This was a reality for 17 UI students who participated in the new Arctic Study Program, spending their summer vacation in Stockholm and Svalbard, Norway. The program offered a variety of courses, including literature, art, Arctic history and scientific research.
The beginnings of the Arctic Study Program date back to fall 2010, when representatives of several universities from Illinois and Sweden met at Illinois. As a result, the UI and the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm formed a partnership and began creating a study abroad program for students.
“It is amazing that we were able to put all this together in under two years, from the initial idea to the first run of the course,” said Mark Safstrom, a professor of Germanic languages and literature at Illinois and a faculty member in the program. “We are always looking for innovative ways to send students from Illinois on exchange to Scandinavia, and this program was ideal, as it allowed us the chance to offer natural science students a practical way to incorporate study abroad into their busy schedules.”
The 17 students in the program were drawn to it by the new opportunities that awaited them in Sweden and Norway.
“With a background in art history, chemistry and pre-medical studies, I fit well with the multifaceted approach of the program,” said Jane Rivas, a senior from Western Springs, Ill. “Plus, who can pass up the opportunity to go to the North Pole (or pretty close) with the potential to see polar bears?”
Robert Nystrom, a sophomore in atmospheric sciences from Villa Park, Ill., was impressed by the program’s location.
“I wanted to participate in this program for two reasons,” Nystrom said. “The first was to be a part of the fieldwork in the Arctic and the second to experience Scandinavia, and Sweden, in particular,” he said.
The Arctic Study Program has left a positive impact on everyone who was involved.
“The most rewarding aspect of the program was watching the students get excited about making connections among the natural sciences, history and literature,” Safstrom said. “Most of the students who took part in the program from Illinois are majoring in fields within the natural sciences, so I was nervous that it would be a challenge for the students to integrate the historical and literary components of the course with their studies. But they responded enthusiastically to the challenge.
… As a teacher, I feel rewarded most when I see students respond to the course material and find it relevant to their overall studies.”
Rivas found the trip rewarding because she was able to connect with people from across the globe.
“This marvelous experience allowed me to interact with Swedish students and other educators in order to learn more about the performers at play within the climate-change dialogue,” she said. “Our various interactions provided me with a new perspective on this topic, as well as the intricate relationship that exists between personal and interpreted perspectives.
This study abroad experience has given me a new insight to how one’s views are shaped by not only historical standpoints, but also by present-day interactions with the environment and individuals with a distinctive message.”
The students also have fond memories of the fun they experienced while abroad.
“The most fun moment of the trip was hiking through Svalbard (in Norway) and experiencing the sublime nature of the Arctic and its tremendous beauty,” Nystrom said.
Likewise for Rivas, a mountain hike will forever be a treasured memory.
“The best memory I have from the trip would have to be our first hike in Longyearbyen (in Svalbard),” she said. “After hiking up to the top of the surrounding mountains, our group decided to rest and eat lunch. Having a picnic lunch on the top of an Arctic mountain while looking down on the surrounding glaciers and town below was truly a once in a lifetime experience.”
Safstrom believes that the success of the inaugural Arctic Study Program demonstrates great promise for its future.
Accordingly, he and his colleagues are working diligently to ensure that future Arctic Study Programs are equally successful.
“We want to make this program more affordable to the students and ensure that it can be an annual event,” he said. “We are trying to engage additional professors on campus to participate in teaching the course, so that we have a variety of academic fields represented. Finally, we want to spend more time out in nature with the students. The only negative feedback we received from students was that they wanted to be closer to nature.”
Although financial challenges may arise in the future, Safstrom is confident that they will be mitigated. “We know we need to continue to work very hard to find the necessary financial support. But we know the Illinois community is up for the challenge.”
Note: The students wrote a blog about their experiences in Sweden.
Author Madeline Ley, of Mundelein, Ill., is a senior majoring in history and communication with a minor in French. She began an internship with the News Bureau in Public Affairs in May.