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Nordic Master Program is one of the most international and culturally diverse environments at the University of Copenhagen. What happens when you put a group of students from extremely different cultural and religious backgrounds together in a classroom?
A Dane, a Nigerian and a Kazakh walk into a bar. It may sound like a joke, but is a description of a typical after-class meeting of students from the Religious Roots of Europe program.
With students from all around the world this Nordic Master Program, taught jointly with the universities of Aarhus, Lund, Oslo and Helsinki, is one of the most international and culturally diverse environments at the University of Copenhagen. It is also one of the least native ones, with only one Dane per year currently based in Copenhagen.
The program is online based, to allow students enrolled in all four Scandinavian countries to participate. To glue it together, students meet on a weekly basis at their home university, and twice every semester at a week-long seminar organized at one of the participating universities to study historical and contemporary developments of religions that formed Europe.
»The program combines the advantages of online learning, where you can draw on a wider pool of expertise in the field, while minimizing some of the disadvantages, like isolation and never properly meeting professors and fellow students,« says Alice, a student from the UK with a background in classics.
A spacious two-bedroom apartment with a family decor in Oslo. 10 students and a professor are crammed together in a living room eating a meal that they have jointly prepared. There are still three people missing, and time is running out. We have to get back for the afternoon lecture before the break ends. It is Despoina’s birthday and we want to surprise her with a cake.
The missing people arrive with the cake, and people start singing. A big cake, a poem written in all participants’ languages, and a culturally inspired karaoke planned for the evening. This is the program’s social life in a nutshell.
Everyone enjoying each other’s company. Photo: Justice Kow Mensah
However, there is also a practical side to all this. Ayan, an avid student of religion from Kazakhstan notes: »You make new friends all over the world and when you are travelling, you already have someone who can take care of you there and vice versa: you offer help to your friend in your country. In other words, you create a network for the future.«
The students in the Nordic Master Program are from culturally and religiously diverse backgrounds. Despite this, they tend to treat each other with a great dose of friendliness and familiarity.
»One of the main advantages of the program,« adds Samuel, who formerly studied church history in Nigeria, »has been the diversity in academic culture that is often rich and beneficial but also something to be constantly conscious about while interacting and learning.«
“The bond, here, among my colleagues, is seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake and for human understanding. And thus we easily mingled together and felt close despite our diverse backgrounds.”
Diversity seems to be the key-word for others as well.
»Meeting people from other cultures and traditions is more helpful to me than studying about it. Everyone is always willing to reply when I ask them in person about their beliefs and practices,« says Despoina, a Greek theology graduate.
This mixture of diversity, openness, and tolerance works well for a reciprocally beneficial environment and to create deeper relationships.
»The human interaction in my work field was wide and varied, but superficial. Unlike the international contact at work, the experience of being a Muslim veiled woman, studying religion with colleagues 20 years younger than me in an international environment has a deeper impact on me especially at a high time of islamophobia in Europe,« says Nashwa, a journalist from Egypt with extensive experience.
»A strong desire to study and understand the human condition makes them different from other students who study journalism or law for example. The bond, here, among my colleagues, is seeking knowledge for knowledge’s sake and for human understanding. And thus we easily mingled together and felt close despite our diverse backgrounds. The kindness and collaboration that I experienced between us is rare to find elsewhere,« she says.
But the program does not work for everyone. »To be honest I don’t see many pros,« says Penelope, who studied in Greece and France.
»From what I’ve seen by now, it is better to study in a homogeneous environment. I really think I would feel more comfortable working with Danes, since I’m in Denmark. Being a part of the group where very few are actually from the country we live in seems kind of weird to me. We all have different backgrounds, and most importantly cultures and religions which sometimes makes it hard to co-operate. Especially when we’re studying religions!« she says.
Even those who generally enjoy the program’s internationality point to some problems with it.
»Homesickness. It could sound very trivial, but it might be the worst thing while studying abroad. Especially if you have a close relationship with your family and old friends. Being far away, if you are not used to it, it can be extremely challenging,« says Ayan.
»And it takes several adjustments in terms of trying to mesh together lots of different backgrounds and finding enough of a common starting point,« adds Alice.
Others also point to some problems with the content of teaching in such an environment. Samuel complains about what he calls a ‘faulty inclusiveness’:
»We extend the borders of appropriate academic views to generally let everyone in, until we are left with an all-inclusive but less appreciable framework,« he says.
All this shows a very complex picture of a demanding environment, that can be richly beneficial, but also exhausting and sometimes even frustrating.
»Nonetheless, this is a cool experience,« says Despoina.
Nashwa agrees. »Despite of the flaws I see, which someone else might not observe, the course is great and the experience is an eye opener.«
»Let’s not forget – this is still a work in progress,« says Despoina, meaning that both teachers and coordinators remain responsive to students’ feedback.
Ryszard Bobrowicz is a student from the RRE program.