This summer, Abigail Heath, a junior geology major at LSU, joined the more than 300,000 U. S. college students who left the comforts of home to embark on a study abroad experience. The Franklin, New Hampshire native spent seven weeks in Iceland as part of the Iceland Renewable Energy, Technology and Resource Economics program through the School for International Training, or SIT, which offers nearly 80 programs in more than 30 countries worldwide. Read on to learn about Heath’s summer abroad.
College of Science: How did you learn about SIT World Learning?
Abigail: I did a lot of research before I chose a study abroad. I knew that I wanted to do a summer program, but I didn’t know where or what I wanted to study. LSU offered lots of great programs this past summer, but none really struck a chord with me, so I started looking into programs outside of LSU that offered something in an area of my interest. I googled environmental preservation programs and the Iceland Renewable Resource Technologies and Economics program through SIT World Learning was one of the first that popped up. I fell in love with all that it had to offer!
College of Science: What was the focus of your academic and research work in Iceland?
Abigail: While in Iceland, I took three 3-credit courses: Renewable Resource Technology and Economics, Intro to Icelandic Language and Culture, and a research course in which I performed an independent research project, wrote a paper, and then presented it to my classmates on the trip.
College of Science: Where did you live while you were there?
Abigail: For two weeks, we stayed and studied in the small town of Ísafjorður in the Westfjords. I stayed with a host family. I was super nervous about being a stranger in the host family’s home for two whole weeks, but it was actually one of the best parts of the trip, and I am still in contact with my host parents. The remainder of the trip we spent in hostels in Reykjavik or sleeping on the floors of various community buildings in the more rural regions of Iceland.
College of Science: As part of the SIT program, participants have to work on an individual study project. What was the focus of your project?
Abigail: Iceland is a small island with little vegetation. Because of this, it is quickly desertifying (turning to desert). However, in the 1950s, the Alaskan lupine, a plant that thrives in Northern climates, was imported and planted throughout the countryside to try to slow this process. It did so well that it became an invasive species, which Icelanders are not very happy with. Through my individual research project, I proposed that Iceland use these invasive plants as biofuel to completely eliminate their dependence on fossil fuels for energy, which is actually completely within their reach!
College of Science: What did you enjoy most about the program?
Abigail: Iceland is a beautiful country, and my classes were very informative and interesting. But my favorite part of the program was spending time with actual Icelanders. I loved staying with my host family, helping my host mom to fry authentic kleinur and staying up late to talk about the 13 Icelandic santas. I loved hanging out with my new Icelandic friends, talking about their favorite music, and trying my best to order in Icelandic at restaurants. Everyone was very kind and hospitable, even if a bit blunt and gruff at times (though that is reminiscent of my New England home, so I was quite pleased all the same). After seven weeks there, Iceland became like a second home!
College of Science: What did you find challenging about the experience?
Abigail: I am a very independent person, as I am sure many who pursue study abroad programs are, so it was difficult to hand over the reins to a program guide and let them choose where I went and what I did. However, SIT was really great about giving us a lot of free time outside of class and group excursions to explore the country on our own.
Also, since it was only seven weeks long, the trip was completely packed with traveling, sightseeing, and classwork. Often, if you were tired, it had to be your own decision to sit out on a day exploring Reykjavik or a local beach or hike. This short period of time made me feel like I could never stop going out and trying new things because I wouldn’t be in the country for long and I paid to be on this great trip. The packed schedule made me cranky and frustrated, but I realized that a break once really helped with this challenge.
College of Science: What were some of the most significant things you’re learned from your experience in Iceland?
Abigail: I can hold a very simple conversation in Icelandic now. That is huge after less than seven weeks of class! In the world today, the ability to communicate is vital to success in the workplace and socially, and I am very glad to be able to speak at least a little of that beautiful language.
Studying abroad, even if it is really exciting, can also be scary. This experience rid me of any fear of traveling to another country. It taught me how to just do things, even if they seem scary, and to be able to calmly handle the rough situations that inevitably happen with international travel.
College of Science: What did you enjoy most about the Icelandic culture?
Abigail: I love so many things about the Icelandic culture, but probably what surprised me the most was the food! As a northerner myself, I expected this northern country to have mild, uneventful foods just like back home, but I was so wrong! They live off of mainly fish and lamb, but boy do they know how to cook it! My host mom owns two cafes and has written some cookbooks and she cooked the best authentic Icelandic lamb and fish I have ever tasted. There is a lot of variety and flavor and it is all delicious. They also like black licorice a lot, which was not my favorite, but otherwise I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and tastiness.
College of Science: It looks like you had an opportunity to take part in some really interesting field trips. Where did you go and which field trip was your favorite?
Abigail: We went so many places! For our class, we went to a couple geothermal power plants and hydropower plants because Iceland uses these two resources as their main energy and heating sources. However, we also took a boat ride out to an abandoned whaling village on one of the northern most points of Iceland, and bused out to the Golden Circle in the south, where we saw geysers, waterfalls, glaciers, cultural sights (there was a field of cairns that have been erected over the years as good luck for the harvest of a very old, local farm), and bathed in many of the famous Icelandic hot springs. We visited the mid ocean ridge and I touched both the North American and the Eurasian tectonic plates at the same time. We also took a couple days to travel into the Highlands, a place so difficult to access that few visit it. Traveling into the Highlands was a struggle because the roads were basically non-existent and very very bumpy. It was the most beautiful part of Iceland that we visited, with rolling hills, colorful moss fields, and basalt columns, which are these super cool hexagonal rock formations, and it was my favorite excursion of the whole trip.
College of Science: How has this experience impacted your academic performance?
Abigail: Studying abroad is not required - it is a choice. I made a choice to study something not required by LSU to graduate, but that I really enjoyed. It was in a beautiful country with a rich history and culture and the whole experience reminded me that I love studying science and methods of environmental conservation. It helped me to come back to my junior year with a more positive and motivated outlook. It also helped me to develop skills in independent researching, which are important for scientists.
College of Science: How has this experience impacted your career aspirations?
Abigail: I was interested in glaciology and environmental conservation before this, and this experience has only increased my desire to explore these areas and involve them in my future career.
College of Science: What has this experience taught you about yourself?
Abigail: I’ve always liked trying new things and traveling, but this experience really showed me that I can travel independently. It also taught me that when a bump in the road comes along, I have the composure and the strength to work through the problem and still enjoy my trip. This can be applied not only to future travels, but also to projects that I need to work on for school, work and in the years to come!
Currently, Heath is working on her thesis with Phil Bart, associate professor in LSU's Department of Geology & Geophysics, studying bioturbation [the disturbance of sedimentary deposits by living organisms] habits in Antarctica. She plans to graduate May 2018 and go on to graduate school to earn a PhD in the geosciences or oceanography.