Denmark: Don’t Throw Away Your Future

The Streets of Copenhagen

An open question to my Danish friends – do you truly want to emulate Arizona?  Because that’s the direction you’re heading.

The Study Progress Reform Talking Points

Fresh off of a recent recession and in the midst of its aftermath, Denmark is facing all of the usual debates about its educational system one would expect.  Some are complaining about the tax rate they pay and looking to scapegoat any source they can.  As usual, one of the easy targets  is education, and education funding has fallen squarely in their cross hairs.  While it is, perhaps, not terribly typical for Denmark, it is a process I’m intimately familiar with from my time in the USA and especially Arizona.

A major reason I was drawn to Denmark is because of its focus on education.  Even though I wasn’t eligible to take part, the fact that Danish students attend University for free and receive a monthly stipend of between $700-1,000 USD to survive on is incredibly attractive.  That level of commitment to education goes a long ways toward s explaining why Denmark, despite its near complete lack of natural resources, its rugged climate, extremely difficult language , and small population is an intellectual, professional and economic powerhouse. Denmark surpasses many of its counterparts which are 5, 10 or even 20 times its size.

Unfortunately, it’s painfully clear to me that recent “reforms” proposed to the Danish education system, many of which are heavily inspired by the ideological approaches which have deeply harmed American higher education over the last two decades, will have far more severe ramifications for Denmark.   Everything in Denmark is based upon one commodity: The country’s intellectual capital. In areas such as green design, architecture, or Copenhagen Suborbitals, it’s obvious.  Where it is less obvious is the country’s push for wind energy, biomedical, high tech, etc. which all  require a highly educated population with a sound intellectual foundation. Without it, the whole system falls apart. The high quality of life, standard of living, and disproportionately influential role Denmark enjoys  on the world stage is all just a few poorly thought-out moves away from ruin – and let’s face it, Danes have no interest in losing their extremely comfortable first-world status and lifestyle.

Factions of business leaders, bureaucrats, and media representatives have fallen over each other in recent months in an effort to exploit students  and the Danish education system. They have  all the usual arguments – they are taking too long, they are wasting everyone’s money, they are lazy, they need increased incentives, and of course, “Why should I have to pay for their education?”.

The tone and delivery varies slightly from year-to-year, country-to-country, but at the end of the day it’s always the same arguments.  It’s the same nonsense that was used in Arizona to slash and divert the budgets of public schools, all so that those same funds could be wasted on small pet projects, or go to independent charter schools. Schools which, it turned out, bypassed the regulations, transparency, and oversight present in the public schools and which have served as a portal for the insertion of young earth creationism, politically convenient rewrites of history, economic and political material, social status warfare, and tragically incomplete curriculum.

At the end of the day, that was all done through four basic claims:

1. Individuals  should be able to dictate where their tax money is spent  because  taxes are too high and we must cut waste.

2. Poor educational performance and/or graduation speed is the fault of insufficient rules, tests, and due to bad teachers/lazy students.

3. We already give the education system more than it needs. If they really need more money, why are they building new buildings (etc.)? They just need the efficiency of free-market mechanisms and business-minded leadership.

4. For-profit corporations and corporate models can do a better  job of running our universities.

Sound familiar?

What has resulted is the widespread increase in tuition (often double or triple-digit increases) at public universities in the US which have had to compensate for deep cuts in the government support they receive.  Plus, significant attempts to decrease research grants/funds, and a general contraction in the availability of funding support for American students.

As Denmark looks to the US for guidance and brings in “educational consultants”, it is worth pausing and asking if the green pastures and blue skies those consultants have pitched have any basis in reality.  Keep in mind that as of 2011 1 out of every 3 dollars borrowed by Americans (not including home mortgages)  went to debt tied to higher education.  The average Bachelors graduate in the US in 2013 graduated with roughly $35,200 in debt. As staggering as that may seem to Danes, it’s actually quite low as I have friends who pursued a Master’s (a rarity in the US due to the cost), and/or went on for PhDs and who have between $150,000 and $250,000 in accrued debt.

The result is that students have been forced to abandoned areas of the humanities and liberal arts – areas fundamental to an educated population and healthy society – in favor of higher paying majors. Others have foregone or radically shortened their college programs altogether at significant societal cost to the US’s well-being. All the while, the added responsibilities students take on to survive (part-time jobs, reduced credit hour loads, etc.) mean that they face slower graduation times, and have to spend more time in the system. Problems confounded by reduced budgets at the universities which lead to lower levels of guidance, reduced class availability, worse teacher : student ratios, and other similar problems.

