Focus on Fulbright: Reflections on my first few months in Iceland
by Elliott Brandsma, ’13, B.A, English and Art
In April 2013, I was awarded a Fulbright scholarship to study Icelandic language and literature at the University of Iceland for the 2013-14 academic year. Securing this prestigious honor marked the beginning of my life-changing journey to one of the most beautiful, unique and awe-inspiring countries in the world.
People often question why I, a long-time Texas resident with no Scandinavian heritage, applied to study the native language of such an isolated Nordic nation. Iceland’s population totals just 320,000 and its desolate landscape, in some areas, eerily resembles the surface of the moon. My reasons for acquiring a second language are actually very simple. Learning Icelandic will not only further my career as a scholar in Scandinavian literature but also transform me into a global citizen, a professional who can better address the cross-cultural challenges of our increasingly interconnected world.
So, in August 2013, I said farewell to my friends and family in Texas and relocated to Iceland’s capital, Reykjavík. Before my studies at the University of Iceland began, I drove across the island nation to soak in the splendor of its glorious, distinct and diverse scenery.
I have discovered that Iceland is a land of many extremes. In a single day, a tourist can see volcanoes, glaciers, waterfalls, lava fields, beaches, hot springs, sand deserts, mountains, geysers, glacial lagoons, and the chilly Northern Atlantic (and that’s just scratching the surface). Iceland’s weather is also very capricious, changing drastically in a matter of minutes. I remember walking out of my dorm one morning in September, and it was raining, snowing, and sunny all at the same time! The diverse scenery and unpredictable weather in Iceland serve as constant reminders of how far away I am from my home in hot and sunny Texas.
Learning Icelandic has proven to be a formidable, yet rewarding, challenge. At the beginning of the fall semester, I was required to take a placement test to determine my level of proficiency in Icelandic. Because I lacked formal training in the language, I expected to be placed in a one-year course for beginners. However, my years of self-study paid off when I successfully tested into the more advanced three-year degree program. Now my classes are taught entirely in Icelandic. I am expected to read two Icelandic short stories a week, while completing routine listening exercises, grammar drills and conversational practice. By the end of the year, I will have read two novels in Icelandic! The intense and immersive nature of my language studies motivates me to work hard every day, and I truly enjoy every minute of it.
The most meaningful part of living in Iceland has, of course, been having the opportunity to interact with the people of Iceland. I chose to reside in the dorms at the university, so that I could get to know the locals on an interpersonal level. My dorm-mates, who hail not only from Iceland but also from countries across the globe, have quickly become great friends and an invaluable support system for me, making me feel right at home here in Reykjavík.
About a month after my arrival, I received an e-mail calling for journalists to write for Stúdentablaðið, the student newspaper at the University of Iceland. Feeling adventurous, I decided to submit an application to write for the paper’s English section. Einar Lӧvdahl, who is both the paper’s editor and a rising star in Iceland’s vibrant music scene, offered me a reporter position shortly thereafter, and I have been an active contributor to the Stúdentablaðið team ever since.
I also recently had the privilege of interviewing Gúðný Halldórsdóttir, the daughter of deceased Nobel Prize-winning Icelandic author Halldór Laxness. Gúðný and her husband graciously invited me into their cozy home in the Icelandic countryside to discuss at length Laxness’ extraordinary life and acclaimed novels. I plan on disclosing every detail about this fascinating interview in a series of essays about contemporary Icelandic literature, essays that I hope to publish when I return to America next year. Thus, I have already had several wonderful opportunities to engage the Icelandic community, and I am looking forward to meeting and collaborating with even more Icelanders in the remaining months of my stay.
Although I am now completely immersed in a new language and culture, I have not forgotten the significant contributions that the professors and students of Texas State made to my education. Professors like John Hood, Keith Needham and Andy Campbell saw value in my research before anyone else, writing fantastic letters of recommendation that made this Fulbright journey possible. The Honors College consistently provided me with a forum to publish my thoughts about Icelandic literature, inspiring me to pursue my passion wholeheartedly. And the students and officers of the English honors society, Sigma Tau Delta, supplied me with abundant encouragement throughout my college experience, giving me the confidence and the courage to achieve my goals.
I encourage every Bobcat to consider studying abroad, before or after graduation. I used to think that traveling overseas was financially impossible, but winning a Fulbright scholarship has shown me that anyone who is willing to work hard has a shot at realizing his or her dreams of seeing the world. My story also proves that an education from Texas State University can open many doors and truly take you wherever you want to go — even Iceland.