Program director bids farewell after seven years

Friday 10. June 2016 | By: Ingi Björn Guðnason

A few weeks ago the University Centre of the Westfjords advertised for applications to fill the position of director of the master's program in coastal and marine management. For the last seven years Dagný Arnarsdóttir has played this role, but she has now taken a position with Iceland's Ministry for the Environment and Natural Resources. This makes for a fine opportunity to look back over the last few years and chat with our outgoing director about the program's achievements, and about her time in a part of the country which she had never visited before she was hired for the job.

It would have been fun to reach 100

The last few weeks have been very busy for Dagný, as it's the time of the year when the second-year students defend their master's theses. By the end of the summer it looks as if a grand total of ninety-five students will have completed and defended their theses at the University Centre and the program is swiftly approaching a big milestone: a hundred graduates. “It would have been fun to reach a hundred theses during my time here,” says Dagný, who has overseen all thesis defenses so far. When Dagný took over in December 2009 from Sigríður Ólafsdóttir, the first director of the program, the first group of students were turning in their theses. The first round of defenses started just a few weeks after Dagný's first day of work.

“You could easily say that I was thrown into the deep end for my first weeks and months in the job. I had actually been the administrator of the program in environmental and resource management at the University of Iceland for two years, and had worked closely with the program director and committee there. That experience was enormously helpful. I had also worked as a teacher and in human resources. But to be completely honest the most useful thing during my first weeks was that I had spent a few years working at a telecommunications company!”

Here Dagný is referring to how master's presentations and thesis defenses usually take place over Skype, but are also open for all to attend at the University Centre. Today an external technician takes charge of setting up these events, but when the first defenses took place in January 2010 they were managed in-house and as with many aspects of the work it was all brand new. Dagný explains: “Three to four people take part in a defense and it's rare for them to be in the same time zone! Not only that, they all have different kinds of Internet connections and equipment. But sometimes the problem was at the University Centre, as the power had a tendency to go out just at the wrong time – which as one can imagine is most unfortunate when you are in the middle of a thesis defense. Some of our students wound up showing an extra level of competence, namely the ability to keep their cool during an important presentation even when technical difficulties made things seem to be in free fall.”

After this baptism by fire during her first year, the program has shown itself to be very stable, increasingly so as the years go by. Many of the instructors have worked with the program from the beginning and continue to make the trip to the Westfjords even as they have received honors and promotions back home. As well, a core group of regular examiners has formed, which is very valuable to a small academic program. In the area of thesis advising, though, new collaborators emerge every year. “Then you can't forget the  program alumni, who have gotten great jobs all over the world. They are always ready to help the University Centre and very often they let us know about new opportunities,” says Dagný.

Students are more likely to go on to a doctoral program than to drop out

About 150 students have enrolled in the program since its inception in the fall of 2008. This fall the incoming group is expected to number over twenty – for the third year in a row. The program has had no trouble attracting strong students and Dagný notes especially how low the dropout rate has been. “On June 17th the number of graduated students will reach 92 and another forty students are working actively on their theses. Pure dropouts, where the student leaves the program completely during or at the end of the first year, have been very few –  about ten percent. That same percentage of enrolled students continues on to a doctoral program elsewhere after graduation. That must be a record of some sort.”

Many students, particularly those who chose a research topic related to the Westfjords, have settled in the area or in other parts of Iceland. “Those who choose to focus on the Westfjords for their master's research usually stay two years instead of one. Many have remained even longer, have found or created their own work locally, and even started a family,” says Dagný. “That shows how important it is to the local community and economy to make research on the Westfjords more attractive to students through small individual grants along the lines of those that were offered until recently through Vaxtarsamnngur Vestfjarða [a local economic development project]. It's also important to show appreciation for those students who want to direct their energies locally after graduation. We have been lucky to have partner organizations who have been able to offer students the facilities to work on their final projects, for example in Bolungarvík, at the Westfjords Natural History Institute and the University of Iceland Research Centre. But I think that the biggest development challenge right now is to look for ways to support students who can see themselves staying in the Westfjords.”

Rewarding years and many opportunities in the Westfjords

“After I graduated in 2009 I thought about going straight on to a doctoral program. When I was offered the job of program director I put that on hold and I have no regrets. The job has been a lot of work, of course, and really the amount of work has grown every year. But having good colleagues has made it fun – and in fact we joke that the University Centre is run like a small family business.” But aside from being five theses short of a hundred, was there anything that didn't go as expected? “No,” says Dagný, “I had the lucky experience in my work of meeting the goals that I set in the beginning. I won't deny though that I did have some discussions with my colleagues at the University Centre now and then about one issue, namely the Icelandic name for the program: Haf- og strandsvæðastjórnun. Though this is probably the best translation of the English term “coastal and marine management,” it perhaps doesn't describe the program as well as it could. But I myself haven't been able to come up with a better suggestion!”

It's important for the program director to be generally available in the office for students during the school year. But as Dagný says, “There have been several opportunities to travel, particularly a three-week leadership course in five different American states that I went on a year ago with the support of the United States Embassy in Iceland. That a program director at the University Centre of the Westfjords was nominated by the embassy and then chosen as a course participant by the American government shows that in our field, we have put ourselves on the map.”