A decade of successful field school partnership

Monday 29. May 2017 | By: Birna Lárusdóttir

This summer marks ten years since the University Centre of the Westfjords and SIT Study Abroad, in the USA, started working together on their Westfjords field school program. The program is tailored to the needs of American bachelor’s students who want to study for a semester overseas. Well over 200 students have stayed in the Westfjords with SIT over the past decade. They have engaged with the region’s culture and got to know its residents well; especially through homestays, which are an integral part of the programs and allow the students to get to better know the country’s culture and customs.

Study all over the world

The headquarters of World Learning/SIT are in Vermont, USA, and the school has been running ever since the 1930s. The school offers a wide range of study programs on many different topics, all over the world. In Iceland, the emphasis has been especially on environmental and resource management. The courses are structured so that bachelor’s students at US universities can take one semester, or part thereof, with SIT. The semester is then assessed and transferred into credits at the student’s home university.

All sorts of students

The student groups are all different, both in composition and student numbers, and also in the students’ varying backgrounds. Overall, some 240 students have come to Ísafjörður with SIT over the last ten years, and 24 more are expected this summer. The largest group so far had 29 students, and the smallest 17. In recent years, female students have been a slight majority and students come from all over the USA, as well as a few students from Canada and a few from other countries who were exchange students in the US. In some cases it is parents or family who pay for the tuition, but other students are fully or partly funded by grants, scholarships, or bursaries. Some of the students have travelled all over the world, while others arrive having never left America before.

SIT taking root in Iceland

Before last year, the partnership between the University Centre of the Westfjords and SIT only concerned students taking the summer study abroad program in Iceland. That changed last autumn, with the arrival of the first group coming for the autumn semester field school. Later in the winter the first group also arrived for the spring semester, meaning there are now three groups per year. It is therefore safe to say that SIT is really increasing its presence in Iceland, and not least in the Westfjords.

One of SIT’s most popular courses

The summer program focuses on renewable energy and resource economics and runs for seven weeks. It is most commonly taken by students of engineering, environmental studies, politics, or economics.  David Dvorak, mechanical engineering professor at the University of Maine, is the renewable energy technology teacher and students are also offered guest lectures, presentations and relevant field trips. This includes a presentation from the OV Westfjords Energy Company, followed by a tour of two of its generating stations—as well as a visit to a domestic hydro plant on a local farm.

The program also includes Icelandic lessons and a look at Icelandic culture. The group visits the sites at Haukadalur in Dýrafjörður, mentioned in Gísla Saga.  There is also a boat trip to Hesteyri in Jökulfirðir, where students learn about life in centuries past. Groups also spend a few days at the Holt Peace Centre on the shores of Önundarfjörður, where students can enjoy nature and walk on the beach, or hike the mountains.

Most of the program takes place in the northern Westfjords, but also in Reykjavík, where various environmental and energy institutions are visited. The summer program in Iceland has become one of the most popular offered by SIT in recent years, and generally scores very highly in student satisfaction surveys.

Getting to know both Iceland and Greenland

In the autumn semester, 2016, teaching began for the first time on a new SIT study abroad program on climate change in the Arctic. The program runs for 15 weeks and was offered both in autumn 2016 and spring 2017. Everything went well and the next group is due this autumn. Students travel widely in Iceland and also spend two weeks in Greenland, where they receive a detailed introduction to the country and its people. The students spend four weeks in total in Ísafjörður; living with Icelandic families for three of the four weeks.

The new program shares much in common with the summer program, such as lectures, presentations, and field trips, but more is expected of the students. Each participant works on a five-week-long ISP (Independent Study Project). The project may be based anywhere in Iceland and an advisor must be found for each student. Students choose their projects based on their own interests and field of study. The project requires a level of independence, as students require accommodation in their chosen locations, which have so far included Húsavík, Reykjavík and Ísafjörður. Towards the end of the program the students reconvene to present their projects and celebrate the end of the semester.

Homestays create important ties to the community

Since 2012, SIT students have had the chance to stay with families in Ísafjörður and nearby. The homestay component has become an integral part of the program and has proved a valuable experience for the students. The goal is to link students directly into the country’s culture and customs, as well as giving them the chance to improve their Icelandic.

Around 60 families have taken part in this enjoyable project sine 2012 – mostly in Ísafjörður, but families in Hnífsdalur and Bolungarvík have also opened their homes to SIT students. Some families have participated more than once, and one has taken part since the very beginning. Sometimes a family will house two students, which has always worked out well.

The local hosts take time to show their guests all that the region has to offer, and take them on sightseeing trips, go swimming and hiking, to museums and concerts, among many other things. The locals usually want to show off the best of Icelandic cuisine and allow their guests to taste traditional Icelandic food, including minke whale, dried fish, putrefied shark, and smoked lamb. Hosts are generally very happy with the homestay experience, finding it both educational and fun. Student satisfaction is also highly evident, and post-program feedback reveals they often think the homestay was the stand-out component of their stay in Iceland.

Undeniable impacts

It makes sense that student groups, like those from SIT Study Abroad, enrich life here in the Westfjords, as well as having several positive economic impacts on the community. The partnership agreement with the University Centre of the Westfjords strengthens the Centre’s position, in addition to the fact that several new jobs have arisen over the last ten years, thanks to SIT, which has locally recruited many of its Academic Directors and their assistants for the programs.

There have been several Academic Directors and assistants in the decade since the first group came to Ísafjörður. It is satisfying to note that this list includes several former Coastal and Marine Management students at the University Centre, including: Astrid Fehling, Alëx Elliott, Alex Tyas, and Jennifer Smith.

The University Centre of the Westfjords celebrates SIT Study Abroad’s growing activities in the Westfjords, as its positive impacts on the community here in the west can also be expected to carry on growing. It is an especially pleasing development and is testament to the fact that the Westfjords – both the region and its community – are internationally in demand.