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Finland native awarded Fulbright

Sonja Smerud, a Finland native, will spend a year in Germany beginning this fall. She was named a Fulbright scholar earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Smerud.1 / 2
Six St. Olaf students were named Fulbright scholars this year, including Kia Vang, Sophia Kor, David Galick and Smerud. Photo courtesy of St. Olaf College.2 / 2

When Sonja Smerud started studying German as a child, it seemed a random choice after her dad encouraged her to start attending Concordia Language Villages, summer language immersion camps in western Minnesota.

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“It was like, ‘Oh, I guess I’ll study German,’” she told the News-Chronicle last week.

She had no way of knowing that a decade later, those language skills would fit perfectly into her post-college plans. Smerud was named a Fulbright fellow this year and will depart in September for a year in Germany, during which she will research how the country has become a leader in the environmental movement.

“I was really shocked to get it,” she said of receiving the prestigious Fulbright award. “I don’t think I’ve totally wrapped my brain around that it’s actually happening.”

Smerud, a Finland native, graduated from St. Olaf College in southern Minnesota this spring with degrees in political science and biology. She said she was inspired to pursue a career in environmental policy by many things, including her father’s enthusiasm for preservation as the executive director of Wolf Ridge Environmental Learning Center and her experiences working as a Boundary Waters guide.

“We live in one of the most beautiful places in the world,” she said. “I think it’s an important place to protect.”

St. Olaf is one of the top producers of Fulbright fellows among liberal arts colleges across the nation. This year, St. Olaf students claimed six of the 1,500 available grants.

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program is sponsored by the Department of State. It operates in more than 140 countries, seeking to “increase mutual understanding between the people of the United States and people of other countries” and “contribute to finding solutions to shared international concerns.”

Dana Gross, a psychology professor and Fulbright advisor at St. Olaf, said the school is very supportive of prospective Fulbrighters, and that the college also attracts the type of students who want to travel after graduation.

“You start with students who are choosing a college that have a global perspective,” she said, noting St. Olaf’s heavy focus on foreign language classes and study abroad programs. Then, St. Olaf faculty and staff hold information sessions each spring on the Fulbright program and guide students through the application process. Gross said the college’s goals run parallel to those of the Fulbright program.

“We can’t understand just one tiny corner of (the world),” Gross said. “I think the Fulbright values, ideals and programs goals are very compatible and well-aligned with what we’re trying to do (at St. Olaf).”

This won’t be Smerud’s first trip to Germany. In high school, she was a North Shore Rotary sponsored exchange student in the European country. She said her Fulbright year is a great way to kick off her 20s. When asked what she plans to do next, she hasn’t cast any in stone.

“I don’t know,” she said. “My only plan right now is to live somewhere different every year for the next five years.”

As for the more immediate future, she will be working with a professor at the Technical University of Munich on her research and doing graduate-level coursework. In the spring of 2015, she will produce a paper for publication detailing what she learned in Germany and how it can be applied elsewhere.

“(Germany is) an international exemplar,” she said. “(I will be) looking at how we can involve citizens and a variety of actors in the policy making process.”

Smerud will have a blog while she’s abroad. Watch for the link in the Lake County News Chronicle this fall.

“I’m excited to be challenged in how I live in the world and how I relate to other people,” she said. “I think I’ll learn a lot about who I am and how I relate to people.”

LaReesa Sandretsky
LaReesa Sandretsky is a Two Harbors High School graduate and Duluth native who began working at the News-Chronicle in 2012 as a reporter. She took over as editor in 2014. She covers County Board, including the Lake County broadband project.
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