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Building Connections Through Swedish Studies

April 25, 2017

Portrait of Brian Kays

Portrait of Brian Kays
Photo by Kate Drakulic, CLAgency

Brian Kays did not expect to fall in love with Swedish.

The recent graduate's passion for the language and for Nordic culture is evident: he volunteers at the American Swedish Institute, holds an internship at the Swedish Council of America, spends his summers teaching Swedish at the Concordia Language Villages, and last year served as Lena Norrman’s teaching assistant for intermediate Swedish. He is a fixture of the University's Swedish club and even organized a fika crawl for the group, in which Den Svenska Klubben members meet monthly at Scandinavian cafes throughout the Twin Cities to share coffee, pastries, and conversation.

Kays has traveled extensively across the Nordic countries (including studying abroad in both Sweden and Iceland) and decorates his apartment with personal photography from his travels. "Going to Scandinavia, especially Sweden, is something I always want to be doing," he says. "When I'm not there, I do miss it." It's difficult to imagine a time when when the Swedish language and culture did not play an integral role in Kays' life.

Yet, Kays' introduction to Swedish was a relatively recent one. He recalls arbitrarily choosing it as a college freshman to fulfill his language requirement. "It just sounded cool and it sounded fun," he says. While initially skeptical about the value of the requirement, Kays has become an eager proponent of mandatory language classes. Stumbling upon Swedish has enriched his life in countless ways, not the least through the new course it charted for his studies.

It turns out that Scandinavia offers a fascinating case study for someone interested in urban planning and infrastructure, as Kays long has been. The self-proclaimed "transportation tourist" enjoys exploring and then comparing and contrasting Scandinavian infrastructure models with American ones.

For example, public transportation is much more prevalent in Sweden than in the United States, and he attributes that in part to different societal values: Sweden’s more collective society normalizes the use of public transport, while the American approach to transportation is more individualistic, often favoring the use of private vehicles to public transportation options, many of which are controlled by private companies. He is interested in watching infrastructure evolve in both places, noting, for instance, the rise of passenger rail lines in Minnesota.

Kays graduated from the University of Minnesota with distinction in 2012, earning a double major in Scandinavian languages & Finnish and geography. After a brief time away, he returned to the University and earned a master’s degree in urban & regional planning in 2016. His graduate program gave him the opportunity to research Scandinavian transportation systems, further enabling him to explore the intersection between these two interests.

From speaking the language casually with his Swedish boss to visiting with students during GSD's weekly Swedish conversation hour, Kays actively finds opportunities to practice his language skills and stay involved with his alma mater. Kays praises the community of Scandinavian enthusiasts at the University of Minnesota for creating an inclusive and supportive environment for speakers of all levels. He recalls what it’s like to go from knowing nothing about the language to developing fluency and wants to give back to others along that journey, too.

While learning Swedish came naturally to Kays, he knows that it would be all too easy to let his language skills lapse. He encourages fellow language-learners to seek out creative ways to use their language skills outside of the classroom. Anyone looking for inspiration need look no further than the impressive infrastructure of opportunities to practice the language and learn about Swedish culture that Kays has constructed for himself.

This story was written by an undergraduate student account executive in CLAgency. Meet the team.