When you are a kid growing up in rural Arkansas, it isn’t too difficult to dream of going somewhere else in the world. But as easy as it is to imagine visiting somewhere, it is just as hard to see yourself going there in reality.
For myself, Scandinavia was that dream location. My last name was inherited from my great-grandfather who came to the United States from Norway, and even though I am truly proud of my American identity, I have always had the ambition of returning to my family’s ancestral home. Of course, this journey was one that, to my youthful imagination, would be a long time coming.
Never have I been happier to be wrong. Thanks to the University of Arkansas’s intense passion for study abroad, I came in contact my freshman year with a flier from the Walton College’s study abroad office detailing the opportunity to study at Jonkoping International Business School (JIBS) in Sweden. I put the flier in my bag and filed it away in memory.
Two and a half years later, I found myself landing in Stockholm-Arlanda Airport, taking a high-speed train from there to a small connection station, and arriving by local train in Jonkoping. Walking into the small station with a single coffee shop, I found myself a bit nervous to begin what would become four of the best months of my life.
Instead of discussing the academics at JIBS (which were quite sufficient albeit challenging in certain ways), I really want to focus on the life lessons I learned while there. My time in Sweden felt like a culmination of a long journey I had embarked on, and the people there taught me some values that I try to carry with me every day now.
The first thing I learned really quickly (perhaps the best thing), was that when Europeans tell you they’ll do something, they are going to do it. The stereotypical, “That sounds great”, “Yeah, that would be cool”, “I’ll let you know”, etc. that we Americans give as answers to plans or suggestions, does not cut it. When my friends said we should do something next week, get coffee, go eat, grab a beer, I knew that meant we were going to do it in the time frame given. The accountability of that certitude made me become more aware of my words. It made me become more honest about what I could do, when I actually wanted to go out, how I really felt about people. The openness made life so much easier and more fun, because there wasn’t an air of distrust about the small mundane decisions of life.
The Royal Library Garden- Copenhagen, Denmark
I Learned Another gift JIBS provided me was a sense of context for my pride in my country. JIBS had an amazing campus community with an incredibly diverse array of people. I made friends not only from Sweden, Germany, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, but also Columbia, Canada, Egypt, Syria, and many more. When I listened to them speak about their homes, talk about life, culture, what movies we liked, what jokes we shared, what you can see and what we had in common, I found myself falling in love with their homes as well. Whether it was the mountains of Slovakia, the pubs of Germany, the plains of Australia, I could see why each and every one of my friends loved their home as much as I loved (as much as I affectionately deride it) Arkansas. I still believe I live in the greatest nation in the world in a gem of a state, but I realized each and every one of my friends should be just as proud and in love with their homes.
Sibelius Monument – Helsinki, Finland
A parting gift that I realized towards the end of my stay in Jonkoping was the freedom it provided me to grow. You find the idea of Sweden as a tolerant nation rings true, and it provides you the freedom to be who you are and grow in that way, regardless of your religious, political, or philosophical principles. Swedes as a whole are a passive group, preferring a sort of social harmony that allows you to live as you wish as long as you abide by one very simple rule: do no harm. This principle of avoiding trouble can make Swedes seem shy and reserved at first, as they prefer to get to know you before opening up. The quietness of the Swedes led one friend to tell me a Swede once likened themselves to a coconut, hard at the exterior but milky sweet on the inside. As you came to know Swedes, you found them genuinely sweet and sincerely concerned for the welfare of their friends and neighbors (if not a bit quirky). Meanwhile, they likened Americans to avocados due to our penchant for being warm and friendly when you first met to cover a hard interior (perhaps even cynical).
This freedom was also largely attributable to the key aspect of Swedish culture, an appreciation and easy going attitude towards life. Sweden has a remarkable ability to appreciate life and make the most of their work time. This attitude is perhaps best reflected in an aspect of the culture I certainly have brought back with me to the states, the fika. Fika is a one hour coffee break that can be taken at any time day, in which you make sure to meet with a friend and catch up and spend time discussing life and events of the day. It isn’t a substitute for lunch breaks, but it can still be taken during the work day and Swedes prioritize fika as a means of investing in relationship to the extent their work is as much planned around them as they are planned in accordance with work. It is a fantastic aspect of the social market employed by Sweden and a freedom that Swedes use with the utmost respect. That goal of balancing life and work is one I have taken to heart.
Canal- Copenhagen, Denmark
There is so much more that can be said about my time in Sweden. I had the opportunity to drive cross country to my family’s ancestral home of Bergen, Norway, mastering the manual transmission as I drove through the snowy fjords of the most gorgeous landscapes in the world. By train, I managed to visit and spend a weekend in Copenhagen, one of the friendliest cities in the world. In one last grand effort before my departure and finals week, I managed to make it to Stockholm, stumble into the King of Sweden’s public birthday party where his military band played house music amongst adoring citizens, and find myself sitting in a craft brewery in the flourishing foodie scene of Helsinki and talk to a Finnish bartender about food, drink, laws and culture.
After all this, it’s not hard to conclude my time in Sweden was the greatest time of my life. Despite the academic challenges, I formed a new level of dependence, learned I could travel on my own by backpack in a foreign land, ad so much more. My time in Jonkoping is something I will always treasure, and I know it’s a feeling that everyone that takes the chance to live there will also share.
Fjord – Norway