What This Means For Denmark

Is there ample room for improvement within the Danish system? Absolutely. Do Danish students have it easy compared to some other countries?  In some ways. Do they take longer than they should to graduate?  Perhaps.  Could some reform be beneficial?  Always.

However, the way to bring about these positive changes isn’t to draw from broken systems and to seek to penalize and scapegoat students.

What the system needs is more funding, not less.  What students need is a better organized administrative infrastructure that has information more readily available and which takes a more active and involved role in helping them progress through their education.

Do you really want students to graduate faster?

Then make sure that they can take a course, regardless of semester. Time and time again students end up forced to delay because a course has pre-requisites that are only offered once per year.

Do we want students to progress more quickly through their program?  Then we must start by providing full time, professional academic advisers that have an intimate knowledge of the system (not students in student jobs who typically hold the position for less than 2 years and spend half of that time learning the system).   Further, have those advisers follow up with their portfolio of students twice a semester as a mandatory part of the student’s program. These advisors should also be available throughout the week, not just on a limited once or twice a week schedule.

Do we want improved performance from the Danish students? Then we must decrease course size.  It’s amazing how much better the quality of education is when you’ve got a teacher ratio (especially at a Master’s level) of 1:10 or 1:15 vs. 1:30 or 1:90.

Want students to do better at navigating the bureaucracy of their program?  Try speeding up and cleaning up the university bureaucracy and a culture  that leads to constantly delayed deadlines, multi-month delays in announcements, decisions, and results processing.

Let’s be clear: student performance is a symptom of the problem.  It is not the source.

Taking A Little Longer Is OK

The reality is that while private interests lash out and blame students for being lazy, what they neglect is the internship culture that has arisen where Danish companies realize tens of thousands of hours of free or cheap labor per year via internship programs which often consume the entirety of Danish student’s semester course load. Even worse these programs have now become virtually mandatory for students seeking a rapid transition from educational to professional life.

As a recent MA grad I had a rather rigid 2-year deadline due to my tuition waiver.  I had to forego the option of pursuing an academic internship.  Why?  Because the internship, which was  worth 15 ECTS points, took up the entirety of a semester.  Which meant, that for me to take it, I’d have been forced to add on a fifth semester to my program.  For the thousands of students that pursue these types of academic internships, and as a result are delayed at least a semester, it’s not their fault.  In fact, it is a strength of the system.

Further, that culture of low paid or free academic internships is not possible without either A) students taking on excessive amounts of debt as is occurring in the US or B) receiving SU financial support to offset their living costs.

Another area where that extra SU money has paid off big for Denmark, is the local start-up culture.  It’s amazing how different the start-up culture and lifestyle here is compared to what my friends go through in the USA.  True, the sheer risk of failure and large financial debts my friends rack up may serve as a motivator that Danish students lack. Yet, they also have the  advantage of having a revenue source while studying that allows them to explore their passions, ideas, creativity, and to take risks which would otherwise have catastrophic financial ramifications in the US (in turn crippling many of America’s best and brightest for years). These student’s creativity  is powering both Denmark’s innovation and creative cultures.

Recent discussion  has focused on how few Danish students are studying abroad and the need for increased globalization.  A problem I have been working to explore and solve.  A lot of that comes from more flexible university schedules and a system that provides windows and opportunities through which students can take time to explore the world and experience it without harming their academic progress.

The Danish system already pigeonholes students into fairly narrow educational specializations.   Exposure to other coursework is limited when compared to systems such as those in the United States.  This in turn means that for Danes who are trying to decide where to focus their education, they have far less flexibility in exploring what the university has to offer before locking into a set track. The more that their options are limited, the more  they are cornered into a limited education.  That, unfortunately, is to the detriment of everyone those students will come into contact with.  Just imagine if more economists took anthropology and history courses.  Or if philosophy students bolstered their education with a course in evolutionary biology.

So, Denmark, do you want real solutions that will strengthen Denmark’s future? Or a few extra kroner off your taxes and the self affirmation that comes from pointing a finger at students and scolding them for their imagined delinquency?

You’ve got something special here.  Something that should serve as a model for the rest of the world and which embodies the strengths of a civilized culture that values intellectual progress. Please, don’t throw that away because of a few talking points.

About Me

A recent graduate from the University of Copenhagen, I received my degree from the Department of Humanities where I scored top marks and a perfect score on my thesis.  Drawn to Denmark by the country’s dedication to education, I studied in Denmark on an academic tuition waiver that provided me with a two year period of study.  I received my Bachelors degree in human communication from Arizona State University (One of the largest research universities in the United States) with honors from Barrett, The Honors College.  While I advocate for the benefits of pro-longed educational study, I completed both my Bachelors and Master’s degrees within the traditionally accepted period of study (4/2 years).  In addition to my academic background, I have three years of corporate experience as a market analyst, and director of research in the mergers and acquisitions industry.

