Mona Anita Olsen participated in a 45 kilometer ski marathon during her research studies in Norway. (PHOTO COURTESY OF MONA ANITA OLSEN)

It’s March, and the cold is nearly unbearable. People are layering wool garments on top of wool garments to fight the bitterness of a Norwegian winter.

Bundled individuals are strapped in their frosted skis and are waiting anxiously for the 45 kilometer ski marathon to begin. Mason graduate student Mona Anita Olsen is one of these anxious marathoners who is thrilled by the adventure the Fulbright Student Program is offering her.

“It’s been eye-opening on so many fronts,” said Olsen, who is completing entrepreneurial research in Norway as a part of earning her Ph.D. in Education at Mason, as well as being a Fulbrighter. “I had friends to teach me how to ski. Number one: it’s so hard. Number two: I have a lot of respect for skiers. The joke was that I won the purple knee awards! I fell A lot!” Olsen said. “But seriously, I learned a lot from this experience. Without having a vision I’m not as strong of a person as I think I am, so this was a great experience.”

The Fulbright U.S. Student Program awards grants to individuals in the U.S. who wish to teach or complete studies and research abroad. Fulbrighters, as Fulbright students are titled, stay in the country they specify interest in for an entire academic year.

The program fosters intercultural cooperation as American students travel to foreign countries to learn about other cultures through home-stays, class work and daily life experiences within the host communities.

“There was a four percent chance for getting into the program,” said Olsen, who waited about six months to hear back about her application status. “But this was my first choice. It’s something I’ve wanted to do since my undergraduate studies at Cornell [University]. It all just happened so fast, but it was all so fantastic.”

But Olsen credits a Mason education for making her experiences as a Fulbrighter even better than she expected.

“Mason is so practice-oriented, and I think that really prepped me well for being in Norway and being a Fulbrighter,” Olsen said. “I hope that everyone could have Fulbright experience, but it’s hard. You have no structure. If I hadn’t been entrepreneurial at Mason, I would have struggled here [in Norway].”

Mason’s Writing Center also helped Olsen with her Fulbright Student application. “We went over it word for word for weeks,” Olsen said. “When you apply you have to have a letter from the university and you need a sponsor. You need someone to say that they believe in your research and that your research is worthwhile.”

But research is only a fraction of what Olsen does in Norway. She is a part of the Start-Up Weekend Stavanger team, which is a part of an international group of educators, leaders and entrepreneurs whose goal is to instill inspiration and empowerment in individuals, teams and communities.

“It’s been extraordinary!” Olsen said. “I’ve been able to be a part of the mission to foster mutual understanding between cultures. The academic work has been fun, but to meet the people and learn the language — some of the non-academic experiences have been priceless.”

Sometimes Fulbrighters work in the countries they are stationed in for multiple reasons, such as financial reasons, social reasons or to learn more about the culture.

“Norway is a very expensive country. A gallon of gas is about $12. That is absolutely breathtaking! Especially for someone who’s used to $4 a gallon,” Olsen said. “I decided to get a job, but it’s very difficult to find a job here. Knowledge of the Norwegian language is required. I finally got a job, but I guess no pain no gain. It was very humbling, and it ended up being a fantastic and challenging experience. Having the ability to work in a different country that has different social norms is an experience I’m lucky to have.”

While in Norway, Olsen also got the chance to represent Mason at other cultural outings. She took the Mason banner with her to the Reindeer Races in the Arctic, close to Russia, and she also got to show her Mason pride in Dublin, Ireland, for the St. Patrick’s Day Parade.

Olsen will take her educational and cultural experiences with her back to America in time for her May graduation with the class of 2013.