‘At the right place at the right time,’ UND hosts NORTANA Norway seminar for first time since 2003

‘At the right place at the right time,’ UND hosts NORTANA Norway seminar for first time since 2003

The NORTANA Norway seminar took place at the University of North Dakota last week, marking the first time UND has played host to the annual conference since 2003. Above, former Oslo city planner Ellen de Vibe talks about the Norwegian capital’s green developments in a public lecture the evening before the two-day seminar, which – aside from de Vibe’s lecture – was conducted entirely in Norwegian. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

When Melissa Gjellstad began to organize this year’s seminar of the Norwegian Researchers and Teachers Association of North America (NORTANA), the theme of the two-day event came naturally to her.

Melissa Gjellstad, associate professor of Norwegian

Melissa Gjellstad

The banner of “Oslo: Democratic Public Spaces” reflected the years-long fascination Gjellstad, who is a professor and director of the Norwegian language program at the University of North Dakota, has had for the Norwegian capital city of more than half a million people.

“This is a really personal theme, because Oslo was my first study abroad opportunity when I was an undergraduate,” said Gjellstad. “It was the first city where I lived outside of the United States, and an urban space that I have returned to frequently in my career, and so I have a very special relationship to it.”

Visiting Oslo nearly every summer, Gjellstad embarked on her first faculty-led short-term study abroad trip to the Nordic states this spring, taking UND students to the cities of Reykjavik, Oslo, Copenhagen, Malmö and Lund.

Moreover, Oslo’s designation as the European Green Capital for 2019 provided further impetus to focus this year’s NORTANA conference on the city’s environmental strides.

With a solid topic, Gjellstad had about eight months to plan how it was to unfold on the UND campus. The two-day seminar took place Oct. 17 – 19.

Norway in the spotlight

NORTANA counts as its members about 150 instructors and researchers of Norwegian from throughout North America and Norway, reports NORTANA.org, the organization’s website. UND last hosted NORTANA’s annual conference in 2003. So, Gjellstad, who used to serve as an officer for the organization, seized the opportunity to not only bring a slice of Norway to Grand Forks but also train a spotlight on UND’s Norwegian academic program and UND’s collaborations with the city of Grand Forks.

The inaugural Norway seminar transpired at the Augsburg College in Minneapolis around 198o, beginning a tradition of annual gatherings facilitated in part by the Royal Norwegian Embassy in Washington and Norway’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs. The objective has always been to unite academicians, scholars and diplomats in the study and dissemination of Norwegian language and culture.

This year was no different. Some 30 faculty of Scandinavian studies from across the U.S. and Canada flocked to Grand Forks to attend the conference, which – other than a talk for the general public – was held entirely in Norwegian.

Ingar Brattbakk, a city researcher and urban geographer with the Oslo Metropolitan University Work Research Institute, explored Oslo’s urban and demographic divisions. Photo courtesy of Melissa Gjellstad.

They heard from Ellen de Vibe, who retired from her post as Oslo’s chief city planner this June, and Ingar Brattbakk, a city researcher and urban geographer with the Oslo Metropolitan University Work Research Institute.

De Vibe and Brattbakk arrived in North Dakota early last week, starting a week-long schedule of public engagements, including interviews with Prairie Public and KNOX radio. They also met with city leaders to discuss environmentally friendly solutions to the urban development of Greater Grand Forks, a metro area only about one-ninth Oslo’s size.

What struck de Vibe about Grand Forks, she told UND Today, was the presence of “so many beautiful trees.”

Another feature that caught her eye relates to the state’s prairie nature and its metamorphosis through human actions. “There is so much space, even within the build zone [here],” she said. “So, in Oslo, we think about building a city from inside out. And, I think, Grand Forks could do that easily. With all these shopping zones, you could intensify the density a lot.”

Oslo’s methodological approach to enhancing its urbanity has brought forth a slew of programs that have improved livability and mobility in the city through eco-conscious decisions.

Having served as city planner there for 20 years, de Vibe talked about some of these efforts last Thursday evening at a public lecture, drawing some 150 attendees.

Ellen de Vibe (left) meets and greets attendees of her public talk. Photo by Dima Williams/UND Today.

In the crowd was Sarah Anderson, education professor at Mayville State University in Mayville, N.D., and coordinator of the study abroad partnership between her institution and the American College of Norway. Next to her sat her young son, who was a toddler when they lived in Oslo’s historic district for a year in 2011.

“I keep telling him that we’re going to see some pictures of where he lived that he doesn’t remember because he was a little boy,” Anderson said, adding that she did a Fulbright exchange in Norway when she was an instructor at UND.

Through an interdisciplinary lens

The two full days of NORTANA at UND saw de Vibe expand on her public talk about Oslo’s green developments by delving into her work with the “Fjord City” harbor renewal project. Brattbakk examined Oslo as a “divided city” due to the various layers of inequality in its neighborhoods.

Seminar participants also engaged in a series of workshops focused on second-language pedagogy; the American College of Norway, where many UND faculty teach; and the Chester Fritz Library’s collection of bygdebøker, or local history books in Norway.

“We had architecture, urban planning, human geography, and then natural sciences and literature come together during the conference,” said Gjellstad. “We were thinking about urban spaces through an interdisciplinary lens, which was a very fruitful way for us to start conversations.”

She added, “It was a treat for me to be able to invite my colleagues from across Canada and the United States to campus for the Norway Seminar. I feel we showed off the best of UND and the city of Grand Forks in the time that they were here.”