Imagine boarding a plane in Miami and stepping off into the Arctic, where pristine glaciers meet black-sand beaches and the midnight sun bathes the landscape in eternal daylight, a place where conservation isn't a topic up for debate but woven into the very fabric of society. That's exactly what a group of FIU students did this summer when they journeyed to Reykjavík, Iceland, led by Lukas Danner, research associate at theEU-Jean Monnet Center of Excellence within the Steven J. Green School of International and Public Affairs.
A focus on sustainability
Danner draws on personal insights, having spent half a year teaching and researching circumpolar affairs at the Institute of International Affairs’ Centre for Arctic Studies at the University of Iceland as a Fulbright-NSF Arctic Research Scholar. He is also currently a fellow with the Honolulu-based East-West Center, for which he researches the North Pacific Arctic. Building on his experience, he designed a study abroad program that illuminates the Nordic country’s remarkable strides in sustainable development. The program is organized around the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), allowing students to explore a range of themes through this lens.
"We’re not merely studying sustainability in theory," Danner explains. "We're experiencing it first hand in a nation that has become a global role model." Students from FIU’s College of Communication, Architecture + The Arts and the Steven J. Green School of International & Public Affairs toured the Hellisheiði geothermal power plant, hiked a glacier, visited geysers and waterfalls, and even fed newborn lambs at a sustainable sheep farm.
Sunnier than you'd think
For Skye Howard, a political science sophomore, Iceland defied her preconceptions from day one. "The classical expectation is cold and rainy when it comes to Iceland, but I remember the first day specifically," she recalls. "It was so bright and sunny." However, it wasn’t just the sun that won her over but Iceland’s commitment to sustainability. For example, "The tap water here isn’t just clear and clean," she says. "It has its own origin story. Cold water comes directly from glaciers or natural springs, and for hot water, Iceland taps into Earth’s geothermal energy. Truly, the country’s nickname, Land of Fire and Ice, flows through its water," Howard notes. "The traditional sheep-herding practices here fascinated me, not just because there are no natural predators, but because the whole community is involved. It’s like the entire place is tuned in to living in harmony with the land and animals. It’s pretty inspiring and shows how to do sustainability the right way."
Howard summed up her transformative journey as "Beautiful… Invigorating… Educational." Her advice for those pondering such an adventure? "Don’t overthink it! Just do it! Bottom line: It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!"
A trek on a glacier
Rachel Ward, who recently graduated with a degree in international relations, echoed similar sentiments and was particularly struck by her experience hiking a glacier. "I learned a lot while we were there as they spoke about how global warming has impacted the glacier. I felt like I had a newfound appreciation for the environment," she reveals. Ward and her peers also gained insights into Iceland’s marine conservation efforts during a whale-watching tour. "The country has done a great job of trying to protect their waters," she says.
According to Ward, the trip was more than an academic venture. It was a transformative life experience. "This study abroad experience made me more interested and passionate about sustainability." Her advice for students contemplating the journey mirrors Howard's: "If you’re at all curious and have the means to go, then you should definitely do it! My experience in Iceland has been memorable and changed me for the better."
The students of this FIU study abroad program in Iceland have brought back something far more valuable than souvenirs. Danner believes the lessons his students gained "are life lessons that impact our students on an educational, social and even metaphysical level."
So, as FIU continues to rank among the top universities worldwide for its impact regarding the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, the true victory lies beyond—in the real-world lived experiences that shape its students. Stories from individuals like Howard and Ward illustrate how venturing into the unfamiliar not only broadens one's horizons but also serves a transformative, once-in-a-lifetime adventure. Every corner of the Earth offers a lesson in sustainability. Ready to set sail?