Minnesota–Iceland 30th Anniversary

1982-2012: 30 years of student and faculty exchange

At the renewal of the University of Minnesota’s partnership agreement with the University of Iceland, leaders of both institutions praised the 30-year-old partnership and expressed support for deepened exchange and collaboration.

And U of M President Eric Kaler got a new pair of socks.

Kaler and University of Iceland Rector Kristín Ingólfsdóttir addressed a gathering at the U of M Campus Club on October 15, 2012. Kaler praised the forward-thinking leaders of both institutions, including former University President C. Peter McGrath, who developed the formal partnership agreement 30 years ago and created an annual student exchange that has allowed more than 60 students from Iceland and Minnesota the opportunity to live and learn in each other’s culture.

Kaler singled out the Hekla Club, an 88-year-old women’s service club in the Twin Cities that celebrates Icelandic culture, and the broader Icelandic community in Minnesota for their support of the exchange through the Val Björnson Icelandic Exchange Scholarship. The scholarship is named for the late Valdimar Björnson, a well-known journalist and Minnesota State Treasurer for many years, as well as Honorary Consul of Iceland in Minneapolis.

For her part, Ingólfsdóttir highlighted recent research into health informatics and education, and the contributions of the late U of M Psychology Professor Carol Pazandak and current U of M School of Nursing Dean Connie Delaney to the partnership.

Former Björnson scholar Jónína Kárdal brought greetings from the Iceland chapter of the U of M Alumni Association, for which she serves as president. She also presented President Kaler with a pair of hand-knit socks made from Icelandic wool dyed deep blue. “In order to remind you of the many different shades of blue of Iceland and the school colors of the University of Iceland,” she said.

In his remarks, U of M Clinical Assistant Professor of Nursing Gisli Kristofersson, who received the Björnson Scholarship in 2009-10, spoke of how the scholarship has a “real and significant impact on people’s lives,” including his own. Kristofersson had completed his master’s degree in nursing at the U of M in 2008, and he and his family were on their way home to Iceland, until he won the scholarship, which provided critical funding for his first year of doctoral studies.

“The Björnson scholarship was the only way it would have worked,” said Kristofersson, whose work today centers on the use of integrative health and medicine, which include such non-traditional techniques as mindfulness and exercise, to help people with mental illnesses. The visiting delegation from the University of Iceland allowed Kristofersson to reconnect with faculty he had studied under as an undergraduate there, including Dr. Guðrún Kristjánsdóttir, Dr. Helga Jónsdóttir, and Dr. Brynja Örlygsdóttir.

Small population, big impact

Iceland is the smallest NATO country, with a population one-thousandth that of the United States and roughly the size of St. Paul. Dean Connie Delaney says, “They are tiny in one sense but in another they are so big in their impact.”

Iceland has extensive genealogical records dating back to the late 1600s, with fragmentary records extending back another 800 years. These records, which document a relatively stable and isolated populace, are of great interest to health and social science researchers alike. Add to these archives medical records dating back to the 1920s for all its citizens and modern epigenetic techniques, and Iceland is something of a living laboratory for scientists, according to Delaney. For nearly 15 years she has collaborated extensively with colleagues in Iceland for her interdisciplinary health informatics research and holds an adjunct position at the University of Iceland.

“The wonderful thing is that they have entire population health registries, and Icelanders are a relatively homogenous population. That allows researchers to control for many possible causes of health outcomes and to zero in more easily on the most likely causes,” says Mayo Professor of Public Health Bernard Harlow, whose latest collaboration with a graduate student and the Head of Public Health Sciences at the University of Iceland investigates the effects of sexual assault on survivors’ subsequent pregnancy outcomes.

According to Delaney, Iceland has made strides in delivering person-centric and effective health care to all of its citizens while still requiring individuals take responsibility for the health and well-being of themselves and their families. That example could provide useful information for the United States as it looks toward its own form of universal health coverage. For example, a recent study by U of M faculty Drs. Ann Garwick and Wendy Looman and University of Iceland faculty Drs. Erla Kolbrún Svavarsdóttir and Brynja Örlygsdóttir compared how school nurses in the U.S. and Iceland provided asthma care in school settings. Access to universal health coverage was one factor that allowed school nurses in Reykjavik to focus more on prevention and asthma education while their counterparts in St. Paul, MN, needed to focus more on asthma management and linking youth to health care resources.

