Professional & cultural exchange program for social workers and youth workers

Council of International Fellowship-United States of America

Sue Bissell

My Experience in the Norway CIF Program

I had always read about the more progressive social welfare climates in Scandinavian countries. It was a great privilege to be accepted as a participant in the Norway CIF program this past spring (2013). Seven participants from Estonia, Latvia, India, Kyrgyzstan, and the United States spent four weeks in the land of fjords and the country the United Nations ranked as #1 in the world in 2013 in its Human Development Index (HDI). The HDI measures a combination of life expectancy, literacy, school enrollment, and GDP per capita.

Our orientation was held at the Youth Hostel Haraldsheim in Oslo on April 16-17, 2013.  Signe Skare, the president of CIF Norway, along with board members, gave us a warm welcome, an overview of the program, practical information needed during our stay, and presentations on different issues. We also had a sightseeing tour of some of the interesting sites in Oslo. For Manjusha from India, seeing the remainder of winter snow at the Holmenkollen Ski Jump was a unique experience.

The professional program began on April 18, 2013 at the Oslo and Akershus University located in the center of Oslo. Since I live in a small rural community, it was a very interesting experience to be in the midst of a beautiful European city that was easy to get around without feeling overwhelmed by a large city. Downtown Oslo and its parks have a special charm that Norwegians flocked to on some of the warm spring days that were late in coming this year. The seafront in downtown Oslo is particularly lovely to enjoy on a sunny day with its distinctive cultural center, the Opera House, in the distance.

Anders Bjornsen, assistant professor at the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences, coordinated our daily agendas. The program used a lecture format by professors of the university. It covered a wide range of topics that provided a general understanding of Norway, history, politics, culture, social welfare, conflict resolution, child welfare, Sami minority issues, and mental health, to only mention a few of the many that were covered.

There was a focus this year on children's and women's rights/status in the country. That was particularly interesting to me as I work at an organization largely providing services to women and their children.

The program also involved on-site visits to several organizations, including a domestic abuse women's shelter, the Office of the Ombudsman for Children in Norway, a program for Blind and Sight Impaired, Norwegian People's Aid that provides international assistance, a refugee/immigrant settlement program, the Parliament, and The Nobel Peace Center, in addition to others. There was no formal field experience as some CIF program may offer. Due to our very full and structured schedule, it does not seem possible that time would have allowed for that addition.

However, participants were given time to visit specific programs that we were interested in. For example, I was hoping to learn about services for crime victims and was able to visit three different programs with that focus. Participants also gave presentations about their country and their professional roles. Although our programs differed in many ways, the role of helping to create better societies is a universal theme for social workers that were shared.

We each stayed with two different host families that were kind, welcoming, and generous. It certainly gave me a better sense of how Norwegians feel about their country, its social welfare system, and place in the world.

I feel the host family experience is "the icing on the cake." It really allows participants to get to know people in more depth than tourists to a country can ever experience, and to make friendships that would otherwise not be possible.

I also loved dining on several different types of delicious ocean fish I had never heard of with my first host family. I was able to celebrate the Norwegian Constitution Day with my second host family, which included a colorful parade of many Norwegians dressed in their native costumes to honor their rich heritage. Midway through the program, Signe invited us to her summer home in southern Norway for a relaxing day. I feel that we experienced a bit of Norwegian culture that added to our visit.

I was not disappointed of what I learned about Norway's social welfare state. Although they are a wealthy nation from their oil production, the needs of their citizens do seem to be a priority in how their wealth is spent by the government. Their provision of health care, university costs, paid maternity leave, and adequate retirement pensions appear to have created a society that provides more social and economic equality than most. 
Finally, I thoroughly appreciate the opportunity that CIF Norway makes available for social workers to learn about their country. I want to give a special thanks to President Skare, CIF Board Members, and host families in opening their homes, lives and hearts to all of us. We will have many memories that will last a lifetime.