“Norway has welcomed me, I feel privileged and honoured. The staff says: ‘We will do whatever it takes to make your stay comfortable.’ That makes me happy. Also: I came from an elite business school in India, and I didn’t have perspectives on welfare. Norway is the best welfare system in the world, in my opinion. So I have learned a lot, from the very best.”
Gagan Chhabra from India just completed a Master in International Social Welfare and Health Policy at the Oslo and Akershus University College of Applied Sciences (HiOA). He is visually impaired and has only about 10 per cent sight. Still he gets along well and hopes to stay in Norway.
What was you main reason for choosing Norway as a study destination?
“I had finished my bachelor in commerce and a postgraduation in business administration in India and was working as a consultant. Being visually impaired, I was engaged in disability issues. I was invited to participate in a focus group discussion, wherein I presented perspectives on disability and poverty. Afterwards I was approached by the Norwegian professor Ivar Lødemel, asking whether I would like to study in Norway. I got a scholarship and became a part of Lødemel’s Poverty and Shame Project.”
Ivar Lødemel is professor at the Department of Social Work, Child Welfare and Social Policy at (HiOA).
What was your idea about Norway before you arrived?
“I knew two Norwegian exchange students who had come to study for a semester at the Institute of Management Bangalore. Talking with my Norwegian peers at business school gave me some perspectives about the welfare system. I had a good impression in general. I was extremely impressed when I arrived. I was extremely impressed by the values of equality in Norway. Even rich people often take public transport or bicycle to work. Norway believes in the dignity of work: a housekeeper and a manager are both treated fairly. Also, people received and accepted me as I am, which is something wonderful.”
“Norway has a tremendous financial muscle, and I am impressed with this country’s willingness to deliver welfare. Other countries are also rich, but wealth is not so well distributed as in Norway.”
Which are the main differences from your country when it comes to your life as a student?
“Very different. In India competition is the name of the game, as the resources are scarce. In Norway I was lucky to have a multicultural class. It was very diverse, with nurses, doctors, and social workers from different age groups. And everyone holds different perspectives on study and life. In India the typical student from the urban center is supported by their family during education; he or she is supposed to study for an MBA, or to become a doctor or an engineer, and finally, to get married. Life often follows a very linear path. In contrast, life in Norway is more adventurous, and people have the liberty to choose to study what they want and at the pace they want.”
“The Norwegian professors fostered a participative study environment. Professors and the academic staff are more approachable, as there is not so much hierarchy in the higher education system.”
What is the most important academic outcome as an international student in Norway?
“I have been fortunate to stay in such an international setting, with peers from all over the world. Interacting with peers and colleagues refines your perspectives. During courses in human rights, I heard the life experiences from fellow students who came from Africa, Latin America, and Europe. In the classroom, a lot of learning took place beyond the books. The professors make sure these life experiences come out during class discussions.”
What do you miss the most from your country?
“The sunshine, sometimes. The spicy Indian food. My family, a lot. I wish they could come once to Norway and see this beautiful country. There are stark differences between Norway and India: the values, culture, and institutions. It is almost like moving from Mars to planet Earth. I try to focus on complementary aspects between the different cultures. I have a desire to learn from the Norwegian culture and to contribute to the Norwegian society through my experiences.”
Being visually impaired, did you experience specific challenges?
“I had my fair share, yes. Websites are not always so user-friendly. And there was some bureaucracy involved with getting my books in audio format. Language often becomes an accessibility barrier. I see only 10 per cent of what you see. I don’t read anything, I listen to text. One has to minimize the negative impact. It all sorted out well. I am staying in a student house close to school, which is a blessing. I did not ask for anything specific. I like to be as “normal” and independent as I can. But of course: if I have to ask, I do, and I am not ashamed.”
What should students with reduced functional ability consider upon going to Norway for studies?
“Make sure to be well prepared. Talk to someone who has lived in Norway. Be proactive and tell the university about your disability. In that way, you will have everything up and running when you arrive. All Norwegian universities and colleges have a disability office. Communication is the key.”
Any less fortunate experiences?
“No, not really. Norway has treated me well. Well, sometimes when I send a job application for a vacant position, I feel that prospective employers maybe judge me by my name and background. Despite my qualifications matching the job requirements, when I don’t get an interview call I feel a bit disappointed.”
What have you been doing besides studying and working part-time?
“I work as a part-time lecturer and tutor at my university college. I have also been active in several student organizations here in Norway. I am Vice-President of Student Affairs and Academic Welfare of International Students Union of Norway and am a national council member at Studentenes og Akademikernes Internasjonale Hjelpefond (SAIH). I have been a student activist, and I am making an effort to deal with issues related to student’s rights and internationalization.”
You just completed your master’s programme in Oslo. What was your thesis about?
“It is about the life experiences of people with vision disability in India. Norway is a rich country with a generous welfare system securing social protection and justice to marginalized people, like the disabled. That is not the case in India, where disabled people suffer from discrimination and shame when going to school, work, and getting married. Historically, the principle of karma shaped and perpetuated negative evaluations about disability. According to the karma principle, disability in this life is due to sins in previous lives. So disabled people are recipients of sympathy, they are not viewed as capable and contributing members of society. But in the thesis I found that employment can be an incredibly potent tool for enhancing self-esteem and dignity, and can help people with disabilities to attain better respect in the community.”
What are your future plans?
“I hope to stay in Norway. I am studying Norwegian now. I hope to pick up a PhD or work in a project related to disability or internationalization.”