An American in Norway

St. Olaf’s Fulbright scholar to research diabetes and cracking the Norwegian shell

 Photo courtesy of Nels Thompson Nels Thompson, Flubright scholar, is off to Norway to research diabetes—and his other home.

Photo courtesy of Nels Thompson
Nels Thompson, Fulbright scholar, is off to Norway to research diabetes—and his other home.

Kari Heistad
Edina, Minn.

“Home is where the heart is.” But for many Norwegian Americans, it can feel like half of that home is located halfway across the world. Nels Thompson, a recent graduate from St. Olaf College—a small Norwegian liberal arts college in southern Minnesota—has always desired to find that other half and is now on his way to do just that. A recipient of a 2015 Fulbright scholarship, Thompson will spend the next 10 months in Bergen, Norway, studying diabetes under Professor Anders Molven of the University of Bergen. When he inquired about opportunities in the field of health in Norway, Molven, who himself studied in the U.S. as a Fulbright scholar, was eager to host him.

What exactly will they be researching? I had Thompson break it down for me in terms I could understand. “There are some genetic mutations that indicate that someone has diabetes,” he explained, “but some people who have the genetic mutation don’t actually suffer from the disease.” These are the cases that he and his colleagues will be studying. “If we can understand this one piece of diabetes, we hope to understand the disease better as a whole,” he continued.

Along with studying diabetes, Thompson hopes to learn more about the country of his ancestors. This is not his first time in Norway; he studied at the Oslo International Summer School in the summer of 2013. This time, however, he says, “I’m going to be a real Norwegian for about a year.” When he studied in Norway in 2013, Thompson discovered that Norway wasn’t exactly what he had been expecting. “When I was there last time I told myself it was basically going to be Minnesota where everyone is like ‘Oh, how are you?’ all of the time,” he said, exaggerating his already thick Minnesotan accent. “[But] I was wrong,” he admitted; “Norwegians are what they would call lukket, or closed off. It was harder to get to know them than I was expecting.”

“This time, I’m ready,” he assured me. His strategy to breaking down the Norwegian shell? “I bought a pair of white Converse,” he announced proudly. Apparently the shoes are a staple in the wardrobe of every “real Norwegian,” and Thompson is confident that these shoes paired with his “Minnesota nice” attitude will be enough to win over some reserved Norwegians. “They are really compassionate people, just in a quieter way than we’re familiar with,” he concluded.

Outside of the lab, Thompson will be exploring Norway’s beautiful landscape through an outdoor activities club. He will also be working with kids ages nine to 13 as an assistant ski coach, and is signed up to participate in the Norwegian Birkebeiner in March. He also hopes to see the Northern Lights. In short, he wants to experience everything he can in Norway in ten months. And after that? Like many twenty-something-year-olds, he isn’t quite sure. He has considered medical school or perhaps something in the field of public health. Whatever he decides, Thompson is certain he will take his experiences from Norway with him. He believes that the U.S. could learn a lot from Norway when it comes to healthcare and medical research. “It’s really supportive over there and they’re proud of their research,” he said, admiringly. If he could bring anything back with him to the U.S., it would be the support and respect that Norwegians hold for their healthcare system. And that is perhaps the great benefit of having a home separated by an ocean: there is always an opportunity to learn from the other half.

If you want learn more about Nels’ experience in Norway, you can follow his blog at And seeing as he follows the Minnesota Nice guidebook wherever he goes, he would be happy to answer any questions you might have for him.

This article originally appeared in the Sept. 18, 2015, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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The Norwegian American is North America's oldest and only Norwegian newspaper, published since May 17, 1889.