Iceland: Excellent destination for academic travels

Wednesday 26. April 2017 | By: Birna Lárusdóttir

The University Centre of the Westfjords is more often than not a buzzing site for people from various corners of the world. Not only are the students of the coastal and marine management program of many different nationalities but so is also the faculty and staff.

This spring we have had a welcomed addition to the community of the UW Centre; Brack Hale is a professor on a sabbatical leave from Franklin University in Switzerland, doing a research project here in the Westfjords. He is a frequent visitor of Iceland through a field school program he runs at Franklin, and he has been coming to the Westfjords on a regular basis for the past four years. He has grown so fond of the country that he has taken on the difficult task of learning Icelandic – and has become quite fluent in it as well. He has settled in nicely at the Centre, working on his research while also taking active part in the local community of Ísafjörður.

Moving around from an early age

Living in a foreign country is nothing new to Brack Hale. Though his family is originally from Arkansas his dad was in the US Air Force so the family moved around a lot in Brack’s earlier years. After his parents divorced, he moved to Wisconsin with his mother where he spent a lot of his childhood. During the summers he would live with his dad wherever he was stationed, and got to explore places like Germany, England and Mississippi.

The travelling continued during his university studies: “I did my bachelor’s at Duke University in North Carolina, which included a year at the University of Würzburg in Germany. I stayed at Duke for my master’s, but did my PhD at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. My dissertation examined the ecology and management of riparian forests in Germany and the US. After a post-doc at the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke I got a job as a professor at Franklin University Switzerland where I have been ever since. Switzerland is a great place to live if you like to ski and hike although Iceland is pretty good for that too.”

Educational travel programs growing in popularity

As most people know the influx of tourists to Iceland has never been greater. Record highs are reached almost every month in the number of tourists entering the country. Another type of travelling to Iceland has also increased in popularity. These are educational travel programs and field schools where students from around the world visit the country for various lengths of time, sometimes spending a whole semester exploring the country.

Brack knows this first hand since he has been bringing such groups to Iceland for a number of years. And now he is interested in finding out the environmental impacts of the programs. That is why he is spending a spring semester in Ísafjörður. He is on a sabbatical leave from Franklin with a small research grant from the Swiss National Science Foundation to carry out a project looking at the environmental impacts of educational travel programs. The nature of the Westfjords is vulnerable and can in some cases be compromised, especially in light of growing tourism.

Been to Iceland numerous times

Brack’s interest in Iceland can be traced back to when the US military was stationed in Keflavík on the southern tip of the country. “I had heard stories about Iceland from my stepmother who was stationed at Keflavík in the 70’s and from a geologist friend of mine who did research here, and had wanted to come visit. When I started teaching at Franklin, I noticed Iceland was a common example in many of the environmental science textbooks we used. Thus, I started thinking that it could be an excellent destination for one of Franklin’s Academic Travels and I came in 2009 to explore the option. I loved it, and did my first Iceland Academic Travel the next year. I have come back with students every year since. I also decided I needed to learn Icelandic so I went to a summer course at Háskóla Íslands.”

Impressed by the efficiency of the University Center

In 2013 Brack found an intermediate-level summer language course in the Westfjords, he applied and ended up coming back three summers in a row. “During my first time here I spoke with Peter (Weiss, director of the UW Centre) about Franklin’s Academic Travel program in general and the possibility of collaborating with them on my course. That collaboration worked out great and we are returning for our fourth trip this year. Then, as I started thinking about my sabbatical, the University Centre made a lot of sense both for my research and the connections I have here. I am continually impressed by the amount of things the University Centre accomplishes with a small staff. Franklin is small too, so I know the challenges being a small institution brings. In general, I have really enjoyed working with everyone here, not just because you are all patient with my Icelandic.”

The pros and cons of researching in the Westfjords

When it comes to future work related to the Westfjords, Brack would certainly welcome it: “I can already imagine some follow-up work to what I am doing now and I know I am coming back in October with the next group of students so who knows what the future will bring. Iceland is a good place for this kind of work: The sensitive environment and the rapid rise in tourism make it an important research site for this subject, which is a pro from a research perspective but maybe not for the environment. Further, working with Icelanders is generally a plus, they tend to be laid back. One of the biggest cons is the general cost of life here. Switzerland is expensive too, so I am used to things costing a lot but it still makes managing research and academic budgets a stressful endeavor.”

Enjoying Ísafjörður and what it has to offer

When this was written, Easter weekend has just passed but every year at Easter Ísafjörður transforms into a big festival of skiing and music, with the festival Skíðavikan and the music festival Aldrei fór ég suður intertwining. Some of the biggest names on the Icelandic music scene perform in Ísafjörður this weekend. Brack did not miss out on the entertainment, taking some time off from researching and enjoying himself with good friends. In fact Brack makes the best out of his time in Ísafjörður, such as playing the game of ultimate Frisbee as well as singing with a local choir, Sunnukórinn, which is Iceland’s oldest mixed choir. He also enjoys the great outdoors in the Ísafjörður area, hiking and skiing, in the mountains of the Westfjords.

Soon Brack’s sabbatical will be over and he will be returning back to Switzerland for his teaching. But judging from how well he blends into the local community of Ísafjörður and the work and study place of the UW Centre he will be revisiting us for many years to come. At least we hope he will.