Scandinavia and Sundance: Two Gaels Share Their Highlights from Jan Term 2024

Whether it was ice skating on an arctic lake or seeing the cast of "Napoleon Dynamite," for Fiona Mallon ’24 and Roya Amirsheybani ’25, their Jan Term Travel courses were unlike any class they’ve ever taken.

by Office of Marketing and Communications Staff | February 29, 2024

Sailing through the lagoons surrounding Venice. Developing a satirical news broadcast. Exploring the theological underpinnings of gang life. Constructing a sustainable dream home—albeit the size of a shoebox.

These were just a few of the numerous experiences offered during January Term 2024. Each year, Saint Mary’s signature Jan Term Program gives students the chance to spend the month diving deep into one class of their choice. Students explore art forms or historical eras or sometimes even places; this year’s Travel Courses sent students to Tibetan monasteries, the streets of Mexico City, and other distant locales.

Now that Gaels have returned to campus for the spring semester, we wanted to hear about their Jan Term journeys. Here are two students whose courses took them far from home: to celebrity-studded film premieres and icy fjords near the Arctic Circle.

Positive Psychology in Scandinavia

Fiona Mallon in Scandinavia
Fiona Mallon's biggest out-of-her-comfort zone moment? "Ice skating on a frozen lake!" / Photo courtesy Fiona Mallon

Scandinavian countries like Norway and Denmark are consistently ranked the happiest countries in the world. It’s a region known for glaciers and unrelenting winters, as well as the Danish concept of hygge, meaning coziness and contentment. Something is clearly awesome in Denmark, to paraphrase Shakespeare in a very positive way. But what? 

With the guidance of Psychology professors Emily Hause and Makenzie O'Neil, SMC students like Fiona Mallon ’24 set out to find out. A Business Administration major, Mallon is no stranger to thinking about happiness in the workplace. But what made her Jan Term class especially unique, she says, “was the emphasis on how we can create our own happiness in and outside of our professional lives.”

Here are a few of Mallon’s Jan Term highlights:

Most memorable day? Going to the ABBA museum in Stockholm. It was less than 10 degrees Fahrenheit outside and actively snowing. We had to take a ferry to get there, which gave us these incredible views of the city. And the ABBA museum was so enjoyable. 

Most fascinating concept? The most interesting practice I heard about in Scandinavia  was “care days.” Care days are a set amount of paid time off days each year, supported by the government, that allow employees to spend time with family or in whatever manner they wish. Compared to current United States paid time off laws, it feels so foreign! But I’d love to see this adopted for future generations. 

Most out of her comfort zone moment? Definitely when we went ice skating on a frozen lake! I've never been ice skating, even on a rink, so this was definitely a learning experience. I fell a lot, but I was proud of myself for trying in the end. 

Stand-out memory? Seeing the Northern Lights. It's fascinating seeing them in person because the colors are nearly as vibrant to the human eye as they are on camera.

On friendships new and old: Traveling internationally with a group of people is such a unique experience. I’d known most of my classmates for all of college, but we hadn’t really gone beyond the surface level. During Jan Term, though, we all became close very fast.

The big takeaway? I often want to control everything, even the things I cannot feasibly control. But when you're traveling, there are always things we can’t control or predict. While I was in Scandinavia, I learned to let go, which has helped me now that I’m back home. I’m trying to practice shifting my perspective and finding gratitude in events, even when they don't go as planned.

Sundance Film Festival: Cinema and Spirit

Roya Amirsheybani '25 outside Egyptian Theater at Sundance
Roya Amirsheybani outside the famous Egyptian Theater at Sundance 2024 / Photo courtesy Roya Amirsheybani

For four decades now, the annual Sundance Film Festival has offered up the best and brightest in independent filmmaking. Directors like Wes Anderson, Nicole Holofcenter, and Saint Mary’s own Ryan Coogler first broke out at Sundance. Each January, thousands fill the streets and theaters of Park City, Utah, hoping to witness the next big thing in cinema.

This year, Communication major Roya Amirsheybani ’25 was one of them. She joined a Jan Term class taught by Norris Palmer, professor of Theology and Religion Studies, and Virginia McCarthy, adjunct professor of film. Amirsheybani is passionate about creating digital media; both she and Fiona Mallon are Social Media Assistants in the SMC Office of Marketing and Communications. So it was especially cool to be at Sundance, she says, rubbing shoulders with actors like “Alicia Silverstone, Dylan O’Brien, and Victoria Pedretti after a press event.”

Here are a few more of Amirsheybani’s Jan Term highlights:

What set this class apart? This class was unlike any other class I have taken. Being able to immerse myself in the world of film while also building closer connections with my classmates was such a valuable experience. 

Most memorable day? Definitely when I attended the 20th-anniversary screening of Napoleon Dynamite. We were able to attend a Q&A and also meet the cast, too. 

On thinking like a film critic Whenever I watch a movie with my friends, I’m still thinking about every facet of film analysis that I learned during this course. Sometimes, films will remind me of some that I saw at the festival. I have to stop myself before talking about them, because no one else has seen them yet!

Students at the cinema cafe listening to Jesse Eisenberg and Chiwetel Ejiofor
Eight feet from stardom: Jan Term students attending a wide-ranging conversation between actors Chiwetel Ejiofor and Jesse Eisenberg / Photo courtesy Roya Amirsheybani

Most out of her comfort zone moment? It was certainly a new experience to network with so many high-profile film industry professionals. Oh, and navigating the snow and extremely cold weather was also a challenge at first.

On the road ahead: Attending the Sundance Film Festival through this course led to immense growth in my passion and appreciation for film. I’m now considering a career in the film industry, and have access to so many new connections. 

LEARN MORE about Saint Mary's signature January Term Program. Want to have your own one-of-a-kind experience? APPLY TODAY.

READ MORE: ‘The Very Best of Us—And What We Aspire to Be’: José Feito is SMC’s Professor of the Year

Find all the latest news at the SMC NewsCenter.