Over the last six months, people have been constantly asking me, with the exact same tone/inflection, ‘So…what is it you’re doing in Denmark?…’ You know, where they go up about 4 pitches in one sentence, reaching a high C at the end? I never really knew what to say. My joke was that I was going to hippie school. When I was trying to impress, I would tell them it was a short course to ‘fast track to Diplomacy school’… which, in reality, is probably half…er… quarter true.
Folk High Schools in Denmark were traditionally created as an alternative form of education. The idea was to prepare young people for a life of active citizenship and a holistic education that involved more than numbers/production/another cog in the wheel. (You start to realize this is how Denmark creates such a harmonious society). Each folk high school has a mandate, that they, the founders, can choose- some focus on sports, others drama, etc. International People’s College (IPC), where I am, was founded in 1921 as a peace school by Peter Manniche. Right after the WWI, Manniche felt that in order to avoid such a horrible atrocity, people from different cultural backgrounds would need to meet, work, and study under one roof in order to foster cultural understanding and dialogue, thus fast-forwarding the peace process, or even avoiding war altogether through mediation and dialogue.
On the education spectrum, the folk high school doesn’t give you a Degree or any ‘formal’ education training- our classes don’t prescribe endless hours of homework or lists to memorize. Danish students tend to go to a folk high school after they finish ‘normal’ high school (you have to be at least 17 to come), and before University. Most people, after attending iPC, change the majors they thought they wanted before they came. The school have a heavy emphasis on participation and application to the real world. Myself, I’m taking classes such as Training for Trainers, Introduction to Access Databases (I’m currently building my own!!), and Intercultural Communications among other things such as Gender & Sexuality, Human Rights & Active Global Citizenship, African Drum and Dance (sorry, David, but the teacher is hilarious it’s worth it just for that), Creative Writing, and Movie Making. In Training for Trainers, we are actually creating a training programme for an NGO, in Intercultural Communications we are peeling apart an imaginary onion to get to the core of how people work, and how best to respond to awkward situations. I’ve learned more in the last two weeks than I have in one year of high school. Other classes you can take here include Peace and Conflict, Current Affairs, Innovativity, Political Philosophy, Understanding Europe, Asian Life and Thought…the list goes on.
Apart from the classes, the concept behind the Folk High School is also one of working and living together. All 85 of us are sorted into Contact Groups, whom we are to consider our little family, with a teacher at the head. Every Monday and Thursday contact groups spread throughout the school and carry out cleaning duties. Every day, a different contact group does the dishes morning, noon, and night (food is graciously prepared for us by four kitchen staff members, who also rock btw). How we live and work together is the main part of how we learn to deal with different cultures. This term, we have 33 different countries represented. And let me tell you now- how a Korean cleans, vs how a Dane cleans, vs how a Mexican cleans– very different. Already some issues have come up, and we have to learn to discuss, confront, and deal with them head on. You can’t hide or cover for someone- otherwise you’ll be doing all the work for the rest of the term- and it wouldn’t be accepted, either; and also, I’m not cleaning up after the heavy drinkers twice a week in the Party Room. Oh yeah, we have a party room. And a pool room. And a TV room, a music room a bike shed with 30 bikes at our disposal… we really are left wanting nothing. We even have a little pond with two spots to make a bonfire, and a little patch of forest to stroll through. On any given evening, you’ll see small groups of people gathered all around campus in different areas, not necessarily always the same people. This week you might be particularly close to Bob because you’re comleting a puzzle, but next week you and Suzanne are working together on a movie short, so you spend all week together. Some of our fellow students have even started a dance troupe!
So, why am I here? Because honestly, I needed a break. I needed a break from real life. I’ve been whining and crying since I left University that I want to do something meaningful, I don’t want to work for The Man, and I never did anything about it. And when I tried, I struggled, because I was bogged down with my job, rent to pay, a social life to try and keep up with, etc, etc. I need time to step away, and be part of something that I believe in, and that inspires me. And I’ve found it. I’ve come here, and all 105 people (including some American exchange students, teachers, and other staff) have welcomed me with open arms. They’ve laughed at my bad jokes, they’ve listened when I needed to talk about something bothering me, and most importantly, I’ve been able to do that for others, too. This is a reciprocal space, open and safe. I think the starkest example actually happened on the second night. It was Friday night, party night, and some of us were sitting outside with our wines and beers. I was having a deep and meaningful conversation with a socialist guy that was telling me about the protests he’d been to when an American girl walked out and by way of introduction she boldly stated, ‘I hate America, but give me my guns’. The three of us sitting down all froze. We all happened to be from liberal Western European countries, and were waiting for the punchline of the joke. None came. A mildly reserved discussion ensued. It was left at ‘We’ll agree to disagree’. The socialist didn’t take it well at all. I’m pretty sure it stuck with him at least a day or two. And not two weeks later, they were co-teaching a class on self defense. Boom. Dialogue. Acceptance. Respect. That’s not to say I want to have a follow-up conversation, because I definitely do, especially in light of recent events.
I am literally giddy with excitement when I think about the next four months. I don’t really know what I’ll be doing when I come out of this, but I know that I’ll probably have changed, and for the better, too. I am already feeling the effects of the ‘reset’ button I pushed the moment I stepped onto the school grounds. I can’t wait to find out how the rest of it is going to go.