A little Norwegian can make a big difference. Just ask Jonathon Rusch.
In his sophomore year, he decided to take Norwegian on an impulse. "I took a lot of pride that I was going off the beaten path a bit," he says.
Soon Rusch was beating a wide path through the Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch. And that led him to academic honors, scholarships, study abroad, and a rich interdisciplinary education.
Rusch, who graduated in spring 2006, did a double major in Scandinavian studies and geography. He believes his education did more than sharpen his critical thinking and his organizational and writing skills. It also gave him abilities that come from learning a new language, such as decoding subtleties and unspoken messages.
"It teaches you to figure out what's going on without knowing all the information," says Rusch, who is from Vermillion, South Dakota. "It's really helped my skills to tease out what's being communicated in a situation when it's not all that explicit."
This ability gave him insights into both history and current affairs. His academic studies focused on the formation of national identity in the Nordic countries, particularly Norway, beginning in the early 19th century.
In the fall of his junior year, he took a semester abroad in Oslo and witnessed how the country's national identity faced new challenges with the arrival of immigrants from Pakistan, Turkey, Iraq, the former Yugoslavia, Latin America, and East Africa. An internship with a refugee advocacy group gave him an intimate but frustrating view of how the bureaucratic Norwegian welfare state grappled with this challenge. He describes his time in Norway as "the best thing I've done as an undergraduate."
"It was an invaluable situation not just for academic growth, but also for personal growth," he says. "Wrestling with intellectual and social concerns at the same time I was having to figure out the public transit system, or even the correct way to buy groceries, was an environment I had to adjust to pretty quickly. I gained a lot of confidence."
He also racked up a series of academic honors, awards, and scholarships. Rusch was a member of the College of Liberal Arts honors program and graduated summa cum laude with high distinction. He earned the Eva Benson Buck, Gopher State, and Waller scholarships and a Selmer Birkelo Scholarship, the most prestigious in the College of Liberal Arts. The geography department gave him its outstanding graduating senior award.
His interest in Scandinavia continued after graduation. Last summer, Rusch enrolled in intensive Icelandic: a three-week session on campus followed by three weeks in Reykjavik. The trip was encouraged by Professor Kaaren Grimstad, whom Rusch credits with being one of his most influential mentors in the department, along with Professor Monika Zagar.
The collegiality and support of the small department, adds Rusch, proved to be one of the hallmarks of his education.
"Getting to know my professors well was really positive."