You Will Never Make Friends Sitting In A Dark Room By Yourself

Women Relaxing - Copenhagen, Denmark

It has been 22 months since I arrived at Copenhagen Airport lugging three over-sized suitcases and a backpack.  I arrived in Denmark with lots of assumptions and unknowns and very little concrete data.  The sum of my previous exposure to Denmark stemmed from meeting Danes abroad, reading about a quirky Utopian liberal paradise in the frozen north, and two glorious summer days spent in Denmark the year before. At the time I didn’t know the difference between Scandinavian and Nordic, though I had mastered the fact that Danes spoke Danish, Germans were Deutsche and the Dutch were from Holland.   I assumed that Copenhagen’s “difficult” housing market meant I’d have to look at 5 or 6 places and it might take a week to find somewhere – not that I’d spend four months searching, having to interview like I was applying for a job, to get a room. I also traded an extensive local social network in Arizona for Denmark, where I knew virtually no one.  When I arrived I intended to stay for two years, but told myself that if I didn’t like it or couldn’t cut it there would be no shame in packing my bags and heading back to the US where I had a deferred acceptance to Georgetown in Washington, D.C. waiting for me.

I remember the moment when I walked out of the airport, fighting with my bags, in search of a luggage locker to store two of the larger ones.  It felt like I’d just been smacked in the face with a fresh fish.  In part because of the light Danish rain that was falling, but mostly because that’s when it finally registered completely that I had conquered my fears, bypassed the temptation to self-sabotage myself, chosen a direction, closed my eyes and jumped…to a totally different continent.  It hit me then, completely, that I was now responsible for building the next stage of my life.  A two-year period, assuming I didn’t blow it, that would require me to re-orient myself from the corporate lifestyle I had grown accustomed to in favor of the lifestyle of a student.  That I would need to not only adjust to student life, but Danish student life, and the life of an expat. It was an incredible feeling…but it was also a fantastic amount of pressure. There was the pressure not to fail myself, my family, my friends, or my future.  It weighed on my mind heavily over the first few months as I fretted over how I would perform as a Danish MA student. I paused to ask myself if I was doing all I could to help myself succeed while doing a periodic gut-check to see if I was suffering from homesickness. To the first – I could have done more, but did well.  To the second – to this day I’ve never had a bad case of homesickness.

Spring in the Mirror

The First Few Months

The first few months were not easy. The Dorm offer I received from the University of Copenhagen’s affiliated housing program was dreadful: situated 40 minutes outside of town in a deeply residential area that was predominantly home  to other International Students. I refused it and casually searched for a more centralized housing option.  For the first month I had a place to stay because of an incredible referral that was a text-book illustration of Danish hospitality, and the power of my international social network. I looked for apartments but still didn’t completely understand how the Danish rental market worked. I resisted getting into a housing agreement because my Visa and Residence Permit was still being processed in what dragged along for a vexing and gut-knotting four plus month ordeal.  After a month staying with my first friend, he now had new renters moving in. He referred me to a friend of his who put me up for another two months.  I had arrived at the end of July. By late October my residence permit finally came through. Shortly thereafter I thought I’d found a place, only to find out six days in that my 42-year-old male roommate not only found me very attractive but was also extremely odd. It was very uncomfortable, but makes for a comical story. I moved out on the morning of the 7th day. When I told him that morning he cried. After a third month back with the friend who had been putting me up, I finally got frustrated by the apartment hunt and offered 200DK a month more than the asking price for a room. It worked. By December I had a furnished room at a reasonable price in an excellent location.  With a permanent address and my Visa/Residence Card, I was able to get my CPR number which is effectively the Danish version of a Drivers License and Social Security Card all rolled into one.  It meant I could finally register for a cellphone plan, get internet, and a bank account. In short, I could begin to settle.

The combination of visa and housing woes were partially compounded by a strange first semester as I re-integrated into the academic world. I can’t say that I felt like I was homeless for the majority of my first semester in Denmark, as that isn’t accurate, but I was in a transient state. It made settling nearly impossible and sucked up a lot of the energy I would have otherwise liked to have invested in meeting people and really hitting the ground running. Luckily my classmates were fantastic and we bonded quickly which did a lot to help offset the periods of fairly deep loneliness I felt during my first couple of months. This was a time where I worked to push my comfort zone and struggled to re-develop the skills needed to meet strangers and befriend them. During that time I grew a lot, despite it being fairly difficult and at times uncomfortable.  I would go to the local hostel bar and hangout with travelers, go to the movies alone, and at times head to the bars alone and force myself to meet random people. It worked, but was hard and draining. It was also made even more difficult by my lack of regular access to a Danish cell phone and the internet.  Things I needed a CPR for.

