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Danish students study at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minn., during exchange program

Viviana Iverson, from left, Tanja Joergensen, Pia Eknes and Pernille Broberg share a moment May 3 with Echo, a golden Labrador. The four, who are from Denmark, were discussing their experiences in the vet tech program at Ridgewater College in Willmar. Tribune photo by Ron Adams

WILLMAR -- Eight students from Hansenberg College in Denmark just spent two weeks in the veterinary technology program at Ridgewater College in Willmar, part of an exchange program that has been four years in the making.

This fall Ridgewater students will visit Hansenberg for two weeks.

For Dr. Allen Balay, the director of Ridgewater's program, the program has succeeded beyond his expectations.

"There's been some real learning of medicine," he said last week, shortly before the students left to visit the Mall of America and return home.

He had thought the visits might be more a cultural and social exchange, but the academics have been strong, he added.

Over here, they're called veterinary technicians; in Europe, they're called veterinary nurses, but the jobs and training are very similar.

All of the students spoke clear, lightly accented English. Pernille Broberg's was the strongest, as she was born in Texas to Danish parents and lived her first 10 years in this country.

On this trip, the first trip to the United States for some of them, they hoped to learn more about the school and the culture.

They observed classes and visited farms, animal shelters and vet clinics. Visits included East Dublin Dairy, J & L Bison Ranch and Willmar Poultry.

"I think the farms surprised me the most," said Pia Eknes, the only Norwegian in the group. She was impressed with particularly the size of the East Dublin operation. They spent two days at the Hawk Creek Animal Shelter in Willmar and teased Tanja Joergensen about the puppies she wanted to take home.

"We tried to get to a lot of places," Balay said. The same is true when Ridgewater students go to Denmark.

They went to a rodeo and ate corn dogs, and tried many other American foods. Tacos and Chinese food were also on their menu.

They all enjoyed the rodeo, particularly Broberg, who had been to them when she was a child in Texas.

Though they tried to be polite about it, it was clear that the corn dogs weren't a favorite food for most of them. They seemed relieved to hear that corn dogs weren't a daily food choice for most Americans.

They liked macaroni and cheese, though. While here, the students stayed with families of Ridgewater students. Viviana Iversen and Joergensen said they cooked for their hosts, and made a traditional Danish meal of pork meatballs with potatoes and gravy.

Recent thunderstorms were a fascination, particularly the lightning reflecting off the clouds last week. Denmark gets storms, but not so spectacular, they said.

"No tornadoes, no hurricanes," Broberg said.

The students from Denmark said they liked the setting of Ridgewater's campus in Willmar.

"I like it's not in the city," Iversen said. "I think it's lovely surroundings out here."

Other observations from the Danes and Norwegian -- the cars here are big, and food, clothing and gas is cheaper here, particularly gas.

There are differences between their schools, they said.

They believe there's more book learning here and more hands-on training in Denmark.

In the U.S., students have two years of classroom training that includes hands-on work.

In Denmark, school takes three years, and students are only admitted to the school if they have a job at a clinic. They alternate between periods of working at their jobs and attending 10-week classroom sessions.

From what they saw during their visit, "we talk a lot more" in class, Joergensen said.

Hansenberg College's veterinary and zookeeper training programs are on an old farm in the country. "In the middle of nowhere," said Iversen, which suits most of the students just fine.

While they learn essentially the same things, it is organized differently, they said.

"With two years of continuous schooling, you can go deeper," Broberg said.

The exchange program grew from a trip Ridgewater administrator Betty Strehlow made with other community college administrators to Denmark in 2008. She learned that both schools had the similar veterinary technician/nursing programs and hit it off with administrators at Hansenberg.

Balay got involved through emailing instructors at Denmark, and faculty and student exchanges started a year ago.

Linda Vanderwerf

I cover education issues for the West Central Tribune and have worked for the paper since 1995. I have worked in journalism since 1981.

Follow me on Twitter: @lindavanderwerf

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