Skogfjorden Blog

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My Story…  Discovering Connections: CLV As A Portal to the World - Brenda McKinney

Published: August 6, 2017

Andrea at the United Nations

Growing up in the Minneapolis-area, one of my favorite hometown spots has always the small “fairy doors” that were anonymously installed along the Lake Harriet path in the early or mid-1990s. Whether I passed the doors while training for high school soccer season, on a walk with our family dog or while talking to friends, there was always something enchanting about the small wooden doors. It was fun to think about them as a portal to a mysterious realm and the adventure they might lead to.

While the idea of discovering a portal, like Alice’s rabbit hole, was fun growing up, in many ways, though, I already had a similar outlet in my real life: Bemidji, Minnesota.

As a child of two only-child parents whose extended family is mostly abroad, my parents thought Concordia Language Villages would provide an opportunity for me to learn more about and appreciate my heritage and roots. I began attending Skogfjorden from the time I was eight years old, making Bemidji my home for several weeks each summer for a total of five years, with a few gaps for soccer, trips abroad, and other camps in between. My parents and I would often go camping in the Bemidji State Park before the CLV session started and it became a treasured tradition. Although when I passed the grense, donned my navneskilt with Andrea, scrolled across it and waived goodbye to my parents, I found myself transported to more than just another setting, but truly another reality and world.

For me, and I think for others, the world that is Skogfjorden extended beyond the programs that my skilled and energetic counsellors planned. Yes, I gained a foundation for my Norwegian language skills, which I would later use to study at Skogfjorden, the University of Oslo, and even used once while working in the Obama Administration's White House, but my time at camp also embodied the CLV mission and provided exposure to new environments and ideas. My Skogfjorden world provided an outlet to learn to listen, grow and understand my world and community and I credit Skogfjorden with helping me to understand both my immediate and wider communities in new and personal ways.

While bonding over all things Norwegian, I also I learned about my own country through the eyes of Sophia from New Jersey , who told such vivid stories about what it was like to visit the then-exotic NYC (where I now live), Britt from Chicago, who taught me about her favorite places for deep dish (which I took advantage of when I went to law school in Chicago), and Berit from California, who talked about her varsity surfing team (and who I channeled when surfing for the first time when I taught as a JET in Japan). While I also shared my stories from soccer and girl scouts in Minnesota, these stories--and the fact that we often interacted in Norwegian--shaped me. It made the world smaller, broke down and unpacked the differences and barriers that made approaching new experiences so intimidating.

The unknown can be daunting to anyone, but having a strategy to approach foreign situations and an ability to seek out commonalities—rather that highlight differences—has helped me to find my footing many countries, experiences, classrooms and jobs.  I learned how to honor my Nordic heritage while discovering how to enjoy and embrace learning. I would go on to utilize these skills, which I developed further as a counselor in the late 90s and early 00s, while working, traveling, and studying in over 70 countries. When I eventually went to work at places like the United Nations, the Department of State, and the U.S. Agency for International Development, it was this foundation that helped me feel so at home.

While I haven’t called Minneapolis home in over a decade, thinking about Lake Calhoun’s little doors makes me smile. While the doors still add a touch of fantasy to the everyday, they also serve as a reminder of how fortunate I have been in my own journey. I very much see Skogfjorden as the beginning of the yellow brick road, an adventure and education that continues to influence my day-to-day life in ways I could never have imagined as a child going somewhere new for the first time. 

Each summer at camp—for villagers and staff alike—involves many benefits: new vocabulary, insight into culture, new languages, and many friends. Gaining the skills to one language provides skills for not only learning about another language and your own, but to learn about how to approach new situations generally. On a personal level, my time at Skogfjorden and as part of the Skogfjorden family over the last 25+ years has provided a portal and worldview that taught me that at the end of the day, we might have different cultures, beliefs and culinary traditions, but people are people. We are all citizens of the same beautiful, crazy, and amazing world. And I could not be more grateful for that lesson, which has made all the difference.