St. Olaf College: Where education shines

Norwegian studies thriving at St. Olaf College

st olaf

Photo courtesy of St. Olaf College
As the St. Olaf College website says, “The Hill is beautiful, but the people are what form the St. Olaf community.” The campus in Northfield, Minn., is an epicenter of learning for Norwegian Americans.

Business and Sports Editor
The Norwegian American

St. Olaf College refers to itself as the school on the hill, its 300-acre campus amid “350 acres of restored wetlands, woodlands, and native tailgrass prairie,” overlooking the rural 20,000-resident town of Northfield, Minn. They are Oles because, “we don’t turn out typical college grads. We turn out Oles. Oles are the people companies want. Oles are what the planet needs.”

Ole is also another version of Olaf.  Its Old Norse definition of Óláfr, is “ancestor’s descendant.” That seems appropriate for the 3,000-student college as it remains true to the mission first established by its founders, Norwegian Lutheran immigrants in 1874. As it approaches the 150th anniversary in 2024, the school on the hill stands above as the only college in the world with a Norwegian major; outstanding music and choral program; study abroad opportunities with a plethora of study options for students—impressive, given its size.

Photo: Jonathunder / Wikimedia The Old Main Hall on the St. Olaf campus in Northfield, Minn., was the original campus structure, built in 1877. The school was founded in 1874 by a group of Norwegian-American pastors and farmers.

The founding was Nov. 6, 1874 with classes beginning on January 8, 1875. It was initially St. Olaf’s School, named for King Olav II Haraldsson, acknowledged for Christianizing Norway. Thorbjørn Mohn was the first principal. The founders’ mission: “a liberal education drawing from the Norwegian Lutheran Church…preservation of the Norwegian language and culture…” The school was co-ed. Two women, Marie Aaker and Esther Thompson, were the first graduates of St. Olaf’s School in 1877. Later in 1893, Anges Mellby was the first graduate of the renamed St. Olaf College.

Thirty acres were bought in Manitou Heights in 1876 for the new site of the school. In 1889, ’s was dropped from Olaf and College replaced School in the name, for St.Olaf College. A year later, United Northern Lutheran Church sponsored St. Olaf, broke away in 1893, and returned in 1899.

Members of the Norwegian royal family visited St. Olaf multiple times from the 1930s to the 2010s. In 2005, the college built a wind turbine on campus to provide electricity to the campus, and in 2008, Regents Hall of Natural Science was classified as a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) building. The mission statement is “St. Olaf College challenges students to excel in the liberal arts, examine faith and values, and explore meaningful vocation in an inclusive, globally engaged community nourished by Lutheran tradition.”

“St. Olaf was established by individuals who wanted to maintain both their culture and their religion in the new country and a big piece of that culture was the language,” said Kari Lie Dorer, chair of the Norwegian Department and King Olav V Endowed Chair in Scandinavian-American Studies via Zoom from the U.S. Virgin Islands, where she is on a year sabbatical. “They wanted to have an environment in which individuals could do their education in Norwegian, but they also really wanted religion to be a part of people’s education. Norwegian has always been offered at St. Olaf. In the early days, that was the only language of the college. Things just gradually became more and more English. Even when all the courses were in English, there was still a requirement to take Norwegian language classes as a second language.”

There are 46 majors with additional languages: Chinese, French, German, Ancient Greek, Japanese, Latin, Russian, and Spanish. While there is a separate Nordic Studies program, there are also complementary Asian Studies, Russian Area Studies, Latin American Studies, and Medieval Studies majors.

What’s it mean to be a Norwegian major? What are Nordic Studies? Dorer notes that St. Olaf has kept its focus on a Norwegian language department, whereas at other universities, it became part of a Scandinavian Studies or Nordic Studies or even merged into the German department.

“St. Olaf is the only college in the entire world that has a Norwegian department,” she said. “I think that’s one thing that has really set us apart over the years. Our big focus is Norwegian.”

Nordic Studies began in 1996 and averages 10 graduates a year. Norwegian graduates six on average.

“Nordic Studies is an interdisciplinary program,” said Dorer. “Our Norwegian department is really the core of what St. Olaf does. Norwegian and Nordic Studies begin with the same core, meaning you need a basic foundation of language. From there, if one wants to do more language or more courses within the humanities, specifically history and literature, then students go in the Norwegian major track, which is trying to produce higher levels of Norwegian and understanding of how Norway became what it is today. Whereas, the Nordic Studies program starts with a language base but from there students can go in a plethora of interdisciplinary options so they could dabble in policy or psychology or philosophy. Some students come in wanting to have a really high level of Norwegian. Some students are really interested in more of the economy, political science, philosophy of the welfare state. They don’t need a high level of Norwegian language. By having different programs, we can really appeal to different groups of students.”

