Mona Anita K. Olsen & iMADdu (I make a difference, do you?)
The Norwegian Heart: Making the chalkboard table a modern-day lunchbox

There is one moment in a Fulbrighter’s journey against which all other moments pale in comparison. It is the day you realize you are living in a foreign country. It is the the day you become accountable for your own experience. There is no one beside you. It is the day you define your identity.

It is a day that comes without warning. You know it is coming but you do not know when. It is a day you have prepared for diligently, but you do not expect it until you find yourself in a situation where nobody knows your name.

Nothing else compares to that feeling. It is a combination of fear, loss, adrenaline, independence, and achievement. Some say the feeling is like searching for the end of a rainbow on a hike, endless yet liberating as you experience the entire spectrum of visible light. The journey that culminated in that moment began long ago.

Creating a MAD Lunchbox
By the time Mona Anita was twelve years old, her family had moved seven times and lived in four countries: the United Kingdom, United States, Australia, and Japan. The transitions were incredibly hard. Each time, it felt like all her friends had been stripped away.  Each time, everything she owned went into boxes and inevitably, some of those boxes just went away. With every new home there was a new school and language. Everything in her young life changed: everything except for her lunchbox.  She took her lunchbox to every new school.  Every new place where she was a stranger, the odd one out, the new kid in the class, Mona Anita knew she would at least have this small constancy in her life. It was a classic: a pink 1991 Minnie Mouse lunchbox.  It even had a thermos inside!  Minnie sat on the hood of a big Chevy convertible. For the longest time, Mona Anita thought that the "M" on Minnie's green blouse stood for "Mona."  The lunchbox was so cool, it made Barbie's lunchbox look like junk. As cool as it was, it was the stuff inside that held her world together through all the changes.

Some things never changed. When Mona Anita opened the lid to her lunchbox, she knew, that inside beneath the peanut butter and jelly sandwich that her mom had cut into a heart shape, beneath the pretty napkin that her mother had folded just so, beneath all the things that would give her sustenance for the day, there was a note that Mona Anita’s mom had written just for her.  In the note were the perfect words that every child should hear, must hear, in order to thrive.  

It said: have pride and joy, express love, show your brilliance, patience, perseverance, and strength on every new path.  And as you do these things, make a difference.  Make it a MAD (make a difference) day!

To Mona Anita, making a difference was making others feel that they belonged and ensuring that friends were prepared for every single one of life's transitions. Making a difference was sharing the passion for new experience, knowledge, and skills that only comes after moving through the hard parts of life.  For Mona Anita, hard parts like turning down full-time job offers when leaving college because she wanted to be an entrepreneur, pursuing a PhD while working full-time, changing careers from hospitality to education, or re-visioning her identity after a painful divorce while trying to live up to her mom’s challenge to “make it a MAD day!”

Identifying a Norwegian Heart
Mona Anita sat in her house in August overwhelmed by a jewelry box that her Norwegian friends had given her. In the box was a silver, heart-shaped necklace designed by a Norwegian entrepreneur, Marie Mikalsen. The design was called Norgeshjerte, or Norwegian Heart. The right side of the silver necklace was a typical heart-shaped curve but the left side was formed into the shape of Norway’s coastline. Mona Anita loved this necklace—its simplicity, its beauty, its creativity—and yet in one moment, the same necklace that could evoke so much joy, brought tears. She noticed a little heart on the coastline strategically placed on the point where her grandparents had called home. The message on the box was simple. “Always remember that your heart has roots in Norway.”  

At the age of 28, those words stung like a jellyfish and this time, the tears were not a result of sadness from her recent divorce. The sadness came from the realization that it was time to make life changes to follow her dreams. It was 9 years prior that Mona Anita walked the streets of Stavanger (an oil town on the southern coast of Norway) and wrote a promise in her journal that she would return to Norway one day. While putting on the Norgeshjerte, Mona Anita had the confidence to leave her Virginia life and move abroad alone.

Mona Anita decided to apply to the Fulbright program to complete her PhD in Education in Norway. She studied the application process, spent hours working on her personal statement and project description, asked mentors for recommendations, and researched facts about the Norwegian education system and entrepreneurship policies. Mona Anita knew that the competition would be fierce; George Mason University’s Fulbright Review Team advised her to apply as a researcher to be more competitive given her background. The core issue was that Mona Anita saw herself as a student and struggled to identify with the label ‘researcher’.

While fortunate to have an amazing boss and team at Mason Small Business Development Center (SBDC), she needed a new challenge. While waiting for updates on the application process, Mona Anita channeled her energy to prepare for change whether or not she had a successful Fulbright application. After finishing up her PhD coursework, she planned out her transition from Mason SBDC, adjusted her role at the nonprofit iMADdu (I make a difference, do you?), rented out her home, and gained skills and experience to reinforce her ‘researcher’ identity.

That spring, she was awarded a Fulbright Full Grant. The news was overwhelming. How would she identify with the label ‘Fulbrighter’?

Creating the Modern-Day Lunchbox
Moving to Norway in July was initially paralyzing. Nothing was familiar and few knew about the Fulbright program.  Mona Anita’s professional identity had been stripped; people identified her as the American with two dogs and the orange car. As she sat in her office eating lunch by herself, she felt thrown back in time; she craved her the consistency of her lunchbox.

One day Mona Anita attended the opening event for an entrepreneurial venture in Stavanger. She introduced herself as a researcher while mingling. During the event, a woman approached Mona Anita and asked, “Where is home?” Mona Anita stood in silence. The woman interrupted, “That question always gives away the identity of a Third-Culture Kid (TCK). Embrace the fact that you grew up in many cultures.” Mona Anita reflected on how another label had been placed on her. How could she own her identity through all of the changes in her life?

Over the next month, Mona Anita spent time journaling to understand her identity. It became clear that all of her experiences shaped her but did not define her identity. In Norway, there was no context for her identify as a Patriot, Wahoo, or a Cornellian. She needed a way to build her confidence to redefine her identity.

On her 30th birthday in October, Mona Anita was ready to own her identity but wanted to create a modern-day lunchbox to replicate her mom’s MAD philosophy. She painted a table with chalkboard paint and hung it in her closet. She then drew out a circle with six equal pieces. The six pieces represented the facets of life that she felt contributed to her ability to make a difference: health, self, career, family, friends, and finances. Each month, she identified goals in each area and tracked her progress to hold herself accountable to making a difference.

Deciding on the Chalkboard Table
As the Fulbright experience came to an end, Mona Anita realized that her chalkboard table helped her, just as the lunchbox helped her as a child. She initially thought that Fulbright would most directly impact her professional life, but the reality was that it has changed her entire identity. She finished her PhD in Education, made great friends, embraced the Norwegian culture and language, and became more balanced.

Mona Anita sat in her apartment in Stavanger with the chalkboard table in front of her. With chalk in her hand, she reflected on the lessons of her experience. She learned that comfort to her was a constant state of motion. She realized that her home might be rootless but that her heart would always be rooted in her home. She recognized that she had the ability to “make it a MAD day” as long as she owned her identity.

The question was, what would be the next addition to her identity?