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Fika Gatherings Build Community, Swedish-style

Adult students enjoy coffee and Swedish pastries at a Fika gathering at Bethel’s Anderson Center.

“What is this? Is this for…us?” one adult student asked sheepishly as she paused in front of a table of treats and shifted under the weight of her laptop, textbooks, purse, and the winter coat smashed under her arm. Delighted at the response, she took a minute to put down her things in her classroom before returning for a cup of coffee—with extra whipped cream.

A new coffee- and pastry-centered gathering—simply dubbed “Fika”—will be held on a regular basis, and it’s modeled after a Swedish and Finnish concept of regular coffee breaks built into the workday. It's a concept that has been used at Bethel Seminary for years, and it's being expanded to serve the rest of Bethel's adult students.

On the second floor of Bethel’s Anderson Center in January, students on their way to class found long tables full of delicately arranged, sliced Jubilee Rings, almond-flavored Kransbars—like Swedish Kranskake, but smaller—and coffee with flavored syrups and toppings. College of Adult & Professional Studies and Graduate School staff lingered and kept the conversation going as students stopped and chatted with one another.

Bethel’s 200,000 square-foot Anderson Center has seen almost constant improvements since it was acquired in late 2013. Now with several administrative offices and many of Bethel’s adult programs moving to the facility, there’s a critical mass of Royals in the space, and that group is making up a growing percentage of the overall Bethel community that has been historically centered at 3900 Bethel Drive.

According to Dan Nelson, Bethel’s chief institutional data and research officer, more than 500 students took classes at the Anderson Center in 2016. That amounts to about a third of all adult students and 11% of Bethel’s entire student body. But as much as the Anderson Center supports learning with its high quality clinical spaces and technologically equipped, flexible-use classrooms, it lacks the informal gathering space and sense of overall community that has been established at the 3900 campus. And because of the nature of adult classes—many held in the evening when offices are closed, and with students scooting in to class from jobs and other personal commitments—there hasn’t been much time for post-traditional students to hang out and get to know people outside of their own classes. But the Anderson Center staff is hoping to change that, starting with some coffee and good, old-fashioned conversation.

“The hope is that we can build a sense of community. This isn’t an academic thing—it’s simply a chance for students and faculty to meet those who are in other classrooms all night,” says Holly Pierson, student experience manager for the Graduate School and College of Adult & Professional Studies. She hopes that just like the tradition has become a core part of the cultural fabric in Sweden—where Fika is elevated above a traditional coffee break and becomes a natural, expected exchange of ideas—the idea will catch on and change the atmosphere for Bethel’s adult learners. “As a historically Swedish organization, it makes sense that we’d celebrate the Swedish institution of Fika,” she says. “Over time, hopefully students will anticipate it and get excited about it.”

Ryan Gunderson, associate dean of student affairs and operations, says the project is something that’s been in the works for some time. He and his team have been adjusting to their new office location at the Anderson Center and are getting to know the tendencies and needs of students there. Now they’re thinking long-term and dreaming about how their team—and the facility—can best encourage community between adult students and the staff and faculty who support them.

“We already do such a great job of building community between adult students within their learning communities—but we wanted to find a way to build community across programs,” Gunderson says. After the pilot week of Fika events in January, he and his team suggested ways to improve it and ensure future success. They asked faculty to prep for class ahead of time so they can enjoy a break with their students, and they also asked other Anderson Center administrative teams to participate and invest time in getting to know students. “It seems simple, but we’re hoping this can be a cross-community experience where people get to connect with people they might not otherwise get to connect with.”

Fika Gatherings were held again in February and March, and will be held regularly the second week of each month.

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