University Post
University of Copenhagen
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The exchange programme where a survival course is mandatory

Exchange — Students at the university on Svalbard get a week-long safety course which includes shooting with rifles: They share territory with polar bears. We met up with two UCPH students close to the North Pole who say their experiences are 'supreme' and 'absurdly beautiful'.

Andrea Haastrup-Vang is doing a bachelor’s degree in Geography and Geoinformatics at the University of Copenhagen. But since the beginning of January she has been studying at the University Centre in Svalbard (UNIS), in Longyearbyen on the Arctic archipelago of Svalbard.

»I knew ever since I started my studies that I wanted to go north to experience Arctic nature and climate. I talked to some of the older students, and a friend had been on exchange at UNIS and recommended it,« says Andrea Haastrup-Vang.

Her fellow student Isabella Rosenberg Jørgensen is on the master’s degree programme in climate change, specialising in The Physical Climate System at the University of Copenhagen (UCPH), and she heard about UNIS on her bachelor programme in geography at UCPH from other students.

»I can really recommend UNIS. It’s such a wild experience. And it is so different from what I knew back home in Denmark,« she says.

With a location only 1,300 kilometres from the North Pole there are extreme conditions all year round. There are glaciers and a large population of polar bears, which means that it is required by law to carry a hunting rifle outside city limits.

UNIS runs a compulsory week-long safety course for all students participating in field courses.

It felt strange to carry a rifle and be asked to learn how to shoot as part of the teaching

Student Andrea Haastrup-Vang

Andrea Haastrup-Vang explains that students here learn how to perform first aid in cold and harsh conditions, about ice safety, snowmobiling, navigation, protection against polar bears and glacier rescue.

»It felt strange to carry a rifle and be asked to learn how to shoot as part of the UNIS teaching. You probably won’t see that anywhere else in the world. But it was fun to be at the shooting range,« she says.

»If you don’t want to shoot, you can easily say no. Then you will, of course, not be able to carry weapons on Svalbard. But you usually never walk alone outside the city limits, so there will usually always be one or more in a group who have a permit and who want to carry weapons,« says Andrea Haastrup-Vang.

Isabella Rosenberg Jørgensen appreciates the safety course:

»People differ in terms of how they feel about doing firearms training and dealing with weapons in general. I myself found it to be fun to learn how to shoot. And I’m glad I have learned how to protect myself in an emergency.«

UNIS takes care of the equipment.
image: Ulla Abildtrup
In one large hall there are one-piece suits of all sizes, boots, safety helmets, hunting rifles, and other equipment that students need to bring along on field trips
image: Ulla Abildtrup
image: Ulla Abildtrup

»UNIS takes the handling of firearms very seriously. Most of the actual firearms training is about how to load and discharge the rifle safely, the general regulations for firearms on Svalbard, and — most importantly — how to avoid having to use the rifle in the first place,« says Andrea Haastrup-Vang.

Snowmobile field trip

Svalbard has very few roads due to the rough terrain. Much of the transportation is therefore by snowmobile, which UNIS make available when students have to go on field trips.

»I think that UNIS reckons that learning works best when you are allowed to experience, see, and study nature outside the classroom. The teachers insist on taking us on field trips around Svalbard,« says Andrea Haastrup-Vang.

»It’s a great way to learn. And it’s also just an incredible opportunity to ride a snowmobile and experience some wild places with ‘real adults’ who make sure you stay safe along the way. UNIS is academically good, I think. The teaching staff at lectures, on field trips, and in practical classes, have been dedicated and very specialised.«

We stood there in the twilight and with the moon and stars above us while doing reindeer field work. It was just so beautiful and surreal.

Isabella Rosenberg Jørgensen

Isabella Rosenberg Jørgensen speaks well of the academic standards:

»The fieldwork and the practical part of the teaching are at a particularly high level. There is a big difference between the courses, so you might consider asking former students for recommendations for specific courses before applying,« she says.

»For me, the wildest professional experiences have been seeing lots of glaciers. And drilling long permafrost cores. But my best memory is actually from the very first fieldwork in January. We stood there in the twilight and with the moon and stars above us while doing reindeer field work. It was just so beautiful and surreal,« Isabella Rosenberg Jørgensen recalls.

Good second-hand market

The two UCPH students have received Erasmus grants and were able to take their Danish SU student grants to Svalbard.

»You get an Erasmus+ scholarship if you go to UNIS. The amount covers the rent in Longyearbyen plus a little extra for experiences. I also get SU while I’m here, and it covers roughly my living expenses and experiences, and a Friday beer once in a while. Everything is expensive on Svalbard because it has to be flown or sailed here,« says Andrea Haastrup-Vang.

»If you want to come here, you also have to put a bit of money aside to buy gear and clothes for the weather. You can really splash out if you are a gear nerd or Gore-Tex fan. But you can also buy second-hand stuff. Svalbard is a place where most people only stay here for a few years at a time. So there are many people here selling everything from snowmobiles, skis, toboggans and winter clothing, to household items and daily clothing. I bought a pair of used backcountry skis, boots and poles for a really good price,« she continues.

Isabella Rosenberg Jørgensen furthermore managed to secure scholarships for her stay.

A community for nature

The university is centrally located in the town with a view over the Advent fjord and the mountains around Longyearbyen. And according to the two UCPH students, UNIS is a good place to meet new people.

»Most people are only here for one or two semesters because you can’t take your entire education at UNIS. This means that the students do not know each other in advance, so everyone starts, so to speak, in the same place. Everyone also has a common interest in being outdoors and exploring nature. So it’s easy to get to know new people in many different places,« says Andrea Haastrup-Vang.

If you have the motivation to explore Svalbard and a little money, you can really get some superb months up here.

Student Andrea Haastrup-Vang

Isabella Rosenberg Jørgensen mentions another thing that students at UNIS have in common. Most of them have neither family nor friends on Svalbard already:

»This means that most people are accessible and open to being part of the community. I think this leads to a really healthy and good dynamic of being present. The spring semester is the time when groups arise, depending on whether you ski, have your own snowmobile, or have neither.«

She highly recommends UNIS:

»It is particularly inspiring that there are so many students here with the same strong passion for the outdoors and for science, and for the effects of climate change on the Arctic.«

Andrea Haastrup-Vang reckons however that you should not choose to go to Svalbard for purely academic reasons.

»There is a lot of free time, and many people use their free time and days off on snowmobile trips, skiing, and hiking. If you are not ready to invest time and money in equipment that suits the weather, and to rent or lease a used snowmobile, it can get a bit monotonous in the long run. If you have the motivation to explore Svalbard and a little money, you really get some superb months up here.

Andrea Haastrup-Vang’s wildest experience so far has been a four-day field trip:

»We drove about 100 km by snowmobile to a research station in an old, abandoned Swedish mining town. We spent the night there, and every morning we took off on day trips to explore the geology of the area. On one of the days we took the snowmobile out on the sea ice all the way to the western part of Spitsbergen, the largest of the Svalbard islands. We saw some amazing mountain formations there, shaped by tectonic activity. Afterwards, we continued on to the front of a glacier. It was really spectacular to be so close to a large glacier front with the sunset and the beautiful mountains in the background,« says Andrea Haastrup-Vang, who is taking two bachelor courses in Arctic Geology at UNIS in Svalbard: ‘The Tectonic and Sedimentary History of Svalbard’ and ‘Integrated Geological Methods. From Outcrop to Geomodel’.