With another semester gone by, I say ha det (“farewell”) to my students from Gateway College, a popular Norwegian study abroad program in New York. My Norwegian students have an innovative and thoughtful approach to governance and society, and I always learn something from their outlook.
Recently, I shared a few things that Americans can learn from Norway; but this semester, I realized that the U.S. experience has a lot to teach Norwegians, too. So as my students go back to Norway and find themselves in their comfort zone once again, here are a few important career lessons I hope they remember about America.
1. It’s More than Grades, It’s About Experience
When my American students write me a vehement email saying “You gave me a C,” I try to gently remind them that I didn’t give it to them—they earned it. The expectation to always get a high grade is a very American sensibility.
But in Norway, As are a lot harder to come by. What’s more, many times, grades are the only thing that matters to get into that law or psychology program—not a person’s resume, recommendations, or achievements.
Despite this pressure, I hope that my Norwegian students learned that grades don’t mean everything—especially if they want a job outside of Norway. Here, career advancement is just as much about your innovation, entrepreneurial spirit, and experiences as it is about your academic track record. As New York taught my students, getting out of the classroom and having diverse experiences like planning a new project or event, attending lectures, or even learning about poverty for the first time will make you a better person and stronger in your career.
2. Take Risks, Start Something New
According to my students, it can be hard to start a company or take business risks in Norway. First, the cost is often prohibitive, because taxes on private businesses can be very high. Second, there is a fear of failure—that if you fail, you will be judged and won’t be able to rebound from it.
What’s more, Norway operates within an inferred social code known as Jante Loven, which suggests that no one person is better than another—rather, we should care more about the collective good than about our own skills. So, if an individual tries to start something new, it might be perceived as not being as that person humble or stand out.
I often tell my students is that in America we take risks and make mistakes, and a lot of times we fail at our startups and business ventures. But our ability to start over again until we make it work is part of what makes our country so dynamic.
In New York, I noticed my students finding the courage to take amazing risks that they wouldn’t usually take in Norway. One student (who also dyed her hair the color of cotton candy) started a crowdrise campaign to go to Honduras. Others worked hard to meet celebrities or even drew up their own business plans to present to investors. While the Norwegian economy is one of the strongest in the world, and the job market is quite good, bringing a bit of this entrepreneurial spirit to Norway could help establish careers and businesses that benefit society and individuals in new ways.
3. Have Your Own Safety Net
During a class where I brought my American and Norwegian students together, we discussed the difference in healthcare, maternity leave, justice and reconciliation, and government benefits. During the discussion, one of the Norwegians asked the Americans, “What do you expect your government to do for you?” My American students, surprised at this question, said, “Nothing,” and they went on to describe the challenge of juggling student loans, health bills, and just trying to find a job.
Our Norwegian students were shocked at this, because in Norway, the government safety net is extraordinary. There is a strong society security program, the state provides healthcare for all, and both men and women get paid paternity leave for up to 10 months. It is certainly one of the perks of social democracy.
But, my Norwegian students’ parents generation didn’t always have it this great—before oil was found in the country, they had to work really hard, too. The constantly changing world and job market is an important reminder that, despite the number of government benefits and wealth in Norway, it is critical to have a personal safety net. This is even more true for my students who are thinking about transitioning careers, starting businesses, or working abroad.
4. Keep Trying in Your Career, No Matter What
“What is the Norwegian dream?” I used to ask my class. They would respond with, “to be happy, to be peaceful, and to have everything you need.” This reaction is very different than the American dream, which could be interpreted as “to pick yourself up by the ‘bootstraps’ and to have money and be successful.”
The ideas taught by each “dream” are really important—and Americans could definitely benefit from the Norwegian ideals. But I hope my students don't just coast through their jobs to have peace and happiness and instead really push hard to make an impact in their fields. Yes, success can come in many forms, but even when my students reach their career goals in Norway, they should remember that American dream to keep pushing for more, making things even better for their careers and their country.
While Norway is often voted “the best country in the world,” and for many good reasons, I want my Norwegian students to remember that the American experience has a lot to offer, too. And if they take what they learned in America and applied it to their careers in Norway, they might just find themselves having the best of both worlds.
Natalie Jesionka has researched and reported on human rights issues around the world. She lectures on human trafficking, gender and conflict, and human rights at Rutgers University. When she is not teaching, she is traveling and offering tips on how students and professionals can get the most out of their experiences abroad. She also encourages global exploration through her work as Editor of Shatter the Looking Glass, an ethical travel magazine. Natalie is a Paul and Daisy Soros Fellow and served as a 2010 Fulbright Scholar in Thailand.More from this Author