YGWA Conference 2013

Mentorship

During that first semester I participated in the Full Degree Mentor program.  My mentor was a Danish girl who introduced me to a local library where I could write my papers, talked with me about Danish lifestyle, and helped translate apartment listings and websites when I ran into issues. She was super busy but always available and helpful.  In retrospect I should have reached out to her far more often and felt less guilty about asking for general help and insights into social activities. At the time I felt somewhat awkward about being overly needy and like I didn’t want to bother her or intrude.  Over this past semester I had the chance to pay-it-forward and serve as a mentor for several incoming students. Now that I’ve spent time on the other side of the equation, I realize that I could have and should have gotten significantly more out of my mentor/mentee relationship – not because she failed me, but because I failed to realize the potential of the program. At the time I had trouble accepting that it was completely OK to ask simple questions and that as mentors we are not only there to help with small and big things alike, but also eager.   To make introductions, to facilitate meeting people, and to connect for coffee or social outings. At a certain level the mentor is often available and doesn’t know what you want or need help with until you ask.  To that end, what I got out of the mentor program was directly related to what I showed I needed.  I’m independent and self-directed. In this case, that go-it-alone approach undermined my success.  I’m a bit jealous of new students entering into the program because the mentor program is being significantly expanded and improved upon.  It will provide a lot of additional social and academic support – things that the early incarnation of the program lacked two years ago.  The new program also provides a lot of events which allow students to meet each other and connect – something that would have been an incredible asset for me when I was first adjusting to Copenhagen but which was lacking. I think these changes will make future Full Degree students’ experiences much smoother and significantly less stressful.

In tandem I also signed up for a professional mentor matching program which was run by the University of Copenhagen and operated university-wide.  The lion’s share of the programs were for Danes, but I made sure to dress in my suit and attended the information day.  The combination of my professional appearance and previous work experience as Research Director in the M&A industry led the Siemens representative to give me her e-mail and ask for my resume. I followed up, and based on her suggestion, listed Siemens as one of the three companies I applied for with a professional mentor.  Despite my inability to speak Danish, they chose to make an exception. I was later matched with their Communications Director in what has been a wonderful mentor/mentee relationship providing fantastic insights into the Danish workplace and professional landscape. Even though the program ended late last year we have continued to keep in touch.

The Hill - Copenhagen, Denmark

The Education

Earlier I mentioned that my first semester was strange.  In truth, I was terrified that the Danish University system would be brutally difficult.  That, despite graduating from Arizona State University’s Honors College and a solid academic background, I would be generally outclassed by my classmates – the best and brightest from everywhere from Denmark to China to Germany. What I found instead was a comfortable program that was still young and experiencing significant growing pains.  Created two years before as a new initiative, the program was full of challenges.  Challenges that were compounded by a number of significant administrative issues, including having one of our professors deported to Australia two weeks before our final exam was due.  These flaws generally impacted class morale across the program and left many of us frustrated.  The upside was that the Danish system is heavily paper oriented with the primary method of examination in most of my classes consisting of either a final 20-25 page research paper, or 10-15 page paper with a 30 minute oral defense.  The remainder of our course work was relatively easy to handle and played to my strengths.  As a native English speaker, I also enjoyed the advantage of writing in my mother tongue. Beyond that though, I realized why American universities, despite their many faults, are some of the best in the world. They prepared me, and drilled into me habits and protocols which have allowed me to excel within the Danish academic environment.  Where I initially thought that the program itself was  easy, I’ve come to realize that it was actually quite difficult by traditional standards. It played perfectly to my strengths, abilities and existing knowledge base.

Now that I better understand the Danish academic landscape, I’ve come to realize just how varied the different programs and universities are. Where I initially thought that the Copenhagen Business School (CBS) was a subset within the University of Copenhagen (KU) just as the W.P. Carey School of Business is a college within Arizona State University, I now know that the two operate independently but still maintain the opportunity to take transferable courses.  I now also know that CBS tends to be very practically oriented while KU tends to be much more heavily focused on a theoretical and academic approach to a university education.  Both contrast against Roskilde University’s heavily humanistic approach, and differ from the Danish Technical University’s (DTU) hard science and math-based approach. If I had taken more time to learn about the different universities and had better understood the differences early on, I believe I would have been much better positioned to custom-craft my education and take full advantage of the highly flexible nature of the Danish university system.

