Observing Spaces: A Deep Dive

A satirical post in response to President Trump’s offer to buy Greenland from Denmark.

A quick warning! This blog post is part of content for a class for my host university. It will be a little more analytical and a lot longer. However, if you are interested in cross cultural interactions, you might find this engaging! Just a heads up.

Observe the student/teacher relationships.

One of the selling points of DIS was the fact that all professors who are teaching at DIS are also actively working in their field as well. As an architecture student, this isn’t as unusual because most architecture professors run their own firm on the side. However, for other studies, this is a huge selling point. It means that your business professor is actually a consultant for Carlsberg or your “Complexity of Cancer” professor is actually an oncologist.

As a result, there are no official office hours. Most of the time, professors are at DIS to teach their class and then are back at work 30 minutes later. However, while not physically accessible, they are incredibly responsive via email, and are more than willing to meet up and fit you into their busy schedule. I’ve been impressed with the wide range of hats that DIS professors wear. And instead of being annoyed with the professors working off campus, I’ve found it more similar to office environments where scheduling is crucial to working within people’s schedules. In this way, DIS professors are incredibly accessible.

In the classroom, class sizes are around 10-20 students. Discussions occur in every class meeting and you are expected to come to class with questions and thoughts prepared. I’ve found myself learning from my classmates as well as my professors. Professors and students are on a first name basis, creating an informal and comfortable environment that remains incredibly professional. Which I’m just now realizing how impressive that is. DIS professors dance the line of comfortable but professional, and they do it well.

Furthermore, all ideas are on the table, as long as they are backed up with a sound argument. If you make a claim without backup, you won’t be retributed, but your idea won’t hold weight against the others being discussed. And professors aren’t above this either. They are just better than us at defending their claims, but they invite us to challenge their ideas. This is a point that differs to my host university, where all ideas are on the table whether or not they can be proven. I think I like the DIS professor approach better.

From the short amount of time that I’ve been learning from Danish professors, I have found that it fits my learning style well. I need a more comfortable and informal discussion that remains professional and civil because the other students adhere to the guidelines. I also appreciate the openness to well-founded arguments, and that all ideas are on the table as long as you can defend them. This is pretty similar to Tulane’s approach to in class learning, although some unfounded ideas will still get airtime. Still, it was a pretty smooth transition into this new classroom experience.

Watch local TV or read a local newspaper with a host country national.

Almost every night my host parents and I will discuss a new topic of politics or other area of life. Typically after, we will watch the local news and they will interpret the Danish and explain why the background to a policy or event. It has been fascinating!

Political discussions are wildly different in Denmark. Whereas politics in America are polarizing, ostracizing and taboo in almost all settings, the Danes love to converse about it with almost anyone. On the second or third day of my time in Copenhagen, they asked me what my thoughts on gay marriage were and I almost spit out my water. However, it raised a lively discussion that I thoroughly enjoyed and from there it has been a refreshing change in our household!

I make the comparison to political conversations in America in order to deconstruct my understanding of what is culturally appropriate when it comes to discussing politics. To quote our reading directly: “Constructivism is the framework that our understanding of new experiences is built on a foundation of the familiar, what we already know.” It has been fascinating to take my understanding of American cultural values when it comes to discussing politics and turn it on its head.

One of the go-to news networks for my host family is DR (Danish Broadcasting Corporation), which is a relatively objective, moderate news source known especially for its thought-provoking debates and documentaries. We’ve watched on multiple occasions, but the most recent was an evening programming this last Thursday. One of the things that my host parents have emphasized is that the news and politics are decidedly less polarized than in America.

While there are the figures that have been relegated to the outskirts of politics, including a politician that arrived at Parliament wearing a suit made from pig skin, the majority of politicians are amicable and productive no matter their political view. Conservative, liberal, and moderate come together to discuss issues. They may disagree on how to arrive at solutions, but many of the most debated topics, such as health care, welfare, and education, are understood to be crucial to the health of Danish society.

Reflecting on these political discussions has only further emphasized how truly open the Danish culture is to all topics. Whether it is someone in the street asking about who I voted for in the last election to a fast friend made at the local bar inquiring about my views on abortion, I am coming to realize that the overall approach to life is straight forward. And while at first I was taken aback, I am now coming to appreciate the difference, especially because my communication with my host parents is so open as a result.

Service/Internship Observation

As part of my Service Learning project, I had the honor of volunteering at the Festival for the Global Goals, hosted by Sustainability Now. The festival took place on Solbjerg Plads, a large green area that hosted a range of workshops, activities, debates and dialogues that provided an opportunity to learn more about sustainability.

