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The Story of The Architecture Student in Denmark [Interview]

September is the Study Month, not only in colleges, but on our blog too. That’s why we will dedicate our posts to the topics of studying, namely the issue of studying abroad. We have already published the interview with Judy Su – a graphic design student who studied in Copenhagen. Today, we have the interview with another student — Ellen Wall — who has also made use of study abroad program and went to Denmark to study architecture.

Before the interview, Ellen confessed that she loves to tell about her time in Denmark. That’s why she told us a lot of details about people, food, education, surprises and disappointments. As Ellen was also in a DIS ( Danish Institute for Study Abroad ) program we did not ask her questions about application process, and went straight to the questions about studying.

What specific classes did you take?

There were 4 classes: Interior Architecture Studio, European Storytelling, Danish Language and Culture, and 20th & 21st Century Danish Architecture

Please, tell more about your Danish language learning. Was it complicated for you?

I am so glad I decided to take a Danish class while I was in Denmark. Even though the majority of Danes speak flawless English, being able to understand even a little bit made me feel so much more a part of the culture. I could read signs, I knew what I was looking at in the grocery store, I often caught and understood snippets of conversation at the dinner table. The Danes are just so proud of their country and their culture – the language is a big part of that. It ended up being my favorite class at DIS. I learned so much about the Danes just by learning how to interact with them.

What interesting assignments or projects on architecture did you get?

I have seen many, many non-touristy places and buildings because of the field studies and projects I had with my classes. In my studio, we got the assignment to design a space in a very old building near to the parliament building, Christiansborg. We did small group critiques to talk about our conceptual and initial structural ideas.

student project

How was your project work organized? Was there anything specific about studying environment?

Something that would apply to future study abroad students is that the Danish school system relies heavily on the benefits of group work. Most projects are done in groups and there is a lot of large or small group discussion and peer critique. I found this to be a great way to learn. There was definitely more of a collaborative feel to all of the classes and I benefited from the sharing of ideas with others. The other side of that is that not everybody learns this way, some individuals might be more successful on their own.

Did you get complicated writing assignments? Tell about some of them.

At DIS I studied in the Interior Architecture program. That being said, I didn’t have too many difficult writing assignments. I did take a class called European Storytelling where I was asked to write a research paper. The prompt was very vague; we were able to write about anything at all that we had discussed in class. It was extremely open ended which I found to be a big challenge. I was also an Official Student Blogger for DIS. This was an ongoing volunteer project that I did for my Danish school. My blog entries were posted on the DIS webpage and I received a lot of traffic from prospective students and other people all over the world. Blogging for DIS is where I discovered my love for writing.

Have you ever missed assignment deadlines while studying abroad? What is the college policy regarding missed deadlines there?

I did not miss any assignments while abroad that I can recall. The missed assignments policy was left up to the instructors for the courses. Some of my instructors would accept late assignments and others did not.

What did you like about Danish educational system in general?

In general, what I like about the Danish school system is that school is free for everyone through the university level (and university students receive a monthly stipend from the government). Another positive is that the learning environment is an equal playing field. The instructors are all called by their first names and questions are encouraged. It feels less strict or structured than many of the classroom environments I have been a part of the the States.

How would you describe your studying experience in several words?

I had a unique experience because my school, DIS is a school specific to study abroad students, but most of the classes are taught by Danish instructors. In addition, I also learned a lot about the Danish school system because I took a Danish language and culture class and I lived with a family who had kids in the school system.

How did you manage to balance studying and traveling?

The benefit of DIS is that there are specifically designated travel weeks. A semester student at DIS has two separate weeks off from school for personal travel/or break from school in addition to two study tours with the core course class, one lasting a week and one lasting a half a week. This made balancing travel and study much simpler because I found that I had enough time for traveling outside of school. There were many students who liked to go on weekend trips. I didn’t really do that. I was much happier spending my weekends at home with my host family and seeing what it is that Denmark has to offer rather than constantly leaving to see all of Europe. I didn’t want to leave Denmark only to realize I hadn’t seen any of it. I did, in general, have a difficult time balancing school work and everything else that goes with study abroad. I had to decide on my priorities while I was there. For me, the struggle was balancing time with my host family and time spent on school.

denmark nature

So, you stayed with a host family. What was it like for an American student to live with Danish family?

I was so nervous to meet them. I wondered if they would like me and what it would be like to live in the home of strangers. But I remember that upon meeting them and even in the very moments before I met them, walking down a hallway and seeing them at the end, waiting for me with big smiles, that I relaxed almost instantly. They were unfailingly kind and generous, curious and interested, fun and happy people. I was welcomed into their home and things fell into place quickly. I found it so much easier to learn about Danes and their culture and especially their language than I would had I not lived with a host family. My ten year old host brother and I became the best of buds. I learned so much from him and not a day does by that I don’t think of him. Many of my favorite memories were things that happened with my host family and I genuinely can’t imagine my study abroad experience without each and every one of them.