Another key consideration that I wish I had known from the start is the difference in definitions and organizational structure. While the Danish University system is deceptively similar in many ways to the American university, there are basic differences in how material is classified and what material falls under what category.  When I applied for the Communication and Cognition program, I anticipated that the communication component would build heavily upon my bachelors degree which was focused in Human Communication with Mass Communication influences as well as some Journalism cross-over.  What I found instead was a program that was more heavily oriented towards communication theory and communication philosophy with an even greater emphasis on cognitive philosophy and cognitive theory mixed in with lightweight neuroscience.  Programs that I initially assumed would have fallen organically under the Communication category within my program were instead set up independently as different departments such as Film Studies, Media Studies, Rhetoric, IT and Cognition.  While not directly related to my studies, a poignant example of this is the difference between University of Copenhagen’s Theology Department and Religionsvidenskab or Religious Studies Lab and other specialized programs such as Arab Studies in the Cross Cultural and Regional studies program which are spread across three very different study areas.  An international looking to study religion and religion(s) might assume Theology would be the obvious landing place for them, but would quickly discover a program structured and designed for the education of Christian Clergy. These subtle organizational differences were deeply confusing initially.  Ultimately, I could have saved myself a lot of frustration, and misplaced discontent, if I had realized the need to do less narrow research and to take into consideration that these structural and definitional differences might exist.

One final academic takeaway is the difference between ECTS points, the Danish 7 point grade scale and their American alternatives.  While the US operates on a credit hour-based system with the average bachelors degree semester consisting of around 15 credit hours at 3 to 4 credit hours per course, the Danish system utilizes ECTS points which roughly equate to expected time investment for a given course.  At KU my courses have mostly fallen into a 7.5 or 15 ECTS point category depending on anticipated scope and involvement with a typical semester ECTS load of 30 ECTS (equiv. to 30 hours of work per week) viewed as normal and on track.    While somewhat difficult to translate across, the ECTS system is relatively straight forward and used across Europe.

On the other hand the Danish 7 point grade scale is an absolute disaster.  The Danish grading scale was re-structured several years ago in a process similar to the US’s switch to the + or – A, B, C, D, E/F system.  The Danish switch was made in an effort to simplify the old 13 point system while creating a new system that better translated to international systems such as the US’s.  In addition to widespread confusion about the new scale, it is extremely counter-intuitive.  While called the new 7 step scale, it actually ranges from -3 to 12.  To further muck things up the scale has gaps and the 7 steps are actually 12, 10, 7, 4, 02, 00, -3.  The scale officially translates differently to the ECTS based scale and the US grade scale.  This wouldn’t be an issue, except that there is massive confusion over what quality of work a 7, 10 and 12 equates to.  Danish transcripts utilize the ECTS conversion which maps a 12 to an A, a 10 to a B, and a 7 to a C.  The way the Danish professors grade, however, translates more accurately to the US version which maps a 12 to an A+ (near perfect/perfect), 10 to an A and A-, and a 7 to a B or B+.  Meanwhile at the bottom of the passing scale a 02 or “adequate” grade awarded in Denmark registers as an E on the ECTS scale (and the official transcripts) which signifies a fail or incomplete in the U.S. system. This despite a 02 actually reflecting a D, D+ or C- by US standards.  Given that most international employers and Universities aren’t regularly exposed to Danes and the Danish education system, I feel that this is likely a significant source of mis-communication.  I know that within our department, at least, it is only now after two years within the system that I’ve started to fully understand it.

The Largest Tuborg in Copenhagen

Social Reflections

A lot of people fail at prolonged study abroad/exchange/expat life. Ultimately, one of the primary reasons is an inability to successfully socialize and adapt to their new living place.  This post is titled, “You Will Never Make Friends Sitting In a Dark Room By Yourself” because at the end of the day the benefits from study abroad are more experiential than academic.  The lion’s share of the experience, the learning, and the incredible moments I’ve had over the past 22 months comes from hands-on learning and growth.  It has been a wonderful learning opportunity  for me and a time for fantastic introspection and self development. I would have missed out on the vast majority of that if I confined myself exclusively to my studies and severely limited my social involvement or confined it solely to expats.

It took me about 8 months to start to feel settled. The first three months were the hardest and it progressively got easier from there.  BUT, those first three months would have been significantly better had I socialized differently.  In many ways, outside of networking and socializing with the people from my program (about 90% of which were international students) most of my interactions with other people were 1-offs. The common advice given to most new arrivals is to join an association or to pick up a sport.  I find watching sports to be painfully boring and outside of ballroom and salsa dancing, have a general dislike for playing most sports bred by years of dealing with fantastically bad coaches.  To make matters worse, outside of Risk and Monopoly ,I find board games and card games similarly dry and painfully uninteresting.  It generally takes friends to make friends while going drinking, and many of my other interests – travel, photography, space, philosophy, and topics such as business and politics aren’t the type of thing that are easy for casual socializing.  My solution? To push myself periodically to get out of my comfort zone. Unfortunately, that’s draining, stressful, and daunting. So, far more often I stayed home, logged on Facebook late at night and chatted with my friends back in the US.  While this helped me offset the feeling of loneliness, it did little to help me properly integrate or connect with people here in Denmark. The fact that my housing, cell phone and internet access were all a mess for the first 5 months made it worse, but did not need to be anywhere near as prohibitive as I let them be.

