Queen Sonja inspires students at St. Olaf College

Studying the past to look to the future

The students of St. Olaf College in Northfield, Minn., cane out in full force, Norwegian flags and cell phone camera in hand, to greet Norway’s Queen Sonja.

The Norwegian American

A three-hour flight delay with a midnight arrival. A long wait to get a rental car at the Minneapolis–St. Paul airport, and then a drive in the dark to Northfield. It only allowed for a few hours of sleep, to awake to the sight of snowflakes coming down the next morning. What have I done? I asked myself. Was it all really worth it to catch a glimpse or two of Queen Sonja at St. Olaf College?

Well, I can say without any hesitation, that the answer turned out to be a resounding yes. My morning at St. Olaf on Oct. 14 will remain in my memory as one of the most meaningful receptions I have ever attended. And this is not so usual at an academic institution, where things have a tendency to be–well—a little too academic. This was very different, very heartwarming, very inspiring.

Queen Sonja and her entourage from the royal palace, embassy, and other security personnel arrived at the north entrance of the St. Olaf Buntrock Commons at 11 a.m. on the dot to be presented with a bouquet of red, white, and blue flowers by Sebastian Pham, St. Olaf student body president. The queen then went inside to be greeted by a large Norwegian flag that was hung from the landing at the top of a long staircase. Students had gathered to welcome her and cheer her on—many wearing Norwegian sweaters and waving Norwegian flags, as she ascended the staircase.

As the group left the building, followed by the press corps, cameras in hand, the excitement stepped up, as throngs of students had lined the walkway to the Rølvaag Memorial Library, with more flag-waving and cheering. “I saw royalty, I saw royalty!” I heard a blond-haired, blue-eyed girl exclaim, flag in hand, of course. But what struck me was the diversity of the student body that had come out. Apparently, you didn’t have to have Norwegian genes per se to get excited about Queen Sonja’s visit—this was a day for all Oles—and the excitement was intoxicating.

Student Caroline Flaten (left) briefly presented the history of O.E. Rølvaag to Queen Sonja (right), as professor Kari Lie Dorer stood by.

Once inside the Rølvaag Memorial Library, the queen was greeted by David R. Anderson, president of St. Olaf College, and Amy Boxrud, executive director of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. The program also included remarks from Kari Lie Dorer, King Olav chair of Scandinavian-American Studies and professor of Norwegian, and Mary Barbosa-Jerez, head of strategy for library collection and archives. The queen and other attendees learned about who O.E. Rølvaag was and the history of the library and its collections. The queen, who was seated next to the Norwegian ambassador to the United States, Anniken R. Krutnes, listened attentively.

But the real stars of the show were the students who read from the archives and presented projects that were part of their Nordic Studies programs.

Leah Berdahl, Skye Federation, and Teague Lars Peterson-McGuire, all class of ’23, read from the letters of Norwegian immigrants from the archives. Listening to these accounts, one got the sense of history in an immediate way, gaining understanding of why the work of the Norwegian-American Historical Association and the archives with letters, photos, and other documents is so important.

But the Norwegian and Scandinavian-American Studies programs at St. Olaf are not only about the past, as we learned from four student presenters, also from the class of ’23.

We learned from Caroline Flaten that O.E. Rølvaag (1876 – 1931) was a professor of Norwegian at St. Olaf College and general secretary of the Norwegian-American Historical Association. His epic novel Giants in the Earth is considered to be one of the best accounts of the Norwegian-American immigrant experience on the Great Plains in the 19th century.

Esmir Hodzic spoke about Norwegian Americans’ path to “whiteness,” the experience of the immigrants finding their place in the socioeconomic hierarchy of their new country. A second-generation Bosnian immigrant, Hodzic sees parallels among the experiences of all immigrants.

In fluent Norwegian, Helen White spoke about the often overlooked history of Norwegian settlements in Texas (and the queen complimented her on her Norwegian).

Also speaking fluent Norwegian, Eric Moe presented his project on the 1925 Norse-American Centennial, when celebrations were held in several North American cities with a major festival at the Minnesota State Fairgrounds. Documenting materials from these events make up a major part of the archives. Moe proudly shared that he plans to pursue a doctorate in Norwegian.

With St. Olaf College President, David R. Anderson, Queen Sonja cut the ribbon to dedicate the new Rølvaag Archives, now under construction.

After a ribbon-cutting ceremony with the queen for the library’s new special collections and archives vault, I got the opportunity to talk with the students more about their plans for the future. Having obtained my degrees in Scandinavian languages and literature many decades ago, I was not surprised to hear that one of the most common questions they get is, “What in the world will you do with a degree like that?”

But these students are optimistic and have a vision. Some are planning to work as linguists in some capacity, others have double majors and understand the value of knowing a foreign language, there were those with a razor-sharp focus on an academic career, and in all cases, there was a strong intellectual curiosity expressed. All recognized the value of understanding the interplay among different cultures.

Finally, with the visit of Queen Sonja, I asked the students if the monarchy was still relevant in today’s world. They didn’t hesitate to respond that the Norwegian monarchy provided an important anchor to history and tradition and a steady presence in the now. They had just seen how the queen’s presence had elevated the meaning and importance of what they were doing, without any politics being involved. For them­ and all of us there, it was an exciting, inspirational day.

Photos: Lori Ann Reinhall

This article originally appeared in the November 4, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Lori Ann Reinhall

Lori Ann Reinhall, editor-in-chief of The Norwegian American, is a multilingual journalist and cultural ambassador based in Seattle. She is the president of the Seattle-Bergen Sister City Association, and she serves on the boards of several Nordic organizations.