This is going to be a pretty long post, so I apologize in advance to your eyes. I will be posting more before I leave Copenhagen on my experience with research, the Danish university system, and interactions with both Danes and other internationals. But I wanted to post part of a summary/reflection that I recently wrote for the Danish Fulbright Commission about my time in Copenhagen. It touches on what I've been doing here, the importance of the Fulbright program, and my thoughts on how Americans are perceived abroad. It jumps around a bit, but that's because I didn't want to post the entire document.
Funding for the Fulbright program is severely threatened in the United States; in fact, the majority of my funding this year has come from the Danish side. That's quite sad, considering that Fulbright is an American-founded program.
I came to Copenhagen to study the role of public participation in the ongoing development of the Danish National Park System. My plan for the grant period was to assist my advisor with her ongoing study. As a grantee who was awarded a Fulbright grant directly out of college, I was required to take full-time MSc courses at the University of Copenhagen. Originally, I was worried that the time commitment for these classes would detract from my research experience, but the opposite turned out to be true. Soon after arriving, I found out that the study was going on hiatus for an indefinite period.
I spent my first few months familiarizing myself with more of the history behind development process: the different groups that are involved, the relations between them, and how those groups function. Three of the courses I took this year- Nature Perception, Conflict Management, and Environmental Impact Assessment- were particularly helpful in giving direction to my research; in fact, I don’t think that I would have made several contacts without these classes. I was also able to visit two park pilot sites with one of my professors, which was a good introduction to planning similar trips on my own later.
My advisor and I eventually decided to work on researching and compiling an update on the national park process. 2009 was the last year that part of her study had been published in English, and there were several key developments during 2011-2012. We accomplished this by speaking with key people at the three existing parks, the four potential pilot sites, and involved organizations.
The Danish national park system is not a “system” in a cohesive management sense. The Danish Nature Agency and the Ministry of the Environment are involved in the formation and management of the parks through the park boards, but there is heavy coordination by the municipalities. The emphasis placed upon agreement and cohesion in decision-making was surprising to me, even though I had read about this approach before coming to Denmark.
This also lends itself to the high level of involvement that Danish citizens are able to have in nature governance. I spoke with a man a couple of weeks ago who actually split off from the Danish Society for Nature Conservation (DSNC) to form his own interest group, “Nature and Society.” He felt that DSNC was demonizing the agricultural community, and took action in the hopes of improving the dialogue with farmers surrounding the pilot site Skjern A.
I will still be collecting data until mid-June, but in the meantime, I’m almost done with writing a general article about what I’ve learned while in Copenhagen. Most of the article focuses on recent developments concerning the pilot projects, but also includes some information about the creation of the three existing parks. The U.S. government is in the process of adapting how the general public is included in future land management decisions, such as the creation of nature areas and green spaces. I find the Danish emphasis in nature management on what I have termed “functional preservation” fascinating, and I’m looking forward to further examining how this can be utilized in the U.S. during my time in graduate school.
I was also really impressed with the youth outreach program created by National Park Vadehavet.
Interaction with Danes:
The Danes are a wonderful people, but they can be extremely hard to get to know, at least as a non-Dane. Most of my interaction with the Danes was in a student context, through group work and discussion in my classes at the University of Copenhagen. I feel that this was a good way to facilitate deeper friendships, as we were required to spend a lot of time together. It was much easier to branch out into going for coffee or a beer after working on a project together – since most of my efforts to befriend Danes I do not see on a regular basis crashed and burned. The few Danish friends I do have really surprised me at times with how considerate and sincere they can be in their desire to know more about my life and perception of Denmark. I still see my host family on a semi-regular basis, which has added so much to my experience of Copenhagen!
I’ve already written about why the Fulbright program is more than academic tourism, but I’d like to now return to that criticism. By definition, a tourist is merely a visitor. In contrast, I live here in Copenhagen. Of course, I am only part of the student community in Copenhagen, but that would also be true if I were living in the United States. The point here is that I am part of a community; in a way I could never hope to be if I was simply a tourist.
Additionally, there is truly no better way to understand your own country than by living abroad. The perspective I have gained during my year in Copenhagen has allowed me to examine the qualities that make America a great country, as well as its flaws. The same is especially true of my ability to reflect upon Copenhagen, a city that I had a tendency to overly romanticize after my phenomenal DIS study abroad experience in 2009. ‘The bikes! The free health care! The windmills!”
In making the transition from a long-term visitor to a resident, I found Jante’s Law and the trend toward encouraging conformity in Danish society to be frustrating at times. However, I really admire the Danish emphasis on having a healthy balance between work and one’s home life. The Danes have a lifestyle perspective that I wish more Americans would try to emulate – I think we’d be much happier for doing so.
My discussions with both my Danish friends and my international friends have made me realize that Americans have a pretty bad reputation abroad. Our international policy and exported American pop culture and media is mostly responsible for this negative perception. The average American (although one of the great things I think I could argue is that, in reality, there isn’t an average American) is confused with what is seen in movies, TV shows and music videos.
I wouldn’t say that I’ve met any Europeans who actively hate America; it’s more of a “Well, what can you expect from them?” feeling. In fact, the basis behind the Fulbright program surprised many international students I met – they couldn’t believe that the U.S. government would feel it important for Americans to learn from Europeans and vice-versa. Several of my friends here expressed surprise when they got to know me better. Apparently, I don’t fit with their stereotypical image of an American.
Getting to know me has allowed them to put a face to the United States and Americans in general. I’m glad that I can help better America’s image abroad in a small way, but I’m sad that most of what we seem to be successfully exporting as a nation are only the close-minded, negative aspects of our country, despite the good that we do. This goes both ways, though. Many Europeans seem to think that they have Americans all figured out, but many Americans also believe that there is nothing new left to discover about the “Old World.”
Getting the chance to interact with people from other countries on a number of different levels has given me a perspective with a value I can’t begin to quantify.
A perspective that has impacted my value system, my plans for the future, my self-perception, and the way I view America and its place in the world. I wish more Americans had the opportunity to have a similar experience.
Something mentioned during my Fulbright wrap-up session was the perception that the Fulbright program is only for the privileged and elite. The reality of the Fulbright program, at least in my case, couldn’t be further from the truth. Both my mother and father were the first generation in their families to attend college. I attended college with the help of a scholarship and a large amount of financial aid. Without the Fulbright grant, it is highly unlikely that I would have been able to conduct research and take courses abroad for such an extended period of time.
It is true that the process for being awarded a Fulbright grant is competitive, and at times, frustratingly difficult. But it is possible, and the thing I love most about the Fulbright program is that a perfect GPA and immaculate academic history are not prerequisites – what you need most is a great idea and passion for your project and country of choice.