International Students in Forening: Paving the Way Forward
What comes to mind when you think of this word?
The term roughly translates in English to ‘student society or association’, such as a fraternity or sorority. For most international students at NMBU, it probably conjures up images of Norwegian students dressed in various costumes while attending one social event or another, whether it be at Samfunnet, Storebrand, or elsewhere on campus. To the outside observer, it seems to be a distinctive feature of student life at this particular university, where nearly every association has a unique identity. However, what many people may not know is that non-Norwegian students are also welcome to join a number of fraternities and sororities at NMBU! Over the past few months, I met with five international students – each belonging to a different forening – to talk about their personal experiences.
First, a somewhat obvious question: why would an international student be interested in joining a Norwegian forening? Is it to make new friends? Is it in order to learn more about Norwegian culture? Or is it just a fun activity meant to fill all of the hours not spent studying?
For Kelsey Barnhill, a member of Feminin & Fornem, joining the sorority over a year and a half ago was pivotal in developing deep friendships while being part of a close-knit social group on campus: “It really integrated me within Ås student culture,” Barnhill says. “I don’t live on campus so a lot of times I feel like I don’t know about events […] so I feel like it’s made me more of a part of student life in general.”
Meanwhile, for Leo Tetrel, joining the choir Sangkoret Lærken this semester seemed like an interesting activity that also allows for interaction with Norwegian students: “I think this is the only way for me to meet Norwegians, except for my roommates… because when I am in courses I am often with other internationals, and we [normally] just stay together.” For exchange students such as Tetrel who are only here for one semester, trying out for and participating in a forening may be an especially effective way of experiencing NMBU’s student life within a very short timeframe.
Okay, this all sounds good. But what about the issue of language? In a social association composed predominantly of Norwegian students, what is communication during forening-related activities like for an international student who does not (yet) speak fluent Norwegian? Is this a significant challenge?
Each student I talked to mentioned that joining a forening was a great opportunity for improving one’s Norwegian language skills. While their personal experiences differed somewhat, several of them also commented that – while the respective foreningen they belonged to were generally accommodating of the international student’s preference to speak English in certain situations – it was very important to attempt to learn and use Norwegian as much as possible, even at the beginning of the forening application process.
For Daniel Lohmann, who could already speak Norwegian to some degree prior to joining Over Rævne last year, language is a factor that can impact the quality of one’s experience in a fraternity or choir. Yet this depends on the nature of the particular forening itself, as some student societies are more focused than others on elements of Norwegian culture (for example, a choir that sings mainly Norwegian songs). “If I wasn’t able to speak Norwegian, I don’t know if I would have applied for a forening,” Lohmann says. “But you can always get better at a language.”
The ongoing question of how to foster closer integration between international and Norwegian students remains relevant at NMBU, where nearly 20 percent of the student population is comprised of non-Norwegians. What does this mean for Norwegian student societies as they start to open their doors to interested applicants who happen to be international students?
“I don’t necessarily think that forenings need to turn into ‘international’ social groups because they are Norwegian social groups – that’s what they are,” says Vicky Rivera, of Koneklubben Freidig. Rivera, like the others I interviewed, was the first international student to become a member of her respective sorority. “But I think including different cultures and different perspectives just enriches it; it doesn’t make it less Norwegian or anything. I just think it reflects part of the culture of Ås in general, and it challenges international students to understand Norwegian culture more and to learn the language.”
Certainly, the concept of a Norwegian forening (or at least, a forening in Ås) differs markedly from student societies in other parts of the world. Of the five students I met with, four come from the United States, where fraternities and sororities have a large presence at most university and college campuses. Furthermore, they are often associated with stereotypes and even rather negative connotations in both news media and popular culture. For these students, how have their experiences in Norwegian foreningen compared to any preconceived notions of theirs, regarding what a student society is?
Lish Earnest, a member of Pikekoret IVAR, comments on how foreningen here seem to place greater emphasis on taking care of and respecting your fellow members. This is a characteristic that seems to cut across all of the different types of forening here, from choirs to sororities. In reflecting upon the seeming differences between Norwegian social groups and North American ones, Earnest adds: “It was very different, I think. When I was younger and you would tell me I would join a sorority, I would have been, like, “Absolutely not!” But it’s very different than that, and on top of that, they also sing!”
Overall, in terms of their time at NMBU thus far, how has being in a forening impacted these five trailblazing international students? For the most part, it seems as though their experiences have been largely meaningful additions to their everyday student lives.
“I think it’s kind of like a good ice-breaker for me and it makes me feel like I’m a part of something,” says Kelsey Barnhill. “That’s my main identity here. I don’t see myself as […] an international student or […] an Eika trainer… I see myself as a member of the forening.”
By: Chiara Magboo