Comparing Norwegian Education System During Quarantine

My name is Rachel Brosten, and for my study abroad experience I went to the University of Bergen in Norway this past spring semester. Going in, my plan for my Global Challenge was to analyze the American education system and its approach to teaching students. Norway has one of the highest rates of education so I wanted to see if I could understand why and how the US could improve its own. So for me, the very act of studying abroad supported my challenge and Theme of Culture and Politics.

My brother and I on a night hike to the top of one of the surrounding mountains overlooking Bergen lit up below

Coincidentally enough, my older brother was also attending the University of Bergen and pursuing his Master’s in mathematics, so it was exciting to be going to the same school again for the first time in 5 years. Bergen was an absolutely stunning place, with so many opportunities to get outdoors and hike and explore. The student housing I lived in was surrounded by graveyards so that was pretty cool and a lot less creepy than I thought it would be. Also, the public transportation system was amazing and that enabled me to go into the city center and look around and shop too. One of the things I miss the most is how absolutely safe and stress free it felt to walk about. I even felt comfortable walking alone at night!

One of the graveyards around where I lived

While there, I got to attend a Black Lives Matter rally which was a super interesting experience because about 2/3 of the speeches were in Norwegian so I could understand very little. The rest was in English and those were ones I was able to really get into. It really was such an amazing and surreal experience, to be attending a rally of a group formed in the US as protest against the killing of innocent black Americans by police…all the way over in Norway. And have almost as much energy as if I was back in the US (given, introverted Norwegian high energy, but still high)

Norwegian signs reading “Racism is also a pandemic” and “If you don’t see the problem, you are the problem”

At the University, I took two courses; one on world education and society and the other on indigenous arctic governance. One thing that was super different was how each class was structured. They only met once a week for 2-3 hours with a 15 min break in the middle and the only homework was to read the assigned material. No essays, no quizzes, just one final exam at the end of the semester which would be the only determiner of your grade. So, your entire grade rode on one 6-10 hour long sit-in written essay. I learned later with my expectations and experience in the US education system, I was woefully unprepared.

And then of course, the pandemic hit and everything immediately and completely shut down. Unfortunately, I was only able to attend about 4 weeks of classes which meant 8 individual classes (4 for each subject) and it didn’t allow a lot of time to make friendships. Luckily I was able to make one friend from Poland and we’re still in touch and wanting to visit each others’ home country when this is all over (aka when other countries actually allow any Americans to come in.) That time was super hard. I was essentially completely by myself for 3 months in a small dorm room where I was within 6 feet from my “kitchen” and bathroom when lying in bed. All I can say is thank god my brother was there. We made sure to check in on each other and socialize and make sure to get out of the building as much as possible. There was never a time we each needed family more and we were lucky to live in the same building.

My friend Dominika momentarily stuck in a telephone booth library

As an outlet and release of sorts, I even created a blog for myself where I could write out any deep introspective thoughts I was having, work/talk through difficult emotions, as well as just continuously journal about what it was like to live through the entire experience. It was very therapeutic for me and helped a lot with any mental or emotional strain. And man oh man was I glad to be an introvert because I had inadvertently been training for this prolonged period of solitude for 21 years. I actually had my birthday in March while I was there. Big deal in America, meaningless age in Norway.

The biggest thing I learned was just how different the expectations and approach to learning are in Norway. I actually learned this the most in my own failure.

This all came to a head during my finals. When the time came, I found that I actually had very little idea on how to even approach studying because it didn’t rely on pure memorization of facts and dates. I had total access to all the notes and readings and all resources provided during the course of the term. So I legitimately didn’t know how to prepare and that made me feel really frustrated at the limited skills my past schooling had provided me. Was the only thing encouraged/taught just different ways of memorization and not actually how to critically think and articulate what you’d learned? It sure felt that way.

It was especially hard because I had never before in all my 16 years of schooling, ever failed a class. It was almost debilitating and I was so angry at myself for not preparing more, at my past schooling for not preparing and teaching me, and just at the fact that I knew I was 100% able of doing it and yet, couldn’t. Also, for the prior 2 days leading up to my last final, knowing how unprepared I was for the first, I didn’t sleep at all with anxiety at what was coming. So there I was, staring at prompts I couldn’t answer well, stressed, absurdly sleep deprived, and calling my mom every hour to cry.

But as it tends to do, time continued on unwaveringly and I got through it. They say you tend to learn the most from your failures, and I would definitely agree (as terrible it seems while you’re in it).