Bringing Danish Culture into Everyday Life: Valerie’s Long-Lasting Relationship with Scandinavia

Valerie Vanderwest was not a typical DIS student when she attended the Humanities & Social Sciences program in Copenhagen in 2003-2004. By then, she had already completed her business degree at Belmont University and worked in the Nashville music industry for years.

Now Treasurer of the DIS Alumni Board, Valerie brings valuable experience from leading unique and immersive student programs in Los Angeles with Belmont University and The Recording Academy, and internationally with DIS Copenhagen.

Read on as Valerie shares her experiences of studying abroad with DIS, and the lasting impact that Danish culture and politics have had on her life.

When Valerie worked for DIS she rented a room from the Phillips Family in Østerbro. Lilla and Alvin (here with their grandson, William) welcomed her into their home and family. She remains close friends with them to this day.

A Different World View

At my undergraduate school I had passed on opportunities to go abroad because I was working full-time and was hyper focused on completing my business degree. Then, once I had graduated from Belmont University, I worked in Nashville’s music industry for several years.

After September 11th, I however began to question my career path and longed for an international experience that would allow me the flexibility to explore other areas of study, see Europe, and immerse myself in a different world view. I enrolled in a Political Science master’s program at California State University at Fullerton, and was referred to DIS by a faculty member who studied in Copenhagen in the 1960s.

The Luxury of Time

Being able to go abroad as a grad student allowed me to slow down and really enjoy the experience. It was the first time in my adult life that I wasn’t working and that allowed me to have the luxury of time with friends and my Danish family.

Some of my best memories of my time abroad involve conversations over long meals or just sitting in a café alone reading or writing. I had never permitted myself to have that luxury before.

Valerie in front of her favorite spot, the Royal Danish Library (Det Kongelige Bibliotek)

Coming into My Own

Being a little older meant I felt comfortable doing things on my own, whether it be a day hanging out in Copenhagen or traveling abroad. Of course, I matured so much during that time and I felt like I really came into my own. It was a fertile time for ideas, concepts, and identity for me personally.

Having the time to think and explore ideas with people from different backgrounds and cultures helped me decipher between what I actually believed and what was a societal norm I had grown up with. I attribute so much of that personal growth to time spent with DIS classmates, Danish friends, and of course all of those random conversations I had with strangers while traveling.

During Valerie’s year as a student she lived with a Danish family in Allerød. Her Danish mother, Eva Winther Varnike, hosted her 25th birthday party.

Bringing Danish Culture into Everyday Life

Danish culture and politics have completely influenced my worldview. Even now, more than 15 years after leaving Copenhagen, I still admire so many things about Danish culture and find myself comparing Danish and American culture.

I live in Los Angeles and there are more than 10 million people in the county, which is about twice the population of Denmark. Even though Denmark is relatively small and homogenous compared to Los Angeles, I think Danish society could be a model for the challenges that seem to bewilder our elected leaders and my neighbors alike.

Danish culture and politics have completely influenced my worldview. Even now, more than 15 years after leaving Copenhagen, I still admire so many things about Danish culture.

A Social Contract

In the U.S., we are facing unprecedented challenges of homelessness and poverty, juxtaposed with the opulent wealth of big tech companies and the glamor of celebrity. While that scenario is “very LA,” it is also an accurate metaphor for America. How can the richest country on earth be plagued by so many societal ills? This became more evident during COVID when our local parks began to look like refugee camps of unhoused neighbors.

The common thread through Danish society that I have always admired, and is severely needed in the United States (in my opinion), is a social contract. A social contract would help us address these issues that seem too big to tackle: homelessness, lack of access to healthcare, gun violence, and so on. The social contract in Danish culture was fascinating to me.

The idea seemed so radical and, in a way, contradictory to the false narrative of the American dream. My discourse on these topics are all framed by my time in Denmark. I try to avoid using the term socialism because it is so politically charged in American politics, but I may pose a question along the lines of, shouldn’t we agree as a society that all people are housed? Why shouldn’t it be the responsibility of the state? My taxes in Los Angeles are pretty comparable to Danish taxes, but the Danes get so much more in return compared to an Angelino.

Valerie with her colleagues from DIS.

Remembering Danish Playgrounds

I remember being shocked at seeing some of the playgrounds in Denmark – basically logs on grass. In the States, this is something that our military would be trained on, but in Denmark there were kids climbing all over it. Even more shocking was that the parents were not telling their children to be careful, nor were they shadowing their child ready to swoop in to catch them if they fell. Coming from such a litigious society like the U.S., my first question to my Dansk Mor was, “what if they fall and get hurt?” In typically Danish fashion, her cool response was, “then they will learn that it hurts when they fall.”

It’s Okay to Fall and Learn

As a parent of a six-year-old, I have to remind myself that it’s okay to let my son fall and learn from it. I don’t need to be out in front clearing his path of every potential hazard, obstacle or challenge, nor do I need to hover over him ready to swoop in when things get difficult. My time in Denmark and abroad makes me wish I would have traveled more as a kid.

My husband and I have been fortunate to travel with our son quite a bit, even in the COVID era. He’s been to Denmark and five other countries already. We want him to be able to appreciate differences and commonalities, and not see things only from an American perspective.

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