn more at www.folkehogskole.no. There are no closing dates for applying. Schools start admitting Norwegian students on February 1, and students are admitted until the school is filled up or until the beginning of the school year. Students from outside the EU are encouraged to apply early, both because courses in Norwegian language and culture fill up quickly, and because obtaining a residence permit can take several months.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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