What I should have been doing was attending faculty Friday Bars, signing up for Couchsurfing meetups, finding and attending groups on Meetup.com, and tapping into a wealth of fantastic expat (and non) networking groups and events through Facebook.  It took me almost a year to start to get introduced to things like Science and Cocktails – a bi-monthly meetup which is free, and provides a wonderful evening drinking old-fashioned cocktails overflowing with dry ice, served up by Danes in lab-coats  – all while listening to brilliant scientific minds give a casual introduction to things like CERN or Super Volcanoes.

I also should have been working to organize things instead of allowing myself to wait and hope for invitations to events. Over the past year I’ve learned and realized something I already knew but wasn’t acting upon. As an international, the way you make local friends is by inviting locals (in this case Danes) to interesting events. It’s something I’m still horrible about.  The other realization I’ve had is that while it’s great to make social friends while drinking, if you want to convert those into more general day-to-day friendships you need to diversify when you do things.  That means other activities during the week – catching concerts, going to shows, or getting together for dinner or a coffee on a semi-regular basis.  Also, yes, sports do help.  After an initial series of salsa evenings that left me with a less than complimentary view of the local Copenhagen Salsa scene I took a four-month break and gave up on it as a local way to network.  Luckily five months in a friend dragged me out to a new place.  The new venue was everything I thought Copenhagen was initially lacking.  Through it, I’ve had the opportunity to meet and connect with a lot of wonderful people – both Danes,and Internationals.  Many are students, but many are also business professionals.  Over the last year I’ve also gotten more involved in the local University culture – the highlight of which was joining the Youth Goodwill Ambassador Corps. A group of wonderfully motivated and like-minded international students. The program has created great connections, while also introducing me to fantastic opportunities such as the recent chance to meet HRH, Prince Joachim of Denmark.

Which leads to the next point.  Students are great, but to build long-lasting connections to a place you need to diversify who you’re connecting with. Students, especially international students and expats, are in transient stages in their lives. The average professional expat stays in Denmark for 3-5 years.  The majority of the international students in Copenhagen are on Erasmus or semester exchanges which means they are in Denmark for four to six months. These relationships can be excellent and I’ve developed a truly global network of great friends as a result, BUT for someone in my position doing a two-year program it has meant that a huge chunk of my social network leaves within two to three months of our friendship’s maturing.

Ultimately, time and money are the two biggest challenges I’ve run into.  As my two year program winds down and I reflect on my time here in Denmark there’s a lot more I could have done (there always is) and that I could have done better. I got a lot out of my time at the University of Copenhagen but the reality is that I could have gotten more heavily involved, attended more social events, and connected in a much more extensive way with the Danish students. I also have a lot of wonderful casual friends/acquaintances that I am confident would be fantastic friends if I just had, or made, the time to be more pro-active in spending time with them.  Nothing simple, nothing complicated, just inviting them for coffee, a drink, or to catch a show a few times a month. I know this, and yet it is challenging. In part because I still find myself slipping back into that dark room, content to chat with friends 3,000 miles away on lazy evenings.  Beyond that though, there is a second room that is deceptive.  The friends I’ve made through my program and which I hang out with regularly are fantastic. So much so that it is easy and comfortable for me to spend all my time with them, or working on my personal projects (eg: this blog). The reality is, however, that crutch also prevents me from properly responding to and realizing the invitations that potential friends and casual acquaintances send my way. It is also expensive to socialize. Even when the time for a coffee with a different friend is available, the $5-10 required for a coffee or beer  adds up quickly.

Relaxing in the Park - Copenhagen

Will I Stay?

As I work on completing my thesis and winding down my MA program I am incredibly happy with my choice to come to Denmark.  While this post focuses predominantly on things I’ve learned or could have improved upon and want to share with other potential study abroad students, I have fallen in love with Copenhagen. The people are spectacular, the history fascinating, the culture engaging, and the city deeply charming.  Denmark, and Copenhagen more specifically, is doing a lot of things right. While it has its moments of tomfoolery common sense is present here in a way I always found deeply lacking in Arizona.