About 100-200 students take some level of Norwegian language courses to start. There is a three-semester language requirement. Besides Beginners and Intermediate Norwegian, courses this fall in the Norwegian Department include Social Debates in Historical Contexts; Ethics of Print (Nordic Studies); Islamic communities in Scandinavia (Nordic Studies); Viking and Medieval Scandinavia (History); Nordic Romantic Science (FYS); Wellness and Disability in the Nordic Region (WRI), and in spring 2023, The Drama of Henrik Ibsen; Topics in Norwegian Literature and Culture; In their Own Words: Literature by Immigrants to Minnesota (History), and Nordic Film Directors (NORST).

Dorer notes that students’ reasons for studying Norwegian have changed over the years. Why is it important to learn Norwegian?

“I think it’s important in different ways for different people,” said Dorer. “It’s important for the college because it represents the college’s heritage and origins.

“If I were to answer that question 25 years ago, or even when I first began teaching at St. Olaf (2007), the overwhelming majority were enrolling in Norwegian because it’s a part of their ancestry. They’re trying to understand their family just a little bit more.

“However, far more students enroll in our classes that have no connection to Norway. They’re interested in learning about something that’s either very central to the college or something that they have some connection with. For some, they met someone, whether it be a friend or a loved one from Norway, and they want to be able to communicate with them. There is something that they’ve heard about Norway and they want to learn more about that. They understand that, if you really want to learn about a different country or culture that you also have to be able to speak their language.”

Rising seniors Erik Moe and Helen White took some different routes to Norwegian.

“I lived in Stavanger for four years when I was in middle school, ages 11 to 15,” said White, who is from Houston. “That’s how I got involved with Norwegian culture.  I also have some Norwegian family, but it’s much more because I lived there.”

“My dad and grandpa grew up speaking Norwegian as the first language,” said Moe, who is from the small town of Mora, Minn. “I attended Skogfjorden, the Norwegian language camp, for 10 years.”

Photo: Lori Ann Reinhall
Instruction in Norwegian language has been offered at St. Olaf College since its early days. In 2021, Editor-in-chief Lori Ann Reinhall visited Norskhuset, the Norwegian House), where the students speak Norwegian together and engage in activities to enhance their experience of Norwegian culture.

The appeal of Norwegian?

“Usually people are Norwegian majors and something else,” said White. “There’s not a lot of people who are just Norwegian majors. They are people who are interested in learning about Norwegian  culture, and language. Typically, Norwegian majors have interests in living in or visiting Norway. That’s a big motivation for people to learn the language.”

White designed her own major in linguistics with a concentration in teaching English as a foreign language. Moe’s second major is Political Science with concentrations in Nordic Studies, Germanic Studies, and Linguistic Studies.

Both reside in Norway House. Moe will be president this year. As many as 10 students can live in the house as part of an immersion program in the language, as well as planning cultural activities.

“At a Nordic retreat last year, we became good friends with the Swedish House at Gustavas Aldophus College,” said Moe. “We’re talking to them about doing some collaborations, where they come to St. Olaf and have an event and we go to an event at their Swedish House. I think one of the biggest appeals (about Norway House) is the balance living in the house, which is slightly off campus but still on campus. I like leading events that other people can learn about.”

“Norway House is a pretty good community,” said White. “We have a good time. The main appeal is a chance for people to spend time with and be friends with other students in the Norwegian department. We get to do events and there are some special privileges that come with living in the house rather than the dorm.”

Norwegian American Historical Association (NAHA)

Moe and White are working with the Norwegian American Historical Association (NAHA) this summer. Moe is also working on a project for Dorer. A leader in ethnic migration studies, NAHA has been located at St. Olaf since the association  opened its doors in 1925.

“In the past, NAHA has not been super student involved,” said White. “My job this summer is to push to get it more student involved. NAHA mainly appeals to older people, genealogical researchers, scholars interested in history. I think a lot of students don’t know NAHA exists. There’s more of a collaboration between NAHA and the Norwegian department for class purposes. Sometimes, classes will go down there and look at the resources. I’m trying to push for more events so people can get to know it better.”

International Summer School and study abroad

There is a connection between people who have attended the International Summer School (ISS) at the University of Oslo even if they didn’t go the same year. North American students’ connection to St. Olaf is it has been the North American administrative office for ISS since the first American students went in 1947. It was exciting to participate in ISS. I attended in 1992, Dorer attended the first of three times in 1995, and Laura Loge attended in 1999. You can be older than a college student to attend. Over 75 years, more than 30,000 students from 150 countries have spent the six-week term there, with an average of 600 students from 90 countries. You can find yourself in a Norwegian language class with students from 10 different countries.

