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Disa Hobbs sampling ice

Senior Disa Hobbs gets a taste of Iceland at Jokulsarlon, in southeast Iceland, where Europe's largest glacier ends.

When the land of fire and ice meets the land of 10,000 lakes

By Gayla Marty

Published on April 30, 2005

In the Icelandic sagas of the 1200s and 1300s, gods, heroes, and heroines inhabit a land of fire and ice, mountains and seas, winter nights when the sun barely rises, and summer days when it barely sets.

Due to its dramatic geography, time and time again the island has suffered catastrophe--volcanic eruptions, plague, and famine that have wiped out or put to flight huge parts of the population. Many Icelanders came to Minnesota, perhaps attracted by its northern climate and Scandinavian heritage. To Disa Hobbs, University senior, Iceland was always the place her grandfather came from. But two years ago, Hobbs was chosen for the University's exchange program with Iceland and finally got to see the land of fire and ice for herself. She lived in Reykjavik, took classes in glaciology and nature-based tourism, traveled the rugged landscape, and met people from all over the world.

To Hobbs, the year away from Minnesota opened a world of unearthly beauty and light. "It's one of the most amazing countries in the world, with practically no pollution and full of natural wonders," she says. "It also has Reykjavik, which is very cosmopolitan, so there's always something to do."

Iceland has been 100 percent literate for a thousand years and boasts a national assembly that has met since 930. Today, with a population of 300,000, it is one of the world's most successful small states.

Heimskur is the adjective Icelanders use to describe someone who's never left the island, and it's not a compliment. That may be one reason that Icelandic students have been coming to Minnesota for 70 years. State treasurer Val Bjornson, a son of Icelandic immigrants, worked to establish an official exchange as early as 1960, when Iceland was still a relatively unknown country in the eyes of most Americans. Funds were short, but in 1981 a trans-Atlantic stop in Iceland by then-University president C. Peter Magrath kindled interest.

In 1982, the University of Iceland and the University of Minnesota signed an exchange agreement, and the U established what became the Val Bjornson Icelandic Exchange Scholarship to honor Bjornson and his work. After his death in 1987, the Icelandic community raised a significant endowment and continues to support the exchange.

Since the eighties, Iceland has become one of the hottest vacation spots in Europe. Icelandic arts--from the ancient sagas and romantic poetry to contemporary pop music--attract scholars, artists, and fun-seekers alike. Iceland is also a leader in geothermal energy, environmental design, and nature-based tourism. The number of programs in Iceland and the range of courses for University students to choose from has expanded to English-language offerings in political science, business, arctic biology, and more. And a jointly sponsored, six-week intensive course in modern Icelandic, which includes three weeks in Iceland, attracts top students from across the country. About 25 students a year now take advantage of the Iceland/Minnesota exchange program--not one of them heimskur.

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