An interactive presentation about small changes we can make in our daily lives

In a number of ways, this event reminded me of my years working at a summer camp for middle schoolers. The relationship between volunteers and supervisors was informal, but professional, and overwhelmingly positive. The event coordinators were high energy and encouraged volunteers to take ownership over their stations to make the activities as engaging as possible. I found the faith in us invigorating.

The number one expectation at the event was positivity, especially when we were interacting with young people. The goal was to have every person leave with tangible ways to live more sustainable lives. We were also expected to be engaged in the activities, and demonstrate our own personal interest in the issue of sustainability today.

Like I mentioned above, I feel comfortable in high energy, overtly positive festival/volunteer situations. As a result, I felt right at home running an activity where participants used Legos to communicate an idea to make our built environment more sustainable. The only real thing that made me uncomfortable was the language barrier.

My grasp of the Danish language is minimal at best, so I found myself hesitant at first. However, I was mostly interacting with children between the ages of 6 and 14, so any type of positive communication worked, and they were responsive even when I was encouraging them in English. I realized that my tone and body language were much more important than the words I was actually using. Most of the time, I would crouch down next to them at the table and build my own creation to get them to start building too. It didn’t require any deep grasp of language, but rather my willingness to experiment and be creative with them. With a partner, they were much more willing to participate.

I also recognize now the ingenuity behind the activity. Instead of a station where participants draw or write (to which most people would respond “I don’t” or “I can’t”), building with Legos is creative and low stakes. People of all ages were willing to sit down and try their hand at constructing something, casually at first. I watched multiple adults go through a transformation of body language. They would start noncommittal, sorting through the shared pile with one hand and holding a coffee cup or jacket in the other. Yet, as their idea began to take form, and they watched the children around them avidly building and discussing and searching for a specific piece, their language would change. They would put down their belongings, take a seat next to the others, and commit. They would begin to furrow their brows and make something of substance, grabbing a pen to create a narrative for their idea. I loved watching participants go from noncommittal to fully engaged and willing to bring their idea to life.

A wide range of people came to participate in the festival. Families, friends, professionals, professors, and social activists/organizers all gathered around the unifying goal of exploring sustainability and assessing our goals for the future to protect our environment. Strangers were more than welcome as the entire event was intended to increase awareness and personal engagement, and a number of participants were interested passerby who had never heard of the organizations involved or the event.

While there is no typical experience of the people coming to visit, I can talk about the influence of the the larger organization that I am partnering with – Copenhagen Volunteers. The organization connects volunteers with opportunities that match their interest from over 80 events annually. The people the organization engages are active in their communities and care deeply about extracurriculars, whether that is art, sports, health/wellness or individual expression. It has been amazing to meet people and learn more about their personal passions.

I must admit that if I was in charge of the organization, there is very little I would switch up. They have some amazing best practices that include a high level of autonomy among volunteers, an energetic, informal but professional approach to leadership, and top notch communication. I think one of the only things I might change is outreach, encouraging other Copenhageners to participate in volunteer opportunities if they are not already involved.

After my preliminary participation, my highlight has remained watching adults engage the activity I was running because the medium of Legos provided an inviting opportunity for individuals who would otherwise not have participated. This approach has completely piqued my interest, and I wonder what other issues we might be able to invite seemingly other uninterested people into if we switched up the way we presented it. Definitely fascinating!

I certainly felt like I was a part of the volunteer community and the larger community that was served by the festival. CPH Volunteers does an excellent job of helping you feel a part of a larger organization and mission. I think going forward, I want to double down and commit to bringing my Danish to at least a conversational level. There is definitely a higher level of respect when you speak the language of other volunteers and participants, and I know that it would bring a deeper experience of immersion. I think this is one of the main challenges to overcome that is culturally derived.

One of the readings that resonated with my experiences in reflection is Zull’s writing about concrete experiences, and the pathway to experiences becoming lessons. He argues that they are all relative and will yield emotional memories, but these do not automatically guarantee learning. For me, is it not until I reflect on my service learning experiences that I am able to take a step back and begin to realize what lessons can be learned. Zull explains, “We may recall that an experience was emotional but still forget the details. Our goal in reflection is to discover both the facts and the emotions linked to our memory of the experiences. (Because even memory is relative).” James Zull. “The Brain, Learning, and Studying Abroad”. I want to use this framework as I work to answer my question: What am I looking to take away from studying abroad?

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1 Comment

  1. It’s so interesting to hear how much you can have good dialogue with others without it getting polemically or contentious. That’s refreshing. I look forward to doing that with you and your host family while we are there!

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