What’s Haverford like, to a Dane?

The Ordrup Gymnasium student band and choir perform for the upper school in Centennial Hall on Thursday, October 27, 2022 – Mr. Thomas Stambaugh

Our community, from both a physical and cultural standpoint, is different from most other academic environments. This is especially relevant to the Danish exchange students who traveled almost four thousand miles to spend a week at Haverford and Baldwin. They arrived late on a Sunday night, staying in the homes of student hosts.

From the Ordrup Gymnasium school in Charlottenlund, Denmark, the students making up the school’s elite choir-and-band group, “Be Sharp,” made their first impression on the community on Thursday, October 27, singing at the upper school assembly. 

“As [the Danes] gathered on stage, introduced their songs, and began their performance, there was something noticeably different about the group’s energy: the Danes just seemed happier.”

Casey williams ’24

The band consisted of a group of boys on guitar, bass, keyboard, and drums, and the choir consisted of a group of about fifteen boys and girls. As they gathered on stage, introduced their songs, and began their performance, there was something noticeably different about the group’s energy: the Danes just seemed happier

As their performance continued, the choir’s energetic and cheerful gesticulation, their humor while introducing new songs, and a generally more upbeat atmosphere that they brought, captivated the audience and was frankly a culture shock. 

What is behind this happiness? Is there something different about Danish life that leads to greater happiness? Do Danes even recognize the differences between life here and at Ordrup Gymnasium? 

From a statistical perspective, the answer to whether Danes are happier is clear. World Happiness Report’s “World Happiness Ranking” lists Denmark as the second happiest nation in the world while the United States sits in seventeenth.

But, from the Danish perspective, there aren’t too many differences. Their cheerful attitudes seemed like a universal concept. So what did they notice? The uniforms stand out as a key difference between the two cultures. Ordrup Gymnasium’s students aren’t required to wear a uniform, sharply contrasting our formal dress code of a coat and tie. But this doesn’t mean that the students show up to school wearing informal and inappropriate clothing. According to Be Sharps keyboard player Nichlas Bech, despite the lack of a dress code, most students choose to dress up formally, even on a day-to-day basis.  

“A lot of the guys do really dress up nicely. Almost every [day]. We just kind of choose to on our own,” Bech said. 

On their visit to campus, Danish students wore khakis, sweaters, collared shirts, and in general, semi-formal clothing. The uniform differences here weren’t surprising to them—the Danes expected most people to independently choose to wear formal clothing. Instead, the differences that Bech noticed between Haverford and Ordrup Gymnasium were rather unexpected. 

“It’s just a combination of everything,” Bech said. “[To get a] driver’s license you have to be sixteen here, the legal drinking age is twenty-one, the sports culture is bigger… it’s a lot of things.” 

One of the largest things that stuck out to Bech? Bike lanes. In Denmark, streets have lanes dedicated to bikes and the vast majority of students bike to school. 

“I haven’t seen any bike lanes since I got here. I’ve seen one bicycle, but only one,” Bech said. Biking’s popularity in Denmark is largely due to the fact they have to be at least 18 years old to get a driver’s license, making students elect to ride a bicycle even after they get their licenses.

“The biggest percentage of people use bikes to get to school, so there are bike lanes and racks everywhere,” Bech said.  

From a geographical standpoint, this is expected. Ordrup Gymnasium, along with much of Denmark in general, is less spread out, making biking convenient. Bech, in particular, is from Gentofte, a town north of Copenhagen, and when they visited Philadelphia, one of the largest cities in the United States, the structure was completely different. 

“Copenhagen is definitely smaller than Philadelphia. The buildings here are very tall, especially compared to Denmark.” 

Nichlas bech

“Copenhagen is definitely smaller than Philadelphia. The buildings here are very tall, especially compared to Denmark.” 

Copenhagen, the capital of Denmark, has a different architectural style than Philadelphia. Instead of gray skyscrapers, Copenhagen’s buildings are painted yellow, red, and blue. The largest building in Philadelphia, Comcast Technology Center, is almost 1,150 feet tall, while the tallest building in Copenhagen, Copenhill, stands at less than 330 feet.

Another key difference between Haverford and Ordrup Gymnasium is that almost everyone at Ordrup Gymnasium is bilingual.

“English is a really big part of our school…Everyone in Denmark speaks English to a level where they can have a conversation.”

Nichlas bech

“English is a really big part of our school. We learn English from third grade until we leave high school,” Bech said. “We’re told that English is the way to go. Everyone in Denmark speaks English to a level where they can have a conversation.”

Contrasting Haverford’s all-boys environment and surrounding ‘sister’ schools, Denmark hardly has any single-sex schools, and the students instead look past the gender norms. 

“We have close relationships without flirting or dating, we can even hug or cuddle without it being awkward or flirtatious,” Bech said. 

Another large difference separating Danish and American life is the legalization of alcohol. In Denmark, there is no minimum age requirement for consuming alcohol, and the minimum age for the purchase of alcohol is sixteen. Again, even though they have access to it, they don’t abuse their privilege and drink responsibly. 

“People control their drinking,” Bech said. “When you start drinking at a very early age, you learn your limits, and how much you can drink. People can control themselves.” 

So what makes Danish students seem so much happier than those at Haverford? It appears to be a collection of two things: their close, familial connection with each other and their ability to take control of themselves and the privileges given to them.