How would you describe Danish people in general?

Danes are very private people. At least in public settings. They don’t small talk, they don’t smile at passersby on the street, they have whisper-quiet conversations on public transportation (if they even converse at all). There’s no fear of anybody you don’t know trying to make unwanted conversation in a public place.

How did you feel about such cultural difference?

Of course that goes two ways. It makes Danes very difficult to meet; they stick by the people they know. It’s unlikely that one might make Danish friends by approaching them in a grocery store, at the bank, or on the train. To many Americans, this demeanor passes for rude because we are so used to an extreme, exaggerated politeness. This isn’t to say that Danes don’t care, in fact you might say they care more. If someone asks a Dane “how are you” they give the real answer and don’t just say “good.”

Was it a problem for you to meet new people in Copenhagen?

The first time someone accidentally bumps into you and doesn’t really apologize is off-putting. The first time you sit on a bus and someone is forced to sit next to you because it’s the only seat left and suddenly moves when an empty pair of seats opens up elsewhere is a little awkward. But the Danes make up for this by being genuinely warm, kind-hearted, curious people when you get to know them. I found that in more private settings, Danes are extremely curious. The dislike of small talk just meant that the Danes I spoke with typically skipped the ‘polite’ get-to-know-you questions and jumped right into pressing questions about American politics or media or culture. It made for more meaningful conversation.

What was your biggest disappointment during semester abroad?

My biggest disappointment was only that I couldn’t stay longer. I had such a wonderful time, I was very sad to leave. Of course there were day-to-day disappointments. Not everything is a wonderful, fantastic, awesome, cool, Danish, traveling moment. Sometimes I was sick, or sometimes I wasn’t able to see or take part in something I was hoping to, or sometimes I missed dinner with my host family (often the best part of my day). But those disappointments are so on par with daily life that I’ve mostly forgotten them by now. All I regret is the time I didn’t spend with my Danish family, the things in Denmark that I never got to see, and the experiences I wasn’t able to have because of a lack of time or because it was the wrong time of the year.

Name your top Copenhagen memories.

Showing off Denmark to my family. My family – my mom, dad, and older sister – came to visit me in Denmark towards the end of my semester. As I dragged them around Copenhagen to see all the important sights and buildings and museums, I realized how much I had learned about Denmark and about Danes in just a few months. I learned my way around a new city that was absolutely foreign to me, I learned parts of a new language, I learned history and music. I mastered the transportation system. It was so exciting to share with my family the country that I had fallen in love with both instantly upon arrival and gradually more and more each passing day.

Another one is being mistaken for a Dane! The Danes are an exclusive bunch of people. They are very proud to be Danish. They are also model-beautiful. So the first time I was mistaken for a Dane was kind of a rush. It happened several times over the course of my semester. Sometimes it was another Dane asking a question about the train. Sometimes it was a lost tourist asking for directions. But every time, and especially the first time, it was like an acknowledgment that I was fitting in, that I was doing okay, that I wasn’t out of place or unwanted. At least, that’s what if felt like to me.

Which Danish food would you recommend to try?

The pastries are divine. What is interesting about the whole pastry situation is that you can’t get a ‘Danish.’ What Americans refer to as a Danish does not exist in Denmark. But pastries, or weinerbrød in Danish, are a work of culinary art. They are visually appealing and delicious. Laukagehuset (a popular Danish pastry chain) (pronounced lau-kay-hoo-set) is around every corner and tempts the taste buds everywhere you go.

denmark food

The best life lesson learnt in Copenhagen

I learned a lot while I studied abroad, but the majority of it was not factual or school-related. It was a period of time in which I did a lot of personal, individual learning about myself and what is important to me. The biggest life lesson I learned is that I should never force myself to do things that don’t make me happy. I don’t want to say that I learned life is short, but rather that I learned and realized how valuable my time is. Being in Denmark helped me to understand what makes me happy as a human being. It slowly dawned on me that I never wanted to spend one second doing something that I hate because I don’t want to regret it when I’m 90. In the grand scheme of things, this is not plausible. Of course I’ll have to do things that I don’t like every once in a while. But while I was in Denmark I was working on discovering what it is that I truly love and now I try to spend more of my time doing those things.

What helps students succeed when studying abroad? Please, share some tips

To succeed when studying abroad, get involved! Try to integrate into the culture as much as possible. Live with a host family, learn the language, join a club, meet young natives, take classes with an emphasis on the history or culture of the country, participate in cultural traditions with friends or host family members, listen to the country’s music. Really, really try to experience everything the country has to offer. Do things the way the native people do things, even if you feel like your way might be better or faster. Try everything. Learn about everything. Keep an open mind, you never know what you might like.

Thanks Ellen! We are sure these great tips will help anyone to get the most of their study abroad experience! If you would like to learn more about Ellen Wall and her Denmark life, you are welcome to ask questions as well as sharing your thoughts in the comments below.