Alexander Gray

Why am I studying abroad?

It’s been about three weeks since I left home, and so far I’ve spent two days in Iceland, five days at the Nansen Center for Peace and Dialogue in Lillehammer, and almost two weeks at the International Summer School at the University of Oslo. As anticipated, I’ve learned a fair amount about peace and conflict. But I’ve also been a prolific tourist, which makes me a little uncomfortable.

I applied for the Peace Scholars program not because I wanted to travel to Norway per se, but because of an interest in studying peace and conflict in a Norwegian context and particularly to experience the Nansen Center. There has been plenty of free time, however, so I have visited several downtown hotspots and ferried across Oslofjord, not to mention my time in Iceland at the Blue Lagoon and other tourist vacuums.

While I’ve certainly had a lot of fun doing these things, they depart from my philosophy on studying abroad. Some of the more popular month-long and semester-long study abroad programs at my college have more of a reputation for enabling sightseeing and partying than being academically rigorous or culturally challenging. This is captured in Sean Plemmons’ controversial, thought-provoking article for The Concordian (not complete without reading the three subsequent letters to the editor) and in this article from The Onion.

Conversely, I’ve looked to The Open Window Exchange as a model for meaningful travel and used it to shape my goals while studying abroad: prioritize learning and building relationships over being a tourist. And as I near the halfway mark of my Peace Scholar experience, I find I’ve done some of the former but more of the latter than I planned. Every time I meet with American friends to peruse the Oslo city center or check another “top things you have to see in Norway” item off our list, I feel a little guilty afterwards. Am I being as intentional as I can with my finite time in Norway?

Ultimately, I’ve been looking for “open windows” in the wrong places. I’ve learned about Norwegian life and culture through tourist activities like walking in Oslo, perusing museums and art galleries and gazing at natural landmarks. However, I haven’t done enough to personalize my Norway experience by thinking outside the box with my free time. It’s the random encounters with locals and stumbles into hidden parts of town and hole-in-the-wall cafés and restaurants that will give my trip depth and a human face. I’ve done a bit of this, but not enough.

A month from now, I will return to Minnesota and address the question “What did you do in Norway?” at least a few times. After explaining what I learned as a Peace Scholar, I want to provide a unique and significant answer about the rest of my trip. I have some work to do.

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