I am currently in the process of transitioning from academic life back into the professional world.  As I do so I am working towards a skilled worker visa and full-time position in Denmark.  As I make that transition, I am reminded of the absolute power of a vibrant social network and the pivotal role it plays in launching a successful career.  While this is a period for reflection, I also plan to take the lessons I’ve learned over the last 2 years and work to more aggressively implement and act upon them moving forward, particularly if I find myself presented with the opportunity to stay in Denmark for several more years. I feel as though I am well on my way down the path toward comfortable integration.  Moving forward it is just a matter of continuing to overcome bad habits while building upon good ones.

This post is part of a series of pieces I have written reflecting upon my time in Denmark, Danish culture and Study Abroad.  Please consider searching the archives for previous posts related to Denmark.

Please Don’t Segregate Me!

Alex in Copenhagen - Headshot

It’s one of the fundamental but often overlooked or ignored pleas that international students make. As a full degree student (someone doing an entire MA program here in Denmark) one of my biggest concerns and top priorities was to break free of the international student bubble that defines most study abroad experiences. In short, when coming to Denmark, I really wanted to make sure I made Danish friends, ate Danish food, and even gave Danish fashion a go. Don’t get me wrong, I LOVE my fellow international students and spend a majority of my time with them – but the core of my experience as an international student in Denmark is, and will continue to be, shaped by how I engage with Danes and Denmark as a whole.

The challenge is that key aspects of how international students are treated and supported by local universities fundamentally set international students up to remain isolated.  This past week a great article was published introducing a new International Student City being planned, pitched, and pursued for Copenhagen. The ISCC as it will be called is really exciting. In fact, it’s a project I’d love to get involved with. It is something that Copenhagen needs and it is something that has immense potential to dramatically improve student life and student experiences here in Copenhagen. Unfortunately, as it is currently structured, it also includes elements which will essentially double down on Copenhagen’s current issues.

Copenhagen Campus Dorms

It all starts with housing

There’s not enough student housing in Copenhagen, for anyone. Danes struggle with it in a major way and face many (but far from all) the hardships that international students face. Of the student housing that is available a lot of it is isolated and far removed from the University’s centrally located campuses. While Danes typically know how the system works and are able to apply to the various waiting lists relatively early on, international students often find themselves last in the queue for dorms and are forced by necessity into the city’s least desirable student housing. These dorms are often over-priced and/or located in suburbs, most of which are 30-50 minutes outside the city. Other dorms or private kollegiums around the city have low international quotas and/or don’t take international students at all. These often have in-depth application processes and are impossible to get into during the first 6-8 months of your student career.

While everyone wants to be centrally located, it is absolutely essential for international students. These students need the immersion that comes with being a short walk from events and situated in the heart of a city’s nightlife, café life, and overall experience. This is particularly important during the first months when habits, friendships, and lifestyle are formed. Having a 40-minute commute each way discourages students from meeting for casual coffees, doing spontaneous events, and attending cultural activities. It leaves one holed-up in a room, on the computer talking to friends back in your home country, disengaged and detached from the culture you’re ostensibly here to experience.

It’s important to remember that as a full degree student you arrive in a foreign country, in a city you know nothing about, where you have no friends, and where you have minimal support. For me, the sum total of my time in Denmark before my MA program began was three days. Those first few months were rough. Classes hadn’t started yet. It was hard to make myself go out. It was lonely and I was isolated. When I couldn’t take it anymore I’d go out to the bars alone and desperately try and strike up conversations with total strangers. I know it was the same for a lot of my fellow students and I know that it can be a real deal-breaker for many people. It hurts your grades, it hurts your health, and it can be brutally rough.

Those of us who knew that living in a central location was essential were forced to explore renting private apartments. This came with the trade-off that we had to forgo the fun, immersion and community of a rich dorm experience. It quickly devolves into an either or situation, when what students really need is a combination of the two. No easy task given that Copenhagen has an extremely abusive rental market. Danes are lovely. Many Danish landlords, however, are not.

While my female friends have had an easier go of it, as a male international it is extremely difficult to find housing in Copenhagen. There’s very high demand for places and, just as in other parts of the world, people either look at an international student as extremely desirable or extremely undesirable. There’s not much middle ground and unfortunately, most landlords seem to lean towards the latter. That’s common enough and nothing can really be done about it. Where it really gets frustrating, however, is the approach taken by many landlords who will rent to international students. These individuals provide rooms for rent but those rooms come with a wide range of ridiculous rules and restrictions. It’s not uncommon that they’ll rent a room but prohibit or restrict access to the kitchen or common spaces. They’ll ban renters from having guests over or require them to gain previous approval. To be clear here, I’m not talking about raging parties. I’m talking about having a single friend over or quiet dinner. These landlords exploit their renters as a revenue source to supplement their income but are unwilling to grant them most of the basic rights and access you would and should receive as a renter.

