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Swedish Student Life: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Alcina Munene Persson -

Anna Pavliashvili -

The general public is composed of a variety of social groups and more often than not popular culture has shown that the smaller these groups are the more odd they might seem. University students are no exception to that phenomenon. Bearing that in mind, there must be a smorgasbord of university traditions across the globe that to the average outsider might either seem incredibly fun or very confusing.

For most of us, we have been subjected to the traditions of American students and their football games, hazing and sororities. Through popular culture, we have gotten to witness the good, the bad and the ugly that university could offer. In that same vein, Swedish student life has just as much to offer, so let’s map it out for those of you who are unfamiliar with the traditions or are simply wondering about the how and the why?

Let’s rewind the timeline a bit before diving into the more university specific traditions and look back at high school. Most people experience some kind of ceremony prior to graduating high school, and that ceremony is likely to have been a formal one amongst teachers, classmates and family. Here in Sweden, we do have a similar approach, but with a little more spice to it. Every single graduating high school class amasses enough funds to pay for their very own flak, a big truck with a bed floor big enough to fit a whole class. Prior to boarding their flaks with their pristine white clothing, each class runs out of the school building to then be driven around in these trucks as they splash cheap beer at each other and at passersby, which is done by those with less decorum.

As a possible continuum of graduating high school, transitioning into university brings new and even more exciting traditions. Your first ever taste of student life would most likely be your own programme’s welcoming reception (mottagning). Right off the bat, nØllan (new students) are welcomed into the rich reddish-brown brick scenery, adorned by bright green foliage that identifies KTH on a sunny summer’s day. In the middle of this view each student gets to meet representatives from their programs that are either wearing their boilersuits (colloquially known as ovve) or tailcoats (frack). These ovvar and frack look different depending on which university and which major you’ve chosen. For example, KTH’s Chemistry chapter has yellow boilersuits while the Mechanical Engineering chapter wears a frack with the chapter logo sewn onto the back.

Following the reception, each student has now gotten the time to settle in, connect with their new classmates, and can now revel in the unexpected reward that is the “academic quarter”. Your time table might say you start at 8.00, but you in fact start 8.15. While its exact implementation date is unknown, it is theorised that the concept originated from students not possessing their own pocket watches. Henceforth, in the big and old student cities such as Uppsala and Lund, church bells would ring each hour and students had 15 minutes to make their way to their lectures.

By now, most university students would be familiar with their school environment and looking to get involved in their chapter. Each chapter has its committees, but to name the principal ones we have spexet, klubbmästeriet, and festmästeriet. Each year, every chapter arranges its own spex, an interactive play and musical created and performed by students twice, usually over a weekend, with the intent of it being comedic. As a spectator, you’re encouraged to interject whenever and ask for the crew to repeat a certain scene or even maybe reenact the entire scene in a new way. Truly, the sky’s the limit and the actors will try their hardest to fulfil audience requests and give you a good time!

While you are waiting to experience a spex performance, you might entertain yourself with the weekly chapter pubs organised by each chapter’s klubbmästeri. Every chapter has its dedicated day when they hold their pubs at their chapter’s homebase, e.g the Media chapter has their pubs on Thursdays at META. Usually, pubs have a different theme each week, and start right at the end of the school day, at 17.00 o’clock and run at least til midnight. Oftentimes students are only able to attend their own chapter’s pubs, but there are a few times each year such as nØllepubrundan and Valborgspubrundan where you can attend all of the chapter pubs across campus on the same evening.

Participating in these events requires some energy, speaking from my own experiences, but they’re a great opportunity to try out each chapter’s signature drink that goes hand in hand with the associated programme. It’s also the perfect time to collect each chapter’s patches, which you can then sew onto your frack or ovve and customise it as you please. Speaking of patches, they can be collected during pubs or most events on campus and they are a fun and memorable way to showcase your engagement in campus life. But beware, make sure you sew your patches on your garments properly or they can be taken from you, after all they are a hot commodity!

Other social events that lie somewhere in the middle of the frequency scale between a spex and a pub are gasques and finsittningar. Out of the two aforementioned events, the latter is the more formal with regards to dress code and both of these events are paid events, the former being cheaper than the latter. In general, a finsittning adopts a black tie dress code, while gasquer have a more liberal dress code based on the theme decided upon by the chapter’s festmästeri. Every gasque and finsittning has two sångledare (hosts), that guide the guests through the evening letting you know when it is time for the food to be served or when to sing. They also organise small games that engage those participating. One big characteristic of these two events is singing, everyone at each table will sing while waiting for the food or punsch (alcoholic liqueur) to be served to you, and you would stop singing once you have received your serving.

While a lot of the songs are shared between chapters, they are also characterised by the chapters themselves that also have their own songs which identify the chapter’s traditions and history. You might think these events are only about eating and drinking, but fret not! During a gasque or finsittning you can perform a gyckel, an impromptu or planned sketch, or a singing act that should last a few minutes. How many people perform is completely up to you to decide and some even choose to send in videos of their gyckel if they don’t wish to perform it live. Lastly, whenever the guests want the hosts to continue the activities of the evening they can start a tempo at their respective tables, this entails banging on your table, almost like a drum roll, and finishing it with “Tempo!”.

So far most of the traditions mentioned have been chapter-specific, but KTH has a lot to offer outside of such limitations. Each year, under the cool breeze and sunshine of a spring’s weekend day in May, around 50 teams made up of a dozen students or so, try their luck at rowing their DIY raft along a track at Smedsuddsbadet in Rålambshovsparken. Squvalp is more than just a raft race, after all, it would not be a student event if it wasn’t yet another occasion for students to drink and party.

The preparations for the event start as early as January when students are in charge of getting together an eligible team, sketching the raft they wish to submit, and awaiting the response that will let them know if they have been selected for the showcase. Squvalp also has its near cousin which takes place on land and that is none other than Quarnevalen, northern Europe’s biggest student event that takes place every three years. The main attraction is the Quarnevaltåget, an ensemble of up to 100 crews parading across downtown Stockholm in May and the event is said to pull over 400 000 spectators. The event hasn’t taken place since 2020, due to the pandemic so students can look forward to the coming Spring of 2023 and getting to witness the grandeur of an event that has been held since the 1910s.

While the aforementioned events are mainly organised by KTH’s student union, there’s another event, Kravallen, organised by students from the Industrial Engineering and Management chapter at KTH. In the year of 2016 two students from the chapter, Douglas Lundholm and Joakim Larsson, chose to bring over the idea from Linköpings University’s Utekravellen. Kravallen is a one-day festival held in Maskinparken near the M building and offers music, food trucks, and good vibes. Whilst not mandatory, you are more than welcome to bring your own ovve or frack if you wish or maybe want to honour the origin of the word “kravall”, which stands for mandatory boilersuit. Like the previous events, this one will be taking place in May 2023. So fellow students, you have a lot to look forward to next year!

If you have made it this far, then I am pleased to let you know that you’re completed your very own crash course on Swedish student life. While traditions might differ a bit across the country, their essence is preserved. Now that you have read all about them, I can only encourage you to go and experience them first hand, after all they all contribute to great memories.

Publicerad: 2023-03-25

Ansvarig utgivare: Raquel Frescia
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