At the same time, the Minnesota health care system has lessons for Iceland, according to Assistant Prof. Kristofersson. “Here in Minnesota we do a pretty good job with many aspects of mental health care, particularly the level of care and the extensive rehabilitation of persons suffering from severe and persistent mental illness,” he said. “Those are areas where Iceland’s health care system could develop.”

Old ways and new ways

Iceland’s tradition of sagas and storytelling was also preamble to the highly literate society the island nation boasts today, with the highest per capita book publishing rates in the world. Icelanders hold tight to their own language, which is closer to the Old Norse that other Scandinavian languages evolved from.

In addition to the student exchange, the University of Minnesota and the University of Iceland partner to offer a beginning course in modern Icelandic for undergraduate and graduate students. The six-week course, which was launched in part by Professor Jim Parente (now dean of the College of Liberal Arts) and Associate Professor Kaaren Grimstad (Department of German, Scandinavian, and Dutch) in the early 2000s, has students begin their studies at the University of Minnesota and then continue on at the University of Iceland.

University Lecturer Lena Norrman has led the beginning course since 2008, and she has seen Iceland’s appeal grow among U.S. students, who are interested in the country’s vibrant pop music scene, Scandinavian style, ancient storytelling, and focus on sustainable living.

“It used to be that Icelanders insisted on speaking English to foreigners, claiming their language was impossible to learn,” Norrman said. “But today people in Iceland appreciate our students’ efforts to learn the language, and our program, which is the only course of its kind regularly offered by a U.S. university.”

Iceland has made considerable investment in and development of renewable resources such as geothermal energy. Modern Iceland has also made a reputation for protecting and replenishing its limited natural resources, such as its fishing stocks. Last year, Norrman, who is part of the University’s Department of German, Scandinavian and Dutch, organized a conference called “Sustainable Scandinavia: Thinking Green in the Nordic Countries” that was sponsored in part by the Nordic Council of Ministers and brought a number of disciplines together to explore the advances of Nordic countries in sustainable practices and culture. The conference included two scholars from Iceland.

Iceland’s current Honorary Consul General for Minneapolis Örn Arnar, MD, agrees that sustainable practices and geothermal energy in particular represent opportunities for further collaboration with the U of M because of Iceland’s cutting edge work.

At the same time, he says, Icelandic students who have studied in Minnesota and returned to Iceland–both through the exchange and outside of it–have entered all facets of life, including business, academia, and politics.

“Iceland has been greatly enriched by this partnership,” according to Dr. Arnar. “It’s possible that the group of University of Minnesota alumni in Iceland have had proportionately the biggest effect on the country compared to any other university outside of Iceland.”

Looking toward to the future, Arnar said he would like to see the student exchange program put on a solid financial footing and establishment of more formal faculty exchanges.

“We’ve seen great support from the Icelander community in Minnesota for the Minnesota-Iceland partnership, and we need to continue to step up and help the U of M strengthen this relationship–particularly given the difficult economic conditions Iceland has faced over the past four years,” Arnar said.

U of M Dean of International Programs Meredith McQuaid concurred. “Between Minnesota and North Dakota, we have more than one out of eight people of Icelandic descent living in the entire United States,” she said. “That’s a great source of strength for this partnership and it’s a group we want to continue to work with. Today we have faculty in Minnesota and in Iceland who are working together in the wide-ranging areas of genetics, health informatics, nutrition, obesity, asthma, innovative teaching pedagogy, geology, and energy sciences. I believe that when this agreement between our two institutions is renewed again in five years, we will see both a deepening of scholarly exchanges and a broadening of the areas of cooperation.”

Story by Dan Gilchrist; photos by Everett Ayoubzadeh, Era Photography

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