Peace Scholar Post: Rachel Novacek

Three months ago I was attending the International Summer School at the University of Oslo. While I was there I took two courses both of which have had, and are continuing to have an immense impact on my thinking and the trajectory of my future. As a Peace Scholar, I was required to take the rather exclusive course, the “Peace Scholar Seminar.” The subject matter of the course centered around the concept of Norway as a “peace nation,” and looked at Norway’s involvement in peace keeping abroad, but also dealt with the state and its struggles in coping with the expanding multicultural society and issues of immigration. It was quite obvious from the start I would have much to bring back home with me from this course.

The other course I took while in Norway was the study of Norwegian language. As I plan to minor in Norwegian, I took this opportunity at the University of Oslo to cross off one of the Norwegian credits needed for my minor. Signing up for the course, I didn’t think much of it. I went into the course expecting only to improve my Norwegian language skills.

Even before the courses began, we Peace Scholars were already learning some very important concepts. Our first week in Norway was spent in Lillehammer, at the Nansen Dialogue Center. One important takeaway from this experience was the discussion of how dialogue gives voice to minorities. Steinar Bryn, the founder of the Nansen Dialogue, brought up the important question of democracy, and how it is impaired when the opinions and input of minority groups are silenced within a society.

The silencing of minority voices in Norway became clearer through the Peace Seminar course. As a class we discussed issues facing those seeking asylum in Norway and debates about “non-ethnic Norwegian” identity. For example, the use of the term neger, a Norwegian term for people of African descent. This usage was challenged by the Norwegian athlete John Ertzgaard, whom has himself been called neger. In the debate that followed, many of those who identified as “ethnic Norwegians” maintained that the term was completely neutral while many Norwegians with African heritage refuted, saying the term is hurtful and discriminatory. This episode revealed how the views and opinions of minority groups are so often belittled.

Additionally, we also discussed what is being done to combat this particular issue. We learned about a two year compulsory integration program for refugees. We also visited a refugee transit camp and a NAV (Norwegian Labour and Welfare Administration) office. Throughout these experiences, a reoccurring theme transpired: The Importance of Language Learning. It seems somewhat obvious and almost redundant to point out, but one of the very first steps for immigrants to be included in the discussions and for their voice to be heard, is the prerequisite of their ability to communicate with the majority or dominate population.

By this point in my summer in Norway, I had gotten to know many of my fellow classmates in my Norwegian course. Even from the first class, it was obvious there was great diversity in the classroom. The students came from places all over the world and were of very different ages and ways of life. While there were quite a few students who, like myself, were just studying in Norway for the summer, a large portion of the class was comprised of immigrants. A course I took, Norsk trinn III (Norwegian level three) is the course one must pass as an immigrant in order to be eligible for many jobs or university studies in Norway and sometimes even citizenship. For many of my fellow classmates, completing this course was their ticket into Norwegian society.

It’s hard to describe what an amazing experience it was to learn amongst such strong, brave and motivated people. To listen to their experiences, surprises, and difficulties of their first encounters with Norwegian culture, language and society has had a profound effect on my view of immigrants and the challenges they face, especially back home in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

This experience in Norway was one of the driving factors that pushed me to begin teaching English. I have been teaching English with CLUES (Comunidades latinas unidas en servicio) for a over a month now and already the experience has given me so much meaning and insight into the issues we Peace Scholars dealt with back in Norway. CLUES is non-profit organization with locations in St. Paul and Minneapolis whose mission is “to enhance the quality of life of the Latino community in Minnesota,” though their work with immigrants of other backgrounds as well. They provide services such as free English classes, health care services, and job search assistance. Because of these services, the organization is a powerful entity when it comes to integration in the Twin Cities.

I heard about CLUES through a little project that has been going on at Augsburg College since last year in which students translate children’s books to Spanish. The woman who started this project, Patricia Mack, has been an English teacher at CLUES for years and with that is very aware of the achievement gap faced by many children of Latino immigrants. Out of her love for reading and books she wanted to make it possible for more children to be read to, which is so important in the development of literacy. But children of immigrants are more likely to not be afforded this opportunity especially when their parents do not have the money to purchase books, or the language skills to read to their children in English. After the Spanish translations are pasted into the books, Patricia then donates them to her English students.

What I love about this is that not only are the English students learning the language that can give them a more prominent position in our society, but through these books, their children are also gaining proficiency in their parents’ language, which is a huge part of their culture and in this way are able to hold on to their heritage. I think it is well-known the great value in diversity, especially the diversity of thought that immigrants take with them to this country. I see this opportunity for children to maintain and improve their Spanish proficiency coupled with outlets that CLUES offers these immigrants in order to integrate into the community as a very important method for strengthening the all so valuable voice of this group and its culture in our society.

Note: If you attend Augsburg College or live in the area and speak Spanish, please think about joining us to work on the project. You don’t have to make a long term commitment. You can come as many times as you like, and for as long as you like. It’s also a fun way to improve your Spanish and we often have food, too. Contact me (novacek@augsburg.edu) or Kate Reinhardt (reinhard@augsburg.edu) for information about meetings or with questions.

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