MC group learns lessons for life in Scandinavia

MC group learns lessons for life in Scandinavia

July 21, 2017

There’s traveling for pleasure, and then there’s searching for hygge in a foreign land.

Ten Maryville College students and three young alumni experienced both recently when they spent eight days in Denmark and Sweden as part of a Maryville College travel-study trip. Organized and led by faculty members Adrienne Schwarte and Mark O’Gorman, the trip was actually a Sustainability 249 course titled “In Search of Hygge Through Design and Sustainability in Scandinavia.”

Hygge (pronounced “hoo-gah”) is one of the Oxford English Dictionary’s newest entries. A popular Danish word, the dictionary defines it as “a quality of coziness and comfortable conviviality that engenders a feeling of contentment or well-being.”

“Danes are believed to be among the happiest in the world, and we wanted our students to see the connections between a happy and egalitarian society, good design and responsible sustainable design,” said Schwarte, the College’s associate professor of design and coordinator of the sustainability studies minor. “Scandinavia has some of the most universal, functional and aesthetic modern design in the world.

“The course was also well-suited to connect to the themes of sustainability and sustainable design since Denmark is one of the greenest countries in the world, and the city of Copenhagen is seeking to be carbon neutral by 2025,” she added.

Preparations began in January

The group began preparing for the trip during January Term.

According to O’Gorman, the College’s professor of political science and coordinator of the environmental studies major, students met daily during the three-week term to study Danish culture, Scandinavian geography, environmental sustainability, design and architectural trends, language and food.

“Professor Schwarte is a very good cook, so the students were given a special treat with an authentic Danish breakfast of smoked fish, homemade danishes, traditional rye bread, licorice and other Scandinavian treats,” he said. “We watched Danish films with English subtitles that provided tutorials on Danish history, but also gave the students exposure to the language. The hygge theme was connected and reconnected to each topic as we discussed it.”

Students made presentations on a “Dane of the Day,” where they introduced a famous or important Dane or Swede to the group.

Journaling was also an assignment during the January Term course.

“We wanted students to explore where hygge was in their own lives,” O’Gorman said. “Where was hygge at home? At MC?”

Copenhagen offers different way of life

The trip started May 27 in Copenhagen, which group members toured by bike on the second day of the trip. In addition to students learning about neighborhoods that had been transformed into greener, more open spaces, they experienced the Danes’ unique bike culture. It was among the first topics shared on the group’s blog.

“We rented bikes with baskets and explored the city in true Danish fashion,” said Rachel Manning ’17, an environmental studies major and sustainability studies minor who graduated in May. “It was neat to see how the city of Copenhagen designed their roadways for the people riding bikes rather than for cars. They have clearly marked bike lanes and traffic lights to aid in safe transportation by bicycle.”

Schwarte said Americans visiting Denmark are often amazed to see how much biking is a way of life.

“On one of the busiest commuting streets, up to 40,000 cyclists pass each day. More than 50 percent of citizens in Copenhagen use this as their commute,” she said. “I find students are amazed at how it works in Copenhagen and think if a city in the U.S. would commit to that type of urban bike infrastructure and culture, we would reap the benefits, as well.”

While in Copenhagen, the students heard three lectures on sustainability at the University of Copenhagen and visited with Meik Wiking, author of The Little Book of Hygge: Danish Secrets to Happy Living and the CEO of the Happiness Research Institute, a think tank that utilizes academic knowledge to aid in the process of policy design.

Manning, who will begin a master’s degree program in sustainability management at American University this fall, said the lectures offered some of the most memorable moments of the trip.

“I loved being able to listen to and converse with leaders in sustainability,” she said. “For me, the educational aspects of the trip were most appealing. This trip exposed me to nations that value sustainability and make it a focus in every aspect of their lives – from choosing to ride a bike to work to deciding how to rebuild part of a city.”

