I went on an exchange to the University Centre in Svalbard through the north2north mobility program from July 2010 to May 2011. I studied Arctic Biology in the most amazing and unique location I have ever lived: an island archipelago at 78oN in the European Arctic.
In the first week of school in the fall you learn to defend yourself against polar bear attacks and swim in the fjord in a survival suit. In the spring you focus on avoiding avalanches and crevasses in the snow-covered glaciers. Field trips include icebreakers or snowmobiles that let you see new parts of the island off the beaten track. I certainly learned a lot at UNIS, and mostly in the outdoor classrooms. It was a great school to study the natural sciences, and would be that much better if you love to hike or explore nature. Anyone who is thinking of studying science in the north in geology, biology, geophysics, etc., should try to study there. The administrators from UArctic from both schools were super helpful in getting me to Svalbard, Norway, and back again, so I am very grateful for their help.
Since I have lived in cold-weather climates in the interior of Canada for years, I was prepared for the cold in Svalbard, Norway, which is completely lacking tall vegetation and has some areas of polar desert. However, I quickly found out there were many parts of my exchange that I will likely never experience anywhere else. In the autumn, the quick change from 24 hours of continuous daylight to 24 hours of darkness within a few weeks was an amazing thing to experience. The cozy four months of winter dark that followed let us all know each other very well. Learning to ski by the light of the Aurora borealis was an unforgettable experience. And just when the winter was beginning to seem long, the sun came back in the most dramatic fashion, and a world of white appeared and the real exploration of the islands began! The North Atlantic current makes this far north location liveable, and the inhabitants take advantage of every opportunity that the snow-covered, treeless tundra has to offer.
Studying at UNIS let me meet so many different people from different parts of the world. All of the students were happy to be there and most of them were eager to explore this unique location.
I learned to ski with fjellskis (mountain skis), joined the local jazz band and learned some Norwegian, though the dialects from Norway were many and confusing (but funny to untangle)! I made lifelong friends from all over the world and one day I hope to go back to Europe to continue studying or working, and to build on the relationships I began there. It may be strange that my first vision of the east side of the Atlantic was a snow-covered rock in the north, but the rest of Europe has a lot to live up to now!
What students should know: Longyearbyen is the only large Norwegian settlement in Svalbard and the main language is Norwegian. Most people speak English there and UNIS is officially an English-language teaching environment. However, it helps to learn some Norwegian phrases while you are there. There is a student-run Norwegian course if you are interested, and do not let the many dialects throw you off from learning as much as you can! The island has some history behind it, from the whalers of previous centuries to the abandoned (and still occupied) Russian settlements. Do not let learning about these things pass you by because you will encounter these historical remnants whether you want to or not.
My advice to future students is, one: go! If you can manage to get to Svalbard, then do it! You will not regret it. Two: bring some warm clothes. It may be a liveable temperature, but it is still darned cold in the winter! Three: bring an open mind and a good attitude and you can see things that you will not see anywhere else in the world. Polar bears, whales, walruses and thousands of birds await you on Svalbard, along with kilometres of sea ice and snow-covered hills with not a single tree to break the horizon. You will likely meet many people who are also interested in exploring this unique location, so bring your sleeping bag and your skis! Good luck and “god tur” as the Norwegians say!