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W&L Faculty Explore Possibilities for Students in Greenland

With Washington and Lee University exploring ways to reimagine international education, three members of the W&L faculty recently traveled to Greenland to investigate possible connections there for internships, student projects and spring term abroad courses.

Chris Connors, the William E. Prichard III ’80 Professor of Geology, joined Elizabeth Oliver, the Lewis Whitaker Adams Professor of Accounting, and Robert (Rob) Straughan, associate dean of the Williams School of Commerce, Economics, and Politics and professor of business administration on the exploratory trip.

Their interest stemmed from conversations with Anne Mette Christiansen, who came to W&L for one semester from Denmark as the Robert A. Mosbacher Visiting Scholar in Business Administration in 2009. Since that time, she has worked in Greenland, building a strong network in both business and government. She provided Oliver, Straughan and Connors with introductions to the Greenland Department of Business and Enterprise, the Katuaq Cultural Center, Visit Greenland and other business and government officials.

All three faculty were exploring the potential for student internships in Greenland, with Connors focusing on geology students and Oliver and Straughan focusing on business and not-for-profit interests. “We believe we may have two to four internship opportunities for W&L students maybe as early as next summer,” said Straughan.

One potential internship would place a geology student and a business student with the same entity—the Ilulissat Icefjord, one of a small number of UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world.  The geology student would help build a website by putting technical information into layman’s terms, while the business student would research the value of the World Heritage designation to the tourism market in that locale.

“We think that wherever we place students, there need to be two students in each place,” said Oliver. “And they have to be the right students who really want this kind of unusual experience because of the challenges they will face. Nuuk, the capital of Greenland, has 15,000 residents, and towns have no connecting roads.  As a result, mobility and communication are more limited than our students experience here in the United States.”

“A few students have expressed an interest in these internships, and I like to think that some of our more ambitious students would find this to be a unique opportunity,” said Straughan.

Straughan and Oliver also identified four or five W&L Student Consulting projects during their trip, and have students working on some of them already this term.

“One of the things we’ve learned from our student consulting projects in Brazil is that the students get very excited about working on international projects that are much broader,” said Oliver. “We even talked this year about making the majority of the projects international and keeping just a few local projects.”

Straughan described Greenland as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students. “It’s not often that you can get in at exactly this sort of moment in a country’s history,” he said.

Significant offshore oil exploration is occurring now in Greenland, and projects have progressed considerably to develop mining of rare earth and other minerals that are known to exist there, although the country is concerned about the potential environmental consequences. According to Straughan, decisions Greenland makes in the next five or ten years could have an impact all the way from rapid economic growth to independence from Denmark.

Greenland is both developed and undeveloped. The infrastructure, government and Greenlanders’ sophisticated sense of social responsibility can be attributed, in part, to the influence of Denmark, which heavily subsidizes the country.  It is much like other European countries, but it also has indigenous people whose lives are very different. Because of the climate and geography, almost nothing can be grown so, apart from what can be hunted or fished, most items need to be shipped in from Denmark or elsewhere.

“When we went to the smaller communities in Greenland it was like stepping back in time,” said Oliver. “We saw infrastructure such as electricity and the public bath houses where everybody can go and bathe, and stores stocked with items from Denmark. And then there were sled dogs chained among the rocks. So the contrast of developed and undeveloped was amazing. It’s a really odd and wonderful mix.”

While the clients that the student consultants are working with may be based in larger towns like Nuuk and Ilulissat (population 4,500), the impact may reach to the many small communities, such as Oqaatsut (population 50) and Qeqertarsuaq (population 900).  “We traveled by boat to Oqaatsut and Qeqertarsuaq,” said Straughan.  “There are potential opportunities for adventure and cultural tourism and traditional arts and crafts in these and other small communities, which could provide a broader range of economic opportunities for the residents.”

As a geologist, Connors was interested in the possibility of accessing data associated with Greenland’s offshore oil exploration to help his students in their honors theses. But he ruled out a spring term course in Greenland, citing the challenges the weather presents in April and May. He will consider taking students on summer research trips either to Greenland or to Iceland in the summer, which the three visited en route to Greenland.

Oliver and Straughan were supported by the Crawford Endowment Fund, established in 2007 by Andrew D. “Drew” Crawford ’96. “The other indirect fund that impacted this was the Robert A. Mosbacher Fund for International Lecturers and Visitors which brought our Danish colleague to Washington and Lee four years ago, and which has continued to pay off for us and our students” said Straughan.

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Sarah Tschiggfrie
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