The whole issue is magnified because many also demand 3+ months of rent in advance as a deposit which more than a few will later try and confiscate as an added bonus knowing that it’s difficult for international students to follow up or take legal action. Other landlords provide subleases which are off the books and in turn allow them to collect rent without declaring it to the government. International students make easy targets because they don’t know their rights, how the system works, or what is normal.

The Streets of Copenhagen

International Student Housing

This would all seem to point to an easy solution which ISCC seems to be pursuing: Create a sprawling student complex situated in a fairly central part of Copenhagen that is designed for, and limited predominantly to, international students. The idea is spot-on in several ways – they’ve noted it has to be right next to a metro stop, it needs to be central, and it should provide a variety of services to improve student life.

Unfortunately, however, the entire structure seems to revolve around creating what will quickly become a completely insulated international mini-city in the heart of Amager. The article notes:

“The plan is that different nations would build their own student houses for at least 100 students within the student city. The building designs should reflect the nation’s architectural traditions and the idea is to have an exchange agreement among the various international houses. Half of the students from each individual country will stay in their own ‘national’ house, will be spread among the other houses in an effort to mix cultures and traditions together.”

Which sounds great on paper but is unfortunately an absolutely disastrous idea! Not only would the ISCC be isolating international students from their Danish counterparts but, they’d be isolating them from each other.

International students inevitably tend to slip into comfortable cultural groups. East Asian students congregate together, as do Indian students, European Latins and Hispanic/South Americans. Typically there is another block of Central and Eastern Europeans while English-speaking Europeans, North Americans, Australians, Scandinavians, and New Zealanders also form a large block. Cross germination occurs but it is usually limited. While the idea behind the split cultural dorms is probably meant to help bridge this, the reality is it would more than likely just re-affirm and strengthen it.

What’s the answer then? Prioritization and integration. The ISCC needs to be a fully incorporated student city, not just an international student city. At least 30% of the students living in the dorms and on the facility need to be Danes. More importantly though, the entire structure needs to revolve around how, at a very basic level, students can be better integrated.

International students need to have prioritized access but not exclusive access. Full-degree and PhD students need to have first priority, with year-long exchange students next in line, followed by short term/semester students with roughly the same priority and access as Danish students.

It is important for organizers to remember that students on short term exchange are often provided with a group of peers all arriving at roughly the same time and have significantly more resources, support, and access to existing infrastructure than long term and full-degree students.

Concepts like International or Danish dorm floors should be avoided as should reinforcing cultural segregation. It’s important to keep in mind that cultural exchange occurs by simply sharing each other’s company. Attempting to force it only builds barriers. However, things like restaurants, shops, or themed-facilities created for general use are great and fun ways to explore culture in a more subtle fashion.

Organizers must keep in mind that rental rates for any project of this nature need to be competitive. I know students paying more than 5,000 DKK for a dorm room which is absolutely ridiculous and extremely detrimental in its own way…especially when compared to the 1,500-2,500 DKK being paid by many Danish students in Kollegiums around the city.

Copenhagen Campus

Beyond Just Housing

While a huge aspect of the ISCC concept revolves around housing, and that is what this post has focused on, another key issue that Danish universities need to review in-depth is the way they segregate classes and social events. I realize that funding is an issue and that in some ways English-based university courses are provided as an added value service BUT the reality is that if more engagement and immersion is the goal, you have to allow Danish and International students to interact.

I’ve repeatedly seen courses at KU where despite an expressed desire and eagerness to take courses in English, Danish students have been told they need to/are only allowed to take lectures and courses in Danish. In a recent media course I took, the group lecture was provided in English with three seminar courses offered. Of these two were in Danish (though taught by faculty fluent in English) and the third was taught in English. Danish students were forced to take the group lecture in English and then prohibited from taking the English seminar which was essentially limited to international students.

Academic and administrative organizational issues of this nature mean that throughout our academic career, international students are fundamentally segregated from Danish students and deprived of many of the most opportune and vibrant socialization and networking opportunities.

Afternoon Sun on Nyhavn

A Great Idea

As the article notes, there are 18,000 students in Copenhagen this year and they have a goal of growing that figure to 30,000 by 2025. If Copenhagen is serious about the ISCC (which I hope it is!), it is important that key steps are taken that not only provide infrastructure that sounds viable on paper, but which actually fulfills students’ needs. This is especially significant if Denmark wants to retain some of that expertise moving forward and if the country is serious about realizing many of the benefits that a vibrant and well-integrated student population can provide.

Have thoughts or experiences of your own that would help the discussion?  Please share them in a comment.