Q&A: PetterStrand Kolaas Dives Into His Journey at St. Ambrose University


Growing up in Norway, it's not surprising that Petter had not heard of Davenport, IA before he was recruited by the SAU swim team in 2019. As a star athlete, history club enthusiast, peer tutor and international student ambassador, Petter dove head first into all that St. Ambrose University had to offer. Now, as he reflects on his experience as a Fighting Bee with graduation day nearing, he realizes the one common thread running through all of his wins and successes at SAU - people and relationships.

Q: Why did you choose St. Ambrose University?

A: I wouldn't be here if I hadn't built an immediate strong connection with coach Rob "Ski" Miecznikowski. I was especially excited to play a role in building the SAU swim program in its early years, but I also knew I wanted to be at a small university with smaller class sizes. I had changed my career plans several times in high school, so I was confident SAU's liberal arts approach would open doors for me and aid in my academic development. I was originally only planning to pursue a degree in history. After being exposed to many other fields in my general education courses here, I ended up adding a double major in political science and a minor in philosophy. SAU helped me discover my true passions.
Most of all though, I think what makes Ambrose feel so unique is the small, enclosed community that we have here - how personal you can get with your instructors and professors, how well you can get to know your peers, how accessible so many resources are for you. You have the opportunity to be exposed to so many things and you really feel as though you are actively taken care of and looked out for. Many other campuses have great resources, but here you get exposed to this ‘Ambrosian Spirit' through countless people who genuinely want to see you succeed on a deep, personal level.

Q: You mention the "Ambrosian Spirit". How would you define what that means to you?

A: I think community is the word that comes to mind. The encouragement of uniting in our diversity is really at the core of what it means to be an Ambrosian, like putting all of our unique backgrounds, knowledge, skills, experiences and perspectives into this bucket and mixing it together. It's about asking, "what can I bring to the table?" It sounds cliché, but it's true. Everyone is welcomed and encouraged to bring their authentic selves to the table so we can collectively learn and share and grow together for a better future.

Petta Kolaas

Growing up in Norway, it’s not surprising that Petter had not heard of Davenport, IA before he was recruited by the SAU swim team in 2019. As a star athlete, history club enthusiast, peer tutor and international student ambassador, Petter dove head first into all that St. Ambrose University had to offer.

Q: Speaking of celebrating diversity, what was it like being an international student on campus?

A: Well, my time on campus was cut short because of the global pandemic in 2020. I was so lucky to get one semester to experience what it was like before COVID-19, but I remember vividly when everything locked down. We had just returned from swim nationals in Tennessee and spring break was that following week so campus was very empty. It was pretty much staff and international students left on campus.
Borders back home had started closing down and I remember all of us weighing the decision of whether to stay or leave. It happened very quickly as soon as we got the final say that classes would be online the rest of the semester. Flights were getting canceled and rescheduled left and right. It took me personally over 48 hours to travel back to Norway because I had to take multiple flights with multiple layovers across Europe. Just getting home was a huge challenge, but then we had to face the challenges of the next few months. For most international students, we weren't just adjusting to online school - we were adjusting to online school in a different time zone.
Norway is just seven hours ahead, so most of my classes were between 3 p.m. and 7 p.m. I have other friends who had further to travel and they had classes in the middle of the night. Working remotely was hard for everyone because we weren't used to it. There was no system, everything was new, but then learning how to do that half a day ahead of your peers made it even more difficult.

Q: There had to be a lot on your mind during that time. What made you decide to return to SAU?

A: I had a genuine fear of whether or not I would even be allowed back to the United States or if it would be safe for me to leave home. I was toying with the thought of dropping out, putting my education on hold, or transferring somewhere else. It was a huge crossroads in my life, but I'm very happy I made the decision to return thanks to helpful advising and guidance from my coaches, staff and mentors at SAU. My professors especially are a central piece to my appreciation for SAU, and the relationship between us has shaped me and given me so much I will never forget.

Q. I'm sure this is just one of many big decisions you've had to consider over the past four years. Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give freshman Petter if you could go back in time?

A: I would just affirm that you should always be true to yourself. Hold on to your own values and your own culture while still being open, hungry and willing to be exposed to others. One night I was on the phone with my mother and I completely forgot the Norwegian word for ‘nurse'. Norwegian is my native language, but I wasn't practicing it, listening to it, speaking it, or reading it enough to remember common words.
I think that comes from being so excited to be here in America. I wanted to take everything in. I wanted to learn everything about the ‘American way' so much that I started forgetting my own. But, ever since that day, I've been very conscious of trying to actively participate in my own culture too. I watch Norwegian news. I listen to podcasts in Norwegian. I speak with my family regularly in my native tongue.
It's ok to be interested and curious and hungry to learn, but I think it's important to remember who you are and that your individual life experience matters and should be shared too.

Q. You summed up one of SAU's core values beautifully. To be Ambrosian is to be agile and anchored - in our traditions, values and self. How do you plan to carry these lessons into your future career after graduation?

A: You have to be open to change. If you're too focused on one plan, you close yourself off to other opportunities. What I've learned over the past four years is that my interests, dreams and life can change at any point. Instead of making specific long-term plans for my career, I am choosing to focus on what excites me right now and not set too many expectations. I know I would enjoy getting my master's in Political Science, so I'm pursuing that option next and look forward to seeing how I can use that degree to make a difference. If that changes down the road, I may end up doing something totally different!

Q. When you look back on your time at SAU, what are you most proud of?

A: I am proud of my athletic career and academic accomplishments, but I'm most proud of two things: expanding the History Club and piloting a peer tutor program with the Student Success Center.
When I came here as a freshman, there was no active History Club. We started with four or five students gathering to do homework together with little engagement, and now we're one of the fastest growing organizations on campus. I started out serving in a leadership role as Vice President, stepped into the position of President my junior year and have held that for the past three semesters. We're starting to host big events throughout the year and we established an honors society for history students. I'm proud of how we've been able to use the club to support our field and build community in the history department.
Lastly, I'm really fortunate to have had the opportunity to help pilot programs that helped expand our Student Success Center (SSC). I truly believe it's one of the best and most important resources on campus. This is my fifth semester as a tutor, assisting my peers with everything from English 101 in the Writing Lab to Psychology capstone projects. Having the chance to connect with and learn from so many different students with different backgrounds has been a tremendous gift.


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