Your Way, My Way, Norway
Our cultural “cousin” is more complicated and more relevant than many of us appreciate.
Melissa Gjellstad reinvigorates UND’s Norwegian program.
Melissa Gjellstad didn’t come to UND to simply teach students to conjugate verbs in Norwegian and retell stories why their Scandinavian ancestors settled here more than a century ago.
There’s so much more to discover about the language, the land and its people, she explains, with a bound-and-determined look in her eye.
Since Gjellstad’s arrival in the fall of 2008, the University of North Dakota Norwegian program has not been the same. With passion and vigor, the assistant professor and program coordinator works to open and expand students’ views of Norwegians and their culture.
She’s also opening eyes to the Norway of today and how it influences global society, culture and politics through her accumulating research on gender issues.
A complex land
Gjellstad understands there is a common misconception that Norway is a land of only blue-eyed, blond-haired, homogeneous people.
“I’m trying very hard to inform that perception and update it 150 years,” she explains. “I’m doing my best to complicate the picture.”
She says Norway is much more diverse than many realize. Immigrants to Norway hail from many parts of the world; most are from Poland, Sweden, Pakistan, Iraq, and Somalia.
It’s the diversity in the people and careers that Gjellstad uses to inspire students to learn more.
“(Learning about their) heritage is the way I get them in the door, and then I hook them with the rest,” she said.
When recruiting students for her program, she always starts off by asking, “What’s your love?” Whatever the response might be, her constant reply is: “They do that in Norway too!” She goes on to explain that every degree program can be augmented by a Nordic perspective. Seeing and learning about another country is beneficial to everyone, no matter what your heritage. She encourages all students to study another language and experience studying abroad.
Gjellstad grew up near Velva, N.D. After graduating from Concordia College with degrees in biology and Scandinavian studies, she received her master’s and Ph.D. in Scandinavian language and literature from the University of Washington.
Gjellstad’s impressive amount of research contributes significantly to her curriculum. She uses both literature and multimedia sources, such as films or comics, to illustrate her findings. She pays special attention to literary criticism that has a Scandinavian focus.
These tools, concepts and her theories are often incorporated into her classroom to discuss points about modern Norway and Scandinavia.
In particular, Gjellstad has studied the representation of mothers and fathers as caregivers in 1990s Scandinavian literature as compared to the generation prior. The 1990s timeframe is significant because it followed the implementation of sweeping, liberal paternal leave policies in many Scandinavian countries.
For instance, parents of newborns were allowed 44 weeks of leave from their job at 100 percent pay or 54 weeks at 80 percent. In the case of adoptions, the benefit period totals 41 weeks at full salary or 51 weeks at 80 percent.
Gjellstad investigates how these social changes influence Scandinavian literature, or whether the literature is ahead of the curve in precipitating social change. And it’s not unprecedented that social trends with geneses in Scandinavia spread to other parts of the world.
“Gender politics have been a big export for these countries,” Gjellstad said. “They have been on the forefront compared to the rest of the world in the sense that parenting or caregiving should be equally valued work.”
Trained in comparative literature, Gjellstad injects her research into many of her courses such as “Gender and Family in Nordic Cultures” and “Gender Studies in Norway,” which is taught in Norwegian. Gjellstad stated, “Even in [my] ‘Vikings and Sagas’ course, I require students to be attentive to gender issues.”
In only a few short years, Gjellstad’s in-depth research, enthusiasm and love for the Norwegian culture have made a huge impact on UND’s Norwegian program.
Since Gjellstad took the helm of the Norwegian program, the number of students majoring and minoring in the language has doubled. The number of UND students studying abroad has also increased.
Earlier this year, Gjellstad expanded the reach of her unique program by offering first-year Norwegian online for the first time. UND is one of the few schools in the Upper Midwest that offers studies in Norwegian.
“By moving it online, it will attract people who do not live in the area or are unable to attend the daily language class,” Gjellstad said.
Gjellstad was awarded the UND Foundation Award for Individual Excellence in Teaching during the University’s 2011 Founders Day celebration.
She also has earned an international reputation for teaching approaches and research. Last year, Gjellstad was elected to serve on the international advisory board of the Society for the Advancement of Scandinavian Studies, which promotes the study of Scandinavian languages, literature, history, culture, and society in North America.
Olaf Berwald, chair of the UND Department of Modern and Classical Languages and Literatures, lauded Gjellstad for her unbounded energy and mentorship in and out of the classroom.
“In her Norwegian language, culture, and literature courses, as well as in her interdisciplinary first-year experience course, Dr. Gjellstad inspires intellectual synergy, enthusiasm and scholarly curiosity in her students,” he said.
Caitlin Slator and David Dodds | Writers