A student’s perspective

Nordic Studies invigorate global learning at Luther College

Luther College

Photo courtesy of Luther College
Luther College was the first college founded by Norwegian immigrants in America, dating back to 1857.

Summer Intern
The Norwegian American

Currently, Nordic Studies programs are hard to find and sometimes not adequately funded. There are only a handful of colleges and universities scattered around North America offering the programs. So, some may think that it is a dying discipline—but they would be mistaken. The programs remaining take pride in uplifting their offerings and continue to strive for the betterment of the study.

One of those programs is found at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa, where I am currently going into my senior year. The strong Nordic Studies program at Luther highlights its historical ties, while connecting its students with Nordic culture today. For many students in the program, it helps them connect with their heritage or learn a new language. 

But for the college, the goal is much loftier: “Our main focus is to create curious and adaptive global citizens.” Maren Johnson, an associate professor of the Nordic Studies program, is the source of this quote, which highlights the importance of the students in solidifying this program.

The emphasis on the students exemplifies the beauty of the Nordic Studies program at Luther. This may seem simple to say, but it is something that one does not often encounter today. This program has implemented an approach that they dub “radical hospitality,” which is a term that my peer Berit Skogen helped familiarize me with. When talking about this unique approach, she reminded me of a recent story. 

It was a cold, not-so-special winter day at the start of our final semester for the year. Our 202 Norwegian Language class had started a day that was going to focus more on grammar. Johnson—endearingly know to her students as Maren—empathetic soul that she is, could feel that the class’s energy was running low. We had just finished the first semester back after getting the boot once COVID-19 hit. The semester was a grind, but we got through it, and then with a little break, we were thrown right back into the next semester expected to go full steam ahead to finish the year. It was a lot of constant work. 

So, instead of sitting in a classroom and talking about grammar for the day, Johnson decided that there could be a better way to stimulate our learning. We went to the football field and started to talk about Nordic culture.

Maren Johnson, professor of Nordic Studies at Luther College

Photo courtesy of Luther College
Dr. Maren Johnson, associate professor of the Nordic Studies program, uses innovative approaches in her classrooms to keep the program vibrant.

The lighthearted conversations that followed were valuable, not only because we got to use our Norwegian freely, but also because we got to connect in a way that would not be possible by filling out grammar worksheets. (Don’t worry, we eventually ended up doing those worksheets anyway.)

I remember, at one point, a small snowball “fight” broke out among the students. One after the other, we lobbed snow-stuffed balls through the winter winds. It was the breath of fresh air that we all needed. This personal connection between the program and its peers is something special; it is not as if you are just a number.

Within the program, there is a core based around the Norwegian language. This is important, because language is a gateway into a culture. In recent years, however, there has been a shift in the program from a language to more of an area studies major. Despite this shift, there is a balance that Johnson likes to spotlight, which keys into language, as well as other cultural aspects of Nordic society.

With this balance, you are introduced to an array of opportunities to experience the Nordic culture. Along with possibilities to experience the culture in a classroom setting, the college strives to get students out into the field. These are the experiences that Johnson believes cultivate global learners. Because of this, she is always exploring opportunities to find internships or study-abroad options for her students—connecting them to the country, and not just the chalkboard. 

That is not to say that you have to go far from Johnson’s classroom to see the impact of Nordic culture: it is in Luther’s DNA. The close relationship between Nordic Studies and Luther College has been a constant since the institution’s birth in 1859. The college was founded by a group of immigrants who wanted better opportunities for their children. Oct. 14, 1859, was the first official day of Laur Larsen’s professorship, now recognized as Founders Day by the college. When the college opened its doors, there was a classical curriculum with Norwegian, English, geography, mathematics, penmanship, and religion.

“A beautiful marriage between the civic components of Vesterheim, and the academic pursuits of the college,” as Johnson put it, has formed and strengthened the community. Luther has contributed to offering seven or eight different language classes at Vesterheim, usually with 15 participants each. Along with the folk-art school offered by Vesterheim, which has been expanding and adapting at a rapid rate, this cultural institution helps to keep the community connected to its historical roots.

Adaptation is a term that recently has become all too useful. With the novel COVID-19 virus came barriers that we were not yet prepared for. The pandemic has highlighted the importance of personal relationships and has given them new value—something that helps the Nordic Studies program at Luther College thrive. Looking forward, learning from these challenges that highlighted the power and needs of the community is key.

Going into the future, the program is in good hands, as it strives to grow and gain more recognition across the globe. Holding onto its value of maintaining a strong personal community will be pertinent to its success. This is what makes the Nordic Studies program at Luther College exceptional.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 3, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

Kell Knutsen

Born and raised in Minneapolis, Kell Knutsen is a student at Luther College in Decorah, Iowa. Currently pursuing a bachelor's degree in psychology and Nordic studies, Kell has a deep connection to his Norwegian and Swedish heritage through his family and schooling.