Office of Public Affairs

USM students excel in Iceland challenge

For five University of Southern Maine students and recent graduates, it seemed like an icy mission impossible:

Fly 2,300 miles to the edge of the Arctic Circle and while still fighting the four hours stolen by an eastbound red-eye flight, team up with students from a variety of prestigious Nordic universities, and find a way to save the world.

It became the Iceland challenge.

“None of them went running away, partly because they’re on an island,” USM President Glenn Cummings later quipped.

Instead, the five from USM — Kate Holcomb, Mark Jacobs, Brooke Pochee-Smith, MacGregor Sargent and Dominique Soules — joined with 13 other graduate students and focused on the challenge: using the United Nations’ 2019 Sustainable Development Goals Report as a template, come up with solutions for the Arctic.

They began at 9 a.m.

Administrators divided the students into four teams and released them into the wide halls of Reykjavik University, whose round, hub-and-spokes campus resembles a corporate headquarters in Silicon Valley. They gathered around lunch tables and study nooks. Quickly, they went to work.

The interaction was a joy, said Brooke Pochee-Smith, a master’s degree candidate in Public Health at the Muskie School of Public Service.

“I appreciate any kind of collective conversation,” she said. And very quickly, her group went to work.

Each team was diverse, including people from USM, Reykjavik University, the University of Akureyri, the University of Iceland and Norway’s University of Tromsø. For three hours, they outlined what they wanted to do.

“The task before us was ambitious, but the collaborative process was familiar,” said Kate Holcomb, who just completed her MBA with a concentration in Sustainable Business.

“In the MBA program we frequently had to split into groups with students we didn't know outside of class to complete an assignment. In this case, we had the opportunity to interact with international students who have very different experiences than our own, and the conversation flowed naturally from our discussion of both our overlapping and divergent ideas surrounding sustainable development and the Arctic.”

At noon, the groups then presented their ideas one by one to a room full of faculty and staff from the five universities.

One group directly addressed sustainability in one of the Arctic’s northernmost inhabited locations, the island of Svalbard. Another, debated the ability to create public transportation in Tromsø, Norway. Their idea was to begin the changes at the university, known as the Arctic University of Norway.

“Changing the way the world thinks about things is a very daunting task,” said MacGregor Sargent, who earned an MBA in 2019. “In this small part of Arctic Europe — in the educational sector — making concrete recommendations would be our avenue towards making more holistic change.”

Professors offered suggestions and the teams retreated to finish their work. That evening, they were bussed to the Reykjavik waterfront, where they presented their work to an audience at the Ocean Cluster House. Audience members included faculty, staff and Norway’s ambassador to Iceland, Aud Lise Norheim.

“Despite not knowing each other beforehand, we were able to fall into these roles and put together something that we were pleased to present,” Holcomb said.

Teammate Mark Jacobs, who graduated from USM in May with an MBA, called it “an interesting demonstration.”

“The essence of the assignment was to figure out how to save the world and give all the relevant information in less than five minutes, which we were able to accomplish,” he said.

The following day marked the start of the Arctic Circle Assembly, held in a massive glass and steel conference center on the ocean’s edge.

With the start of the three-day conference — attended by more than 2000 people from more than 50 countries  — world leaders paraded across the stage. They included Iceland Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir, Finland Prime Minister Antti Rinne, Greenland Premier Kim Kielsen and Crown Princess Victoria of Sweden. Other speakers included US Energy Secretary Rick Perry and Maine Governor Janet Mills.

Smaller panel discussions included Judy Tupper, the director of the Population Health and Health Policy Program in USM’s Muskie School, Charles Norchi, a professor of law at the University of Maine School of Law, Tracy Michaud, an assistant professor in Tourism & Hospitality at USM and President Cummings.

During his first of two panel appearances, Cummings praised the work of the USM students and recent alumni on the trip.

“They took on this task for six straight hours, and they did it with an amazing amount of diligence and intelligence and thought,” he told the audience.

Their work stands as a kind of model for the type of independent global thinkers that USM aspires to confer with degrees: graduates who are able to problem solve, collaborate, communicate well and think for themselves, he said.

“Employers tell me, ‘I need you to send employees that can see around corners, that can find basic trends, global trends, and know what’s happening next,’” Cummings said. “Their presentations gave me great hope.”

Helping students become global thinkers has been part of USM’s growing work in the Arctic.

In October 2018, the university unveiled plans for the Maine North Atlantic Institute, which will bring together ongoing projects in those regions to forge greater business, educational and social connections to address global workforce needs.

USM previously established — and continues to nurture — educational partnerships between Reykjavik University in Iceland and the University of Tromsø in Norway, and businesses such as Whole Oceans.”

The USM students attended many of the panel discussions throughout the event. They listened to the presentations, from analyses of rising temperatures and new economic opportunities to concerns over pollution and the continuation of indigenous communities.

Pochee-Smith listened to the speeches and the plans for changes. She believes the big challenge comes in making the practical changes that follow inspiring words.

To Holcomb, the first step came with the change in perspective.

“Living in Maine, my out-of-state friends are sometimes amazed by my love of a place that's cold and dark for so much of the year,” Holcomb said. Meeting international students who experience months with no sun where they live, I suddenly felt like the Southerner,” she said.

“This experience deepened my appreciation of living in the North, and really underscored the importance of valuing, protecting, and promoting this unique and beautiful region,” Holcomb said.

Story and photos by Daniel Hartill / USM Office of Public Affairs