Meet Olivia, activist and first-year international masters student

Interview by Elias Strand and Lara Rasin, carried out over video on February 23, 2022. Edited by Lara Rasin.

Olivia Schneider is a first-year international masters student of Social Anthropology. Originally from Vienna, Austria, Olivia has also been a part of HeForShe Vienna since 2018. Read on to hear Olivia’s perspective on being an international student in Oslo, why social anthropology is important, and more.

Thanks for joining us, Olivia! How about we start with where you’re from?

I’m from Vienna, Austria 🙂

I just moved to Oslo in January so I’ve been here for almost two months now! The first semester was all online so I decided to stay home due to budgeting and personal reasons.

How old are you?

I’m 25.

What’s your year of study & what study program are you in?

I’m in my first year of the Social Anthropology masters program – and I decided on the Contemporary Ethnography track.

The Contemporary Ethnography track was actually one of the reasons I chose to apply for this program, because I knew that I didn’t want a career in academia by the end of my BA and wanted to learn more about applied anthropology.

Why did you choose social anthropology, in general?

That’s actually a funny story! When I was about 15, I did the Myers-Briggs personality test. It was the middle of the night, like 2 AM, and I just did it for fun. At the end, you get your personality type, and the website I was using also told you what kind of jobs would work well for your personality type. And anthropologist was one of mine!

At the time, I had no idea what that meant. So I looked it up and thought, Wow that’s so cool. That’s something you can do as a job?! Then I looked up if you could study it in Vienna and you could! Ever since then, it was my plan. Before that, I didn’t really have a specific idea. I thought about journalism for a while but then I didn’t want to do it anymore, so yeah… It was pretty much destiny or luck [laughing].

Once I researched what anthropology was, I really liked the idea of working with people in a very different setting than an office space or retail context, for example. It felt like a more personal way. I always really liked the idea of understanding where people are coming from and why they act the way they do. This also might be in part due to my mother being a therapist [laughing], and us having these conversations a lot as I was growing up.

Another thing that was a big decision point for me is that I love the idea of traveling for work, so it was something that I really liked. This might be seen as part of the traditional view of anthropology, like Oh, you’re going to the jungle or somewhere super far away… But I just like the idea of being able to travel, go to different places, and grow from that as a person as well.

As an international student, why did you choose Norway in particular?

To be completely honest, one of the deciding factors was that the university has no study fees; that it’s free. That was definitely one of the aspects I was looking for in an MA. I’m sure there are very good degrees but if it costs like 10,000 euros, that’s just not something I can afford.

Another aspect was the extensive and rather independent fieldwork opportunity the program offers. Many other MAs I looked at included only a few weeks of doing fieldwork but being able to do a bigger research project was important to me. At UiO, we are expected to be in the field for 5-6 months and can pretty much choose our location and topic freely.

I also visited UiO specifically when I was in Norway for the “Why the World Needs Anthropologists” conference in 2019. There, I got a really good impression of the professors, the university, and the students. I also did some research when I was applying for my MA where I approached current and previous MA students to ask for their personal opinions and experiences. They were super honest and responsive, so I felt like I had a pretty realistic and positive idea of what it would be like to study here. And most of the things I was told turned out to be true!

So, for me, it was having that security, the university being free, and the extensive fieldwork that made me choose the program. As well as Oslo, or Norway in general, just sounding like a good place to live in. There’s a pretty high standard of not just security and safety, but also healthcare and quality of life.

What’s the best part about studying at UiO?

One of the main very positive things are the relationships with the professors. They are very approachable and down to earth, which is something I wasn’t as used to before. They really care about your educational development, and also about you as a person, or at least it feels like it.

In my BA, I sort of felt just like a number. Like no one really cared or really took the time to talk to you. But here, I can just go up to professors, and ask them questions, and talk to them. So I really like that.

It also makes for more discussions, and things aren’t just about exams. It’s about the process, and the self-reflection that comes with conversations not only with other students but also with professors.

And also just having a campus! That’s something I didn’t have in Vienna. I really enjoy just having that space with other students, and being able to study there. I really enjoy that as well.

Now that you’ve finally arrived, what would you say is the best part about living in Oslo?

I think it’s a very easy city in many ways, it’s very accessible. It feels small to me but there’s enough to do. There are all different kinds of activities; a lot of cultural things, like museums, and also outdoor sports of course. You just kind of need to ignore how expensive it is to fully enjoy it [laughing].

Your favorite thing to do on campus is…

Whenever I’m there, I really enjoy hanging out with fellow students and friends, having coffee, and discussing certain things. I really like having conversations while I’m at university in a more informal setting.

And I also really enjoy studying on the 12th floor [editor’s note: the 12th floor of Niels Treschows Hus, located at UiO’s Blindern campus, is a fan-favorite study spot and gathering place for Social Anthropology students]. It has a great view and it’s a good study space.

Now on the other hand, could you tell us about some challenges that you’ve faced so far studying at UiO?

Especially last semester when our courses were mainly online with one hybrid lecture, I was surprised by how much they were still struggling with it, because it had been over a year of online teaching. Even now the hybrid lectures aren’t working as well as they could because students on Zoom get forgotten pretty easily and quickly. Lecturers not checking the chat, forgetting to share their presentations, etc… There just wasn’t as much awareness and preparedness as I was expecting.

Something else I was surprised by was how much information is only available in Norwegian, even things that are specifically for masters students or universal UiO announcements. I thought it would be a lot more bilingual than it is. It’s not as much of a problem in everyday life as most people speak English so it’s easy to ask for help or directions. But in the university context it often feels like you’re missing out on important information or opportunities because of the language barrier if you don’t speak Norwegian.

Are you part of any student organizations?

I’m part of SAPU. My role is Communication Responsible for International Students.

I’m not part of any clubs, even though I think it’s really cool that they exist. There are so many cool clubs and societies at UiO. I just haven’t gotten around to joining any yet!

You’re also involved in a lot of non-university activities. Could you tell us a bit about your life outside of UiO and Oslo?

Sure! I’m also part of HeForShe Vienna. It’s an organization based in Vienna supporting the UN Women campaign which focuses on gender equality, with a particular focus on the role of men in feminism. I’ve been with them for four years now, since 2018 officially. I’m a project manager and I’m also part of the board. Of course now that I’m here in Oslo, I can’t be as active, but I’m still involved in administration and organization, and keep up to date.

I also work online as technical support for Zoom webinars and seminars. This is great because I can work from anywhere, and finance my stay here.

A piece of advice for those thinking about studying social anthropology…

I think it’s important to be open to being uncomfortable. Be open to being wrong, to not knowing everything. Have room to grow and room to learn. There’s no right way to be an anthropologist, and that’s something that took me a while to internalize. It’s still a process, and it’s something I struggled with during my BA in particular. I always felt like I was not the «right kind» of anthropology student, and thought there was a «right way» to do it that wasn’t me.

But that doesn’t exist. You can make anthropology whatever you want. You can make it as individual as people are and as unique as you are as a person. That can be very scary in some ways, because there is no set path or one right way to do things, but it can also be super exciting and have a lot of potential.

This article is a part of SAPU’s «Meet the Students» interview series. Read the first article and second article in this series, too!