Hilde Eliassen Restad is a political scientist and expert on American politics. She is currently Associate Professor of Peace and Conflict Studies at Bjørknes College in Oslo. Hilde has spent no less than nine years studying in the United States, starting with two years of high school at the United World College of the American West in the tiny town of Montezuma in New Mexico. After obtaining a cand.mag. at the University of Oslo, she completed her master’s and PhD at the University of Virginia (UVA) in Charlottesville.
Why did you decide to study in the United States?
I was studying political science at the University of Oslo, but didn’t really feel like it was the right fit for me until I took a North American Studies class with professor Ole Moen. Then I realized it was American politics I was really interested in, so the obvious choice was to continue my studies in the U.S. I was lucky enough to get grants from Fulbright and the Norway-America Foundation (NORAM), which funded my master’s studies. Originally, I had only planned to stay for my master’s but was offered a PhD fellowship, an opportunity I couldn’t pass up, so two years turned into seven!
“You get a lot of things you normally don’t get as a student in Norway, like personal attention from professors, an international environment, and the ability to use English at a professional level, which is very important for many jobs today.”
How did you end up at UVA?
I applied to ten universities. The application process is tough, there’s no getting around that. You have to do tests, write application essays, get recommendations from professors, etc., so you have to start early. I got a lot of valuable help from Fulbright and NORAM. I got into two out of the ten schools, UVA and the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Both had good political science programs, but I chose UVA because I figured it would be more interesting to live in Virginia rather than Massachusetts, which is in the north-east and thus closer to Europe culturally. At UVA, I learned a lot about southern culture, conservative American politics and evangelical Christianity, which is important for understanding U.S. politics.
What are your best memories from your time in the U.S.?
There are many – the exceptional professors and their interest in their students and our opinions; the cultural experience of living in the South; the wonderful friendships; and, not least, the insight to American politics I gained, which you can only get by living in there. It was incredibly educational to be there for the 2004 and 2008 presidential elections, from Bush’s reelection to Obama’s victory. What a roller-coaster!
What were the biggest challenges during your time there?
Academically, the main challenge was to learn how to communicate in proper, academic English, as well as having to “compete” with incredibly smart and hard-working fellow students. That was a real lesson in higher education! That also meant that I had to focus on not being intimidated by the high level or the fact that many of my classmates dropped out. It was a tough program with a high dropout rate, and you had to be strong to stick with it. And I’m very proud that I did!
Aside from the academic aspect, in what ways would you say that studying in the U.S. has been a benefit to you professionally?
The fact that I had studied American politics in the U.S. was probably what made me attractive to my first employer, NUPI. It’s always smart to separate yourself from the pack and get experience not many others have. Even though there’s great interest in the U.S. here in Norway, there are surprisingly few who have a PhD in American politics, and even fewer who have it from the U.S.
“I’d encourage Norwegians considering studying in the U.S. to look beyond the most famous schools and the biggest cities. That way, you’ll not only get the best education for you, but also a more authentic American experience.”
In what way did your time in the U.S. affect you personally?
I really became and adult there. I met great people who became good friends, and I also met the man who is now my husband. It was a real privilege to be able to grow up in such a culturally and academically challenging environment; I really have to thank Fulbright and NORAM for that.
Would you recommend other Norwegians to study in U.S.?
Absolutely! U.S. higher education is of the highest quality. You get a lot of things you normally don’t get as a student in Norway, like personal attention from professors, an international environment and the ability to use English at a professional level, which is very important for many jobs today. My best tip is to research what universities are good in the field you’re interested in. Norwegians tend to apply to the best known schools, such as those in the the Ivy League, regardless of what they plan on studying. But there are hundreds of excellent universities and colleges in the U.S., and sometimes the best place to study what you’re interested in can be a place you’ve never heard of before. I had never heard of UVA, but I found out that it was the top-ranked public university in the country (next to UC Berkley), and I’ve never regretted going there. So I’d encourage Norwegians considering studying in the U.S. to look beyond the most famous schools and the biggest cities. That way, you’ll not only get the best education for you, but also a more authentic American experience.