ACN – Home Away From Home
What is it like to teach abroad and become a part of the American College of Norway family? In this blog post, University of North Dakota and ACN Spring faculty member, Emily Cherry looks back on her time at ACN and all the transformative experiences not only she only went through, but her students too.
As I sit to write this post, I realize I have been back from the American College of Norway for almost a month. It truly is incredible how quickly time can pass. As I prepared to leave for Norway in early January I had doubts about the length of time I would be away, how I would stay connected to my home institution, the University of North Dakota and department, and how I would preserve relationships with family and friends. However, once I set foot on the American College of Norway’s campus I felt an overwhelming sense of home. I will be the first to admit, I am a HUGE fan of Norway. Everything I discovered about the country, the people, the social structure, and especially the food was fascinating and energized me to learn more. Norway is a very special place and I am a better citizen because I was fortunate to spend time in this country.
As incredible as the country was, it was the American College of Norway (ACN) that renewed my love of teaching and reminded me why this is the greatest profession. My discipline is theatre. The students I typically teach at the University of North Dakota are junior and senior theatre majors. Most of my typical students have decided to make theatre their career, so when I was introduced to the students at ACN it wasn’t atypical student body for me. Most students at ACN are in their first year of college and most are still exploring their options for a major. I feel it is important to note that all classes are taught in English and all the students are exceptional English speakers and writers. The language was not a barrier at all. Knowing all this, I prepared for the classes I was to teach and felt confident of the knowledge I could impart on these students. Little did I know throughout the course of the semester my students were to teach me just as much as I would teach them.
I have been asked while I was away and since I’ve been back what my favorite part of my semester in Norway was. I always have the same answer. While I was very fortunate to travel to eleven countries in my semester abroad and experience many different cultures and see incredible art and architecture and eat amazing food, it was the students and staff at ACN that made my semester significant. The staff understand the true mission of education and how to help foster learning in diverse students. The staff support the students throughout the semester, if they need a pencil for class or to rebook a plane ticket because they missed their flight on a class trip! The staff treats each student holistically and looks at their entire experience as a learning opportunity. As faculty for the semester I valued the comradery of the staff, they were always available to bounce ideas off of, ask questions, and even give me travel advice. I wish I could take each one of them back with me to the University of North Dakota.
The students of ACN were who refreshed my views of teaching and reminded me the importance of clarity, encouragement, and the power of experience. As a rule I try to outline each of my assignments clearly with an assignments sheet and accompanying rubric. The students, hopefully, utilize both as they prepare the assignment. At ACN the students reminded me of the importance for clarity in my assignments. The Norwegian students had exceptional English skills, but culturally things can be lost in translation. I quickly realized that as a teacher how can I expect my students to be successful and clear in their assignments if I am not clear in my instructions. Small details like making sure I asked for papers to be double-spaced became important because the Norwegian students are used to spacing one and a half. Prior to ACN I think I would not have placed importance on such a small detail, but if I expect my students to be as meticulous in their work, I must expect even more from myself.
One of the courses I taught at ACN was Acting I. I have taught this class several times at the University of North Dakota, but this time the class was targeted to the non-actor. I was hoping to encourage those afraid of acting to take this class. This class turned out to be very diverse. Among the students we had a hip hop artist, a budding actor, and about 25 other students who were terrified of the stage! This class was the most challenging to teach, but also the most rewarding. By the end of the term students were reflecting on their growth and commenting on their enjoyment of not only speaking in front of others, but having the bravery to try something new onstage. These discoveries do not always happen in an Acting I class and do not come easy. I wish I could tell you that my teaching is always transformative, but unfortunately it is not. However, the environment at ACN is transformative. The students become such a close community for each other it allowed those acting students to take risks onstage, a feat that I try to encourage, but am not always successful.
Finally, one of my favorite times at ACN was when we were learning outside the classroom. As part of one of the courses I taught there was an optional class trip to London to see theatre, tour The Globe theatre and experience London. This trip was such a joy. There were students who had never seen theatre before and they were able to experience theatre on the West End. One student even said to me that he now thought “theatre was magical.” It is not too common in teaching when you get to see the light bulbs going off in a student when he/she finally completely grasps a concept or idea, but on this London trip I was able to witness several. Because Norway is just a short plane ride away from London it made a long weekend trip possible and these students were able to have a truly transformative learning experience.
Teaching at ACN was truly a joy, but being at ACN also helped foster other areas of my work. While teaching I was also preparing to direct a production when I returned to the U.S. This play was an unusual challenge for me and required me to work in a different way then I was used to. It also required several creative solutions. Four days after I returned home I began rehearsals for this play. As I watched opening night I realized that I had successfully attempted several new ideas in this play and all those new ideas were conceived in Norway. The collaborative environment and support influenced my creative activity and my play was better because I worked in Norway. It allowed me freedom to experiment and time away to not get bogged down with other issues and made me a better director. It is easy to see I loved my time at ACN. While there I can honestly say I am a better teacher because of my experiences and being their made me a better director. I am profoundly grateful to the staff and students for including me in their lives for just a moment.