Full Circle with The Swedish Program

Jennifer (Novack) Alanko attended The Swedish Program as a student at Williams College. In January, she’ll return as faculty member to teach the course, “Comparative Public Policy: Sweden and the EU.” Jennifer received her Ph.D. in International Relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) in 2002 with a focus on Swedish and Finnish adaptation to the EU.

I was on the way to the dining hall as a student at Williams College in the fall of 1993 when I saw a beautiful picture of Stockholm on a poster advertising The Swedish Program. Little could I have imagined how significantly that poster and my subsequent decision to attend The Swedish Program would change my life or that I would one day return to the Program as a member of the teaching faculty.

There were many reasons why I decided to study with the Program, including the beauty of the city of Stockholm itself and how closely nature and city life co-existed in Stockholm, the academic quality of the Program and the interesting courses it offered, the possibility of learning a new language (Swedish) while being in an environment where most people also spoke English, and the opportunity to get to know a Swedish contact family while living with other students.

Another significant factor was that Sweden was at that time preparing for a referendum on whether to join the European Union. European integration had captivated my attention since I first visited Brussels as a child and was taken by the concept of collaboration between member states that were located close together but had diverse languages and cultures. The comparisons and contrasts between that and my native U.S. captivated me already then. To be in Sweden while it was debating whether to join the EU seemed an ideal opportunity.

Of course, I could never have imagined that I would be returning about 25 years later to teach a course for the Program on the very topic that was a significant part of the reason for my deciding to attend the Program myself as a student. When I first set foot in Sweden on a cold and dark January day in 1994, I remember thinking that the day seemed to consist of various shades of gray, with less sunlight than the short winter days I knew from Williamstown, and feeling that it was very foreign and different from anywhere I had been before. The language sounded beautifully melodic but virtually unintelligible, and it was somewhat unsettling to live in a place where I couldn’t even understand the important announcements being made on public transport. It didn’t take long, however, before I began to appreciate the reflection of the moonlight on the fallen snow and the beauty of walking along the snow-covered paths through the forest and by the frozen water beside where I lived, which was not far from the city center. I also was increasingly able to decipher the language and find the meaning in the lovely sing-song melody of Stockholm Swedish (which has its own rhythm in comparison with the Swedish spoken elsewhere in Sweden and even in neighboring Finland). As the days grew longer and the flowers began to bloom, my connection to Stockholm deepened and I felt increasingly at home. When my time with The Swedish Program came to an end, I did not want to leave and already dreamed about returning to the city I had grown to love.

After graduating from Williams College in 1995, I enrolled at the London School of Economics and Political Science to undertake a master’s program in European Studies. During that time, I spent a summer back in Stockholm to conduct research on public access to information in Sweden and the EU. Following that, I went on to complete a PhD in International Relations at the LSE and focused my research on Swedish and Finnish adaptation to membership in the EU. As part of that, I returned to Stockholm as a visiting student at the political science department at Stockholm University where I attended classes conducted in Swedish.

My life has now in a sense come full circle as I am again living in Stockholm and again becoming a part of The Swedish Program. I wonder what I would have thought back in the fall of 1993 if someone had told me that just over 25 years later I would be living in the beautiful city shown on that poster preparing to teach the next generation of Swedish Program students about a topic that is close to my heart, about Sweden and the EU.