Community, Culture, and Conversations

I’m struggling to put into words all that I learned during my recent visit to Iceland, Germany, Switzerland, France, and Italy to learn about higher education. But I will try to highlight some of the lasting lessons that I took away.

I’m a pretty quiet person to begin with, and when I travel, I am even quieter. I try to blend in and not stand out in new places. I prefer to observe what is going on around me as I try to learn about the local community and the cultures and lifestyles of those around me. And on this particular trip, I had the opportunity to not just observe, but to hear the stories of those who lived in the places I was visiting and learning about.

As a group of 15 from Virginia Tech, we learned about universities, research, teaching, international programs, PhD programs, and social responsibility (among other things). But it was through conversations with the students who attended these universities and those who worked at the universities that I really got a feel for the university and the community.

I learned about work life balance at the University of Zurich. I learned that graduate students, post-docs, and faculty are interested in transferrable skills such as academic writing and self-management skills. At Uni Basel, I learned about the ways that the university welcomes new and prospective students. I learned about the transition from school to work and the challenges that students face in this transition at the Academy of Art and Design in Basel. At the University of Strasbourg, I learned about teaching as a graduate student, and the benefits and challenges that come with that. At Politecnico di Milano, I learned about research that took/will take students all over the world. And I learned a little bit about politics too. And in Lugano, I learned about seeing the world, following unexpected dreams, and cooking.

When traveling to a new country, I try to blend in and observe what is around me so that I am not drastically altering the way people act around me and act towards me. But that has to be balanced with a willingness to be open to new experiences and ideas. During my trip to Europe to learn about higher education in other contexts, I found that I learned the most about universities and life in general by asking a few questions and then just listening to people’s stories.

Thank you Michelle, Christine, Erich, Jonas, Josephine, Natasa, Alberto, Lucy and all those who shared a part of their story!

Stopover success

We left DC at 8:30 pm and arrived in Iceland 6 hours later (6:30 am local time). We had reserved a rental car at the airport so we groggily made our way to the rental car counters. But there was no counter for Thrifty rental car. Just a bored looking teenager holding a (barely visible) sign with our name on it. Not sure what to expect, we followed this young chap to the shuttle and off we went to a building next to the airport with a Thrifty/Dollar car rental sign above the door. This looked perfect. We signed the forms, declined car insurance (more on this later), and set off in a brand new Mazda 2 (100 km on the odometer!). 

We made our way towards Reykjavik where we planned to spend the morning, going to a cafe, seeing the sights, and exploring. So we parked our car near a cafe and decided to go from there. But we had forgotten that it was Sunday morning and  everything was closed. We finally found a cafe that was open on Laugavegur (we later found out that Laugavegur is one of the oldest shopping streets in Iceland), had some coffee, an Icelandic donut (kleinur), and grilled ham and cheese croissant. 

Shortly after eating, we met a new puffin friend called Leif near Hallgrimskirkja and his friend Leifer Eriksson. 

We walked around Hallgrimskirkja, walked through a sculpture garden with very, um, interesting sculptures, looked at the Viking boat sculpture, and headed to the harbor in preparation for our puffin cruise. 

The puffin cruise was cold and wet and fantastic! The boat took us out to puffin island (Lundey) and we saw so many puffins!

While on the way back from puffin island, we saw a Viking ship  docked in the harbor and we were told that it was making its way from Norway to the USA. So naturally we had to go check it out. We ran (yes, we sprinted in excitement) to where the boat was docked only to discover that we were just in time to walk around the Draken Harald Hårfagre and chat with the Vikings. 


After chatting with the Vikings, we parted ways and began our journey on the Golden Circle. The first stop was  Þingvellir, which was the location of the first outdoor parliament in Iceland around 930 AD where Iceland was founded as a country. This is also where there is a rift between the American and European continental shelves.     

From there, we headed towards towards Geysir. It was a long drive (probably at least an hour) so naturally I fell asleep in the car.  When I woke up, I immediately saw a sign for ice cream and we had to stop. The place was a fun little farm that made ice cream on site. We each got a giant ice cream cone and ate our ice cream with the cows. We are just living the dream. 

It was getting late and we still had so much to do. So we continued on to Geysir. We got to see the geysir erupt several times. While everyone else was poised waiting for the perfect photo, we were just enjoying the area. Someone standing next to us asked us if we didn’t have a camera since we weren’t taking photos. We explained that we were just watching, so they said that they would send us their video of the geysir. Best of both worlds!

Our third stop on the golden circle was Gullfoss, which was absolutely beautiful. It is one of the most magical places. It is three levels of waterfalls the last of which seems to disappear into the earth.  These pictures pretty much sum it up. 


The day was coming to an end so we started to make our way to Garður where we were staying. We were already several hours late, but we passed by Kerið, a 6500 year old crater, and had to stop. We ran up, took some photos, and had to be on our way. 

We got to our bed and breakfast at 9pm said hello to our host, and asked if there was anywhere we could get dinner. Our host Disa recommended Duus in Keflavik. We got there and decided to try some of the local fare. We ordered shark and whale (I’m sorry, grandma). When the waitress brought us our food, she wished us luck (never a good sign).  The shark came in a little cup with two shots of unknown liquid. Apparently we were supposed to eat the shark and chase it with the shot (Gary had to ask because we didn’t know what to do). It was…an experience. We finally got back to the B&B and crashed. 

We got up bright and early the next morning at 4 am so we could catch our flight to Munich. We ate a quick breakfast of things Gary found in the refrigerator and decided should go on toast (butter, cheese, salami, and cucumbers with a side of red peppers). We filled up the car with very expensive gas and went to return the car. We were loading our bags into the shuttle when the rental car person came over to us looking very concerned. There were two scratches in the side of the car and we were told that they were going to have to put a hold on my credit card (remember earlier when I said we declined car insurance through the the rental car company?) I was almost in tears, and level headed Gary went over to the car to investigate further. With a little bit of spit and tears and elbow grease, we found out that it wasn’t actually a scratch, just a smudge. We were released from the rental car holding area and made our way to the airport!

Thank you Iceland for the spectacular adventure! See you again soon!


Countdown to GPP: T minus 21 hours

It is Friday night, and I leave tomorrow for Iceland, Germany, and then Switzerland for the Global Perspectives Program. I keep repeating this to myself because it hasn’t really sunk in yet.

This past week, I have been running on caffeine and lists. Each day there was a new list with all of the things that I needed to get done for classes, work, summer research, and preparing for the trip. Everything that I had to do was on those lists.

And now, I have checked off (almost) everything from my to-do list. And I can actually start to think about the trip. I have no idea what adventures lay ahead, but I am so excited for adventure. I am excited to stop in Iceland and go on a Puffin Cruise. I am excited to navigate unknown roads as Gary drives us around the country. I am excited to visit relatives in Garmisch, and I am excited to meet new friends in Zurich.

But I am most excited to talk to people, to hear their stories, and learn about other people and other places. As part of the Global Perspectives Program, we get to travel to several universities and meet with faculty, students, and staff. I am so excited to just learn about another corner of the world.