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Swedish college students, professors study Huntington

Apr. 09, 2010 @ 12:05 PM

HUNTINGTON -- Huntington's challenges in the post-industrial era have attracted more than a dozen Swedish college students and professors to the city.

The group from Malmo University has spent two weeks soaking in everything from local cuisine to shopping to nightlife, meeting with community leaders and taking tours of key landmarks to gain a better understanding of the city. A smaller group of Marshall University students and professors took a similar journey to Malmo in March.

The student and faculty exchange is the brainchild of Anders Linde-Laursen, a sociology and anthropology professor at Marshall. He and his counterparts at Malmo have created a class comparing the industrial fallout of Huntington and Sweden's third-largest city and analyzing how each has responded.

"These are parallel classes that involve the same readings and preparation, but otherwise are separate," Linde-Laursen said. "We're using a comparative perspective to gain a better understanding of the similarities and differences as both cities struggle to find their own feet again."

The industrial decline hit both cities hard, but they are at different stages of their transformation, said Mats Greiff, a history professor at Malmo University who accompanied the students to Huntington. Malmo's decline reached its pinnacle in the 1980s with the closing of its shipyard, which at the time was one of the largest in the world.

The city went through a resurgence in the late 1990s, due in large part to a bridge that connected Malmo to Copenhagen, Denmark, and the opening of Malmo University. Malmo has since witnessed a growing knowledge-based economy along with cutting-edge architecture and more cultural offerings.

Huntington appears to be in the early stages of a similar transformation, but all of the ingredients seem to be in place, says Greiff and some of the students who traveled to Huntington.

The students are quick to note the cultural differences between Sweden and the U.S. that they've encountered during their two-week stint in Huntington. Among them are the heavy reliance on automobiles and saturation of sugary drinks and unhealthy food in American diets, they say.

"I think I can speak for the group as a whole that we were a bit shocked by the food served at the cafeteria at Marshall," said Robin Ekelund, a 25-year-old Malmo student. "There is a salad bar there, but you can eat a hamburger with cheese and have soft-serve ice cream for breakfast if you want. They also have something like 18 different sodas to pick from."

The students say they also aren't accustomed to using a vehicle as much as they have during the past two weeks. Malmo is more accessible for pedestrians, and has an elaborate public transportation system, they say.

"We went to the mall in Barboursville last week and decided to go to Wal-Mart afterward," said 26-year-old Fredrik Berggren. We wanted to walk because it's only one-tenth of a mile away, but we couldn't because there are five lanes of traffic."

Aside from that, the students say they have enjoyed their stay, which ends Saturday.

"There's this stereotype of Americans as being right-wing, gun-toting people who drive big cars," Ekelund said. "Everyone I've met has been extremely friendly and open-minded."

The most noticeable difference between Huntington and Malmo is the passion that Huntingtonians have for their city, said Ekelund, who has attended Create Huntington Chat N' Chews for a class project.

"That's not something you will find in Malmo," Ekelund said. "You won't see people who are so in love with their city that they are willing to invest their own time and money. There's a grassroots effort here that is making changes."

It's obvious Marshall University and its students are important to Huntington, but they could play more of an integral role in the downtown, Berggren said. Malmo University has buildings spread across the city, which allows students to blend into the city and add to its cultural flavor, he said.

"I've learned that many students here at Marshall aren't as connected to the city," Berggren said. "Many have told me they go home on the weekends and don't go downtown much."

Whether you agree or disagree with the students' assessment of Huntington, the class already has proven to be a valuable learning tool that should be expanded to other departments on Marshall's campus, said Jack Browning, a Marshall senior who was part of the Huntington entourage that traveled to Malmo.

"You get to see how people view your city, how they've dealt with similar circumstances that Huntington is going through and then determine whether we can make that applicable here," Browning said. "Even though these cities are thousands of miles away from each other and may operate under totally different economic and political systems, they still have many of the same goals and needs."



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