“I really see the International Summer School as not just a progression of what we do, but a different branch of what we do,” said  Dorer. “They do things in a slightly different way in a different place. They offer an opportunity for our students so we’re always encouraging students to attend. If they want to take a course in English or  in Norwegian, the North American office helps us be the point person for all things Norwegian because there are so many students and adults, too, who contact us because of an interest in the International Summer School.

“I feel like part of the reason our department is so successful is we have a Norwegian trifecta on campus. We have the Norwegian department, the Oslo International Summer School, and NAHA.”

An average of about 110 North Americans attend ISS each summer. Out of them 12 to 30 are St. Olaf students.

The ISS is not the only study abroad program St. Olaf offers. Among the class of 2021, 65.2% of the students took part in at least one off-campus program. In 2020, the Institute of International Education Open Doors Report rated St. Olaf the top school for number of students who studied abroad, for the 12th straight year.

Photo courtesy of St. Olaf College
For more than a century, the St. Olaf Choir, comprised of 75 mixed voices, has “set the gold standard for choral singing, performing for millions around the world.” The choir is held in very high esteem in Norway, where they have made many tours. When school is in session, there are daily rehearsals. A highlight of each year is the annual Christmas concert held on the St. Olaf campus in Northfield, Minn.

Music and the St. Olaf Choir

Laura Loge was born into music. Her mother went into labor with Laura during a Messiah concert.

“Every year I have to sing a Messiah just to make sure that the holiday season starts right,” the Montana native said via Zoom from Bellevue, Wash. “My mom’s a piano teacher. My dad has always sung as an amateur. Everybody plays an instrument and sings. So, I grew up where the holidays were spent around the piano singing or playing all the different parts of Christmas carols. My mom would play the piano. My uncle would have his trumpet. My aunt, my dad, and I would sing, or I’d play my flute. We’d just have a ball together.”

Such was paved the path to St. Olaf and beyond for Loge, who graduated in 2001. The soprano is a freelance singer, who sings with orchestras and chamber music companies. She is the artistic director for a chamber music series and producer of chamber music concerts. Notably, most of her material is Nordic-themed. A lover of the music of Edvard Grieg, she founded the Northwest Grieg Society in Seattle in 2017.

Loge is unequivocal in St. Olaf’s role in her career, citing professors who still influence her. With 61 faculty members, the music department has 15 times the number of faculty than the Norwegian department.

The history is groundbreaking. The St. Olaf band toured Norway in 1906; F. Melius Christiansen founded the choir in 1912 and a year later it toured abroad. Both were the first American college musical groups to travel abroad. The choir became one of the top a cappella choirs in the United States and its “Christmas Fest” concert is a highlight of the year and shown on national television.

“When I was looking, I wanted to do music and Norwegian and that narrowed the playing field,” she said. “St. Olaf was by far the best music program. For a liberal arts college, the music department is as close to a conservatory as one can get as far as quality goes. Plus you can get a conservatory degree there, which is what I ended up getting.

“Christiansen established the choir using the Norwegian choral tradition that he brought over with him from Norway. Choirs, in particular, are an important historical aspect of Norwegian music, especially classical music.

“Everyone sings together. No one stands out, as opposed to the soloist. No one could be a soloist, because no one should be better than anybody else. The music comes with the Norwegian. Having that strong musical connection is part of their community. Establishing the choir really put the college on the map for music and the choral world.”

In measuring carefully an answer to rectifying she is a soloist, she found a St. Olaf answer.

“I learned a lot from being in the choir, how to use the skills of being a chorister, listening, watching, and the musicality that goes with that and the collaboration that you learn from those skills,” she said.

“I very rarely sing all alone. There’s almost always, at least, a pianist. With the chamber music, I do that as well. I’ve been doing much more with small ensembles, which is a lot of fun.  All of those require that skill of collaboration that is really ingrained when you’re in a group like the St. Olaf Choir.”

This article originally appeared in the September 2, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American.

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Michael Kleiner

Michael Kleiner, business and sports editor, has more than three decades of experience as an award-winning journalist and public relations professional. He has operated his own PR and web design business for small businesses, authors and community organizations in Philadelphia since 1999. Not of Norwegian descent, he lived in Norway for a year with his family at age 11 and has returned as an adult. He is the author of a memoir, Beyond the Cold: An American’s Warm Portrait of Norway, and a member of NorCham Philadelphia. Visit;