Illuminating Alumni: Nathan Ober, Fulbright Scholar

When we heard whispers of DIS alumnus, Nathan Ober, soon being back in Denmark on a Fulbright Scholarship, we couldn’t wait to get the scoop! Read Nathan’s interview to find out more about his research, highlights of his time at DIS, and his favorite Danish eats!

DIS: You graduated a year ago from Villanova University. What have you been up to since?

Nathan Ober: After graduation, I set off to travel the country for the summer. One of my stops was in Burlington, Vermont, where I poked my head into the office of U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, who is the longest serving independent in the history of Congress and a major proponent of Scandinavian-style social programs. Being a big supporter, I inquired about internships, which turned out to be paid. Later that summer, I applied and was offered a position in the Burlington office, where I interned from September through December (a visit to Vermont in the fall belongs on everyone’s bucket list). In January, I made the jump down to the Senator’s Washington, D.C., office, where I am currently working.

DIS: We also heard you just landed a Fulbright Scholarship – and we understand it’s bringing you right back to Denmark! Congratulations! What will your project be about?

NO: Thank you for the congrats. I’ll be in Denmark for the 2014-2015 academic year to conduct research on the Danish welfare model. I will take masters-level courses at the universities of Aarhus and Roskilde, and I plan to interview Danish elected officials, government workers and other stakeholders to learn first-hand how the Danish welfare model works, the politics behind the model, different Danes’ attitudes toward the model, and how the model compares to and could potentially influence American public policy.

DIS: Why did you choose Denmark as the place to pursue your research?

NO: I first learned about the Danish welfare model in Jacob Buksti’s Danish Politics and Society course at DIS. The model – which is very different from the American welfare system – is premised on universal, ”cradle-to-grave” coverage, and includes a vast array of social programs, such as universal healthcare and childcare, generous unemployment insurance coupled with job re-training programs, and full-tuition funding for higher education. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Denmark is consistently ranked among the most socially-mobile, economically-equal, and “happiest” countries in the developed world. Despite these findings, what little popular knowledge of the Danish welfare model that exists in the U.S. is often based on political rhetoric which routinely invokes Scandinavian nations as examples of “socialist” countries with ruinous welfare policies (see Jon Stewart’s hilarious The Stockholm Syndrome Daily Show episodes here and here). Therefore, I believe that Americans have much to learn from Denmark.

DIS: What is the first thing you’re going to do when you get back to Copenhagen?

NO: Get together and catch up with my Danish homestay and some of their extended family members and friends who I met last time around, along with a few DIS faculty and staff!

DIS: You studied at DIS in spring 2012, in the Justice and Human Rights program. Has that experience affected your studies moving forward?

NO: I could write a book about how the Justice and Human Rights program (JHR) changed my life, but I’ll stick to three main points. First, I’ve found that discovering what you don’t want to do can be as important as figuring out what you do want to do, and JHR helped me realize my future was in domestic politics and public policy rather than international law. Second, we had an awesome class and outstanding faculty and staff as part of the program. Several of us keep in touch regularly and have even managed to meet up since returning to the states. Finally, our week-long study tour took us to Bosnia and Herzegovina, where we had the unique and unforgettable experience of meeting with members of the EU, NATO, university professors, forensic scientists, locally elected officials, journalists, non-profit heads, leaders of the Muslim and Catholic religious communities, survivors of the siege of Sarajevo, and women who had lost their husbands and sons in the genocide at Srebrenica. These meetings revealed to us the deep-seated divisions that still exist among the country’s three different ethno-national groups – and the segregated educational system and fractured political arrangement which perpetuate those divisions. Despite the suffering of the past and challenges of today, nearly every person we spoke with was striving for a better and more unified Bosnia. This left me with a profound sense of hope in the possibility of social transformation, no matter how slow and turbulent that process can be.

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DIS: Tell us more about your homestay! Have you kept in touch since leaving Copenhagen?

NO: My homestay was the highlight of my time in Denmark. Not only did I get to know my Danish family and many of their extended family members and friends while I stayed with them, but they also connected me to friends they had throughout Europe, several of whom I stayed with while backpacking around the continent the summer after DIS. We have stayed in close contact, and I look forward to many more home-cooked meals and dinner-table discussions about Danish and American politics and culture upon my return to Denmark!

Family and Friends_NathanDIS: What is your favorite eat in Copenhagen that you can’t wait to come back to?

NO: My Danish host mom made a mean frikadeller and Jutland-red potatoes dinner (she is originally from Jutland, so we only ate red potatoes from Jutland). But in Copenhagen, I always took out-of-town guests to Cafe Paludan. Cozy atmosphere and delicious, hearty portions of Danish fare at a very affordable price (the smoked salmon, avocado, & pesto sandwich with baked potatoes and chili mayo was my go-to).

*The views and information presented in this interview are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Fulbright Program or the Department of State.


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