Have you ever thought about whether you are ever going to become an equal part of a Norwegian society? Are you ever going to sound native when speaking the Norwegian language and wearing the traditional clothing during the 17th of May celebrations, confident that you will understand everything that people mumble to you in their drunken voices, not having to apologize that you do not understand their dialects or that you are still learning the language. These largely unnecessary worries do become an obsession to some expats after some time living in Norway. The pressures of the smaller communities that are put onto the newly arrived immigrants can be truly overwhelming.
What are international students whispering about behind the closed doors?
Many of us, who moved here as foreign students, have been facing a rational fear of not being accepted, not being included, feeling alienated, alone, helpless and underprivileged compared to most of our peers at university. But who are we to talk about not being privileged when we are receiving a high-quality education, free of charge, affordable student housing, free language course, access to many welfare services by the state and a complete freedom to be who we truly are in Norway. But is this enough? How hard it is to live with a bipolar-like attitudes that daily shift from a complete happiness to helplessness and fears, that only newly arrived international students may feel?
The alienation that one might feel after moving to Norway as an international student (most often full degree seeking students, that will stay here for several years) is something that is rarely talked about outside of the social circles of the international students. The shame of asking for help when needed and the embarrassment of not speaking the language can cause many troubles getting used to the life in such a small, conservative city such as Kristiansand. The overall good image of Norway, as an international hub and one of the most popular options for international students due to its universal free higher education (up until 2023, sadly this has changed dramatically overnight, as you can read about in our last issue), has been a constant for decades. The recent drastic changes and shifts to the right, more nationalistic side of the politics are already quickly affecting the international community in Norway, especially students at the universities. The richest country in the world, proud of its welfare models and socialist views is going to make studying in this country a luxury, if you are from the Global South (read – less fortunate countries). Since the new law about tuition fees will not affect prosperous EU countries, it will make an enormous change in demographics of foreign students in Norway.
But many students have benefited by the generosity of the Norwegian state. The gratitude must never be outshined by the dissatisfactions and disappointments. The privilege to everyone that breathes in Norway is there, without a doubt. But does that automatically exclude the desire to change for the better and listen to the international students’ struggles?
UiA is a very welcoming, safe space for foreign students that is really trying hard to accommodate the needs of everyone, regardless of their nationality and the power of their passports. International students can always turn to their study advisors who can always reach out to help in any way they can. But as we all know, the life of a student is not only situated in the university micro-world setting, but equally spent outside of the campus as well, where the local community can be less accepting and not understanding of the difficulties of being an expat.
Knock, knock, may I work in here?
What has been mostly discussed in the international circles in Kristiansand is without a doubt, most prominently, difficulty of finding any kind of job. Having access to legally work up to 20 hours a week but not more than that, not speaking the Norwegian language, not having particularly lot of experience working since most students are in their 20s and on top of that, just being a foreigner, is still an issue in 2023, or so it seems to those who hopelessly try to get a job that will make the ends meet. One very important thing that many Norwegian students forget about, is the fact that foreign students almost never have a right to access help from Lånekassen, therefore completely relying on one’s own work. Can a part time job, with a minimum wage cover most of our costs? Yes, absolutely. Norway has a great minimum wage in most industries, so the money truly should never be a great problem here. Finding a job is a gargantuan struggle, especially in a small city like Kristiansand. There have been many instances where the students were sent away immediately because they did not speak the Norwegian language. Shall we consider this a discrimination based on nationality or simply a capitalistic mindset that does not care about worker’s skills and personality, but rather about the most efficient way to benefit from a worker that is able to fully understand and speak Norwegian. Why would a local clothing store employ a foreigner when they could employ a local Norwegian? How do we even approach issues like this? We can suppose that these questions are in the hands of the politicians that are sitting in the parliament, but at the end of the day, it is the average citizens who are business owners and often have a power to decide about the students’ future in the Norwegian job market.
That leads us to the question of networking in Kristiansand. How difficult it really is to create a social circle that includes not only other internationals, but also local Norwegians as well? It has proved to be quite a challenge, considering it is already difficult for other Norwegians that moved from other parts of Norway to Kristiansand, to establish a network of friends and acquaintances. The small city mentality is going strong here without a doubt, why would Kristiansand be any different than any other small town in any country? Another fact that we just have to calmly accept and learn that there are pros and cons of living in a small city and we simply cannot have everything. Luckily, most of the Norwegian youth speaks English fluently, so it is very easy to communicate with everyone on a daily basis, but mostly within the university limits. It is quite a task being allowed into the already established social circles that many locals have for their entire lives. To put it simply – it is very difficult. But it is not impossible. There must be a full understanding of the generally shy nature of Norwegians and patience and subtle approach might also help. Those that travelled extensively and lived abroad before, will know that this is not a case specific to Norway, but it might be more challenging over here, especially in smaller communities. Once the trust of Norwegians is gained, the friendships that can be created can last a long time!
As I am writing this article, the word ‘gratitude’ constantly keeps spinning in my head. Staying levelheaded and grateful for everything that we have gotten here, but at the same time, how can we thrive as humans if we do not constantly evaluate the social state of the place we are in? Is Norway immune to the critique from anyone that never even lived in Norway before until recently, have not participated in building of this society and don’t even speak the language and understand the cultural customs of Norway? We can see that Norway is not immune to a constructive criticism and is an open shooting range, where everyone can express their dissatisfaction and thoughts freely, knowing that someone WILL listen. That is exactly the beauty of this society, and the reason why Norway is what it is today and why many of us students from far-away are here.