Popular tourist spots like the Royal Palace, Tivoli Gardens, Nyhavn (the famous riverside neighborhood whose multi-colored buildings is the iconic image of the city) and the statue of the Little Mermaid were on the itinerary, as were the chalk cliffs at Møns Klint on the Baltic Sea.

Danish architecture was also explored on the trip. An old, historic city, Copenhagen has welcomed modern design, as evidenced in the Royal Library (better known as “the Black Diamond”), the Royal Danish Opera House and the Royal Danish Playhouse.

“And our hotel in Frederiksberg allowed us to explore a fun and eclectic urban Danish space – sushi, Greek food and two coffee shoppes all within five minutes from the hotel!” O’Gorman said.

Rachel Britt ’18, a senior design major from Maryville, said she was surprised by how family-oriented Copenhagen is and how trusting the Danes are.

“I saw so many families living in the city,” she said. “Moms and dads would have these bikes with huge carts in the front that would hold their kids, and they would go to the market or the park,” she said. “And people would comfortably leave their kids in carts outside by the side of a market.

“I would love to live in a city where I could feel free enough to trust everyone.”

Stockholm is example in sustainability

After five days in Copenhagen, the group traveled to Stockholm for two days. While students and faculty found Stockholm to be somewhat less sustainably-focused than Denmark, they said they still experienced hygge.

“Stockholm is a much larger city, but Gamla Stan, the old city, is very accessible,” O’Gorman said. “The narrow cobblestone streets leading you to the Nobel Museum, where the Nobel Prize is announced, were all you would hope to see in an old European city.”

Walking is encouraged in the Swedish capital – and Co2 emissions are cut – by limiting public transportation to six hours. The group also saw energy-efficient buildings, staying in hostel recognized with the hotel industry’s Green Key award for environmental sustainability.

In addition to the Nobel Museum, students and faculty visited museums dedicated to ships, modern art, photography, Swedish culture and Abba, the pop band of the 1970s and 1980s.

Hygge is lasting

The group flew back to Tennessee June 4, but Manning and Britt said they brought Scandinavian hygge home with them.

“After this trip, I have really taken to the idea of minimalism and living with items that serve a purpose and allow for a life of happiness sans clutter,” Manning said. “[In Denmark and Sweden], everything and everyone was clean and welcoming. Areas of land and all parts of the city were built with a purpose and to serve its inhabitants well and the environment responsibility.”

Britt, who stays busy with school, jobs and internships, said she now gives herself permission to take time to recharge.

“I now tell myself that it’s okay to stop working for an hour or two and have time to light a few candles and read a good book or take a nap,” she said. “I also really appreciate having long dinners or lunches with people. It’s an everyday lifestyle for people in Scandinavia to sit down and eat instead of eating on the go.”

Britt’s most memorable experience on the trip may also be the most hygge.

“We took an overnight bus from Stockholm back to Copenhagen. Almost everyone was asleep, and I was still looking out the window to watch the sun go down at midnight,” she remembered. “You have to understand, we were so far north that the sun goes down super late at night and rises really early in the morning in the summer. So as we were driving, the sun went down and as I turned my head to look out the other window, the sun was just beginning to rise. It was a truly a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I will never forget that.”

Schwarte and O’Gorman plan to offer the course and lead the trip again in 2019 or 2020.

Manning and Britt wholeheartedly encouraged future students to enroll.

“Just do it,” Britt said. “Go out and explore the world. Explore different cultures. Any chance you get to explore something completely different then the place you are living now, do it.”

By Karen Beaty Eldridge '94, Executive Director for Marketing & Communications


Maryville College is ideally situated in Maryville, Tenn., between the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Knoxville, the state's third largest city. Founded in 1819, it is the 12th oldest institution of higher learning in the South and maintains an affiliation with the Presbyterian Church (USA). Known for offering its students a rigorous and highly personal experience that includes an undergraduate research requirement, Maryville College is a nationally ranked institution of higher learning that successfully joins the liberal arts and professional preparation. Total enrollment for the fall 2016 semester is 1,197.