Chia, ECU Reach New Heights
By Joy Holster
Blizzards and bruises, pugnacious polar bears, whale meat and fish soup are not the hallmarks of a traditional dream vacation. But among these elements on a recent journey, ECU’s Rosina Chia was on top of the world.
Gripping an ECU Pirates flag in one gloved hand, Chia planted her snow boots this past April on the Geographic North Pole.
Chia is assistant vice chancellor for Global Academic Initiatives. Although she makes it her business to establish and nourish global academic connections for East Carolina University, this particular adventure was a personal vacation.
She departed for her journey April 11, arriving at Longyearbyen, Norway on April 13. Longyearbyen is the world’s northernmost human settlement, situated on Spitzbergen, the largest island of the Norwegian Svalbard archipelago. It is the biggest city in Spitzbergen, with a population that swells to around 1,500 during the peak tourist season of mid-April to mid-May. The settlement includes a Norwegian university field center, The University Center in Svalbard (UNIS), which provides both graduate and postgraduate courses in Arctic studies.
The city is at sea level, with flat-top mountains that once were below the ocean. No trees can grow there, Chia said, and “everything is white from the ice and snow.” On the first day of her visit, she acquired a great many bumps and bruises from slipping on the ice. Just outside the small settlement, she said, are “oodles of reindeer and in the water, seals.”
Chia had hoped to go up into the mountains to see polar bears, but a recent attack on humans by hungry bears made that excursion unsafe. “If you moved off the main street in the town,” she said, “you were required to carry a gun to protect yourself from the polar bears.”
Although the town offers luxury accommodations such as the Radisson, Chia stayed in a former miner’s dormitory, now renovated and used by Arctic research teams. Her visit in Longyearbyen was extended by three days when a blizzard struck and shut down airport operations. Because of the extra days and a stolen credit card, she quickly ran short of money.
“I ate only one meal a day, about 2 in the afternoon,” she said. “The cheapest thing on the menu was fish soup, and that came with unlimited bread and butter. So that’s what I ate – fish soup – once a day for three days.” She discovered free coffee at the local Lutheran Church.
|Chia emerges from an ice grotto, deep inside a glacier, during her visit in Longyearbyen, Norway, the world’s northernmost settlement. (Contributed photo)
Chia did enjoy an excursion to an ice grotto, deep inside a glacier. Along with a group of Norwegian tourists, she was lowered by rope down into a small hole. When she reached the end of the rope and landed on the slippery surface, she fell. She stood up, then fell again. Eventually, the Norwegian family helped her gain her footing so she could take in the fantastic sight, “incredibly beautiful ice caverns and a frozen river.” The passageway was so narrow and dark, they all wore lighted helmets and could not stand erect. At one point, group members had to lie on their backs and pull each other along.
In Longyearbyen, she also learned how to ride on a dog sled. She learned how to talk to the dogs, how to bring them out and harness them, and how to settle them back in and feed them after a trip.
Once the blizzard dissipated, Chia flew out from Longyearbyen on a Russian airplane to the Ice Base Camp, where she and her tour group spent two days. The camp was set up with a central mess hall, surrounded by outlying tents of different colors. The colors represented the nationalities of research teams from different countries. The teams slept on cots in the tents, then gathered in the mess hall for meals.
At the Ice Base Camp, Chia often hitched a ride on the French researchers’ snowmobiles for transportation around camp. Liberated from her fish soup diet, Chia tried out seal, whale and reindeer meat.
From the camp, they flew by helicopter to a location within walking distance of the North Pole, in a safe area for the helicopter to land.
“Everywhere you looked, you could see cracks in the ice,” Chia said, and she was worried the ice might not hold. After mid-May, the tour season ends because the melting and cracked ice prevent helicopter landings.
The North Pole is not a fixed location, because it lies on waters that are covered with constantly shifting sea ice. Members of her group had GPS navigators to help them locate the exact location of 90 degrees, the Geographic North Pole. When they arrived at the exact location, all the GPS navigators quit working.
“All the GPS software is based from this exact location, 90 degrees, and I guess the software got confused,” Chia said. The navigators would work just fine when they moved away from the 90 degree location.
“It’s hard to describe the feeling of standing on top of the world,” Chia said. “I kept thinking how my one foot is on all the earth’s longitudinal lines.”
And there at the world’s northernmost point, Chia unfurled the purple and gold ECU Pirate flag.
“My job at ECU is global academic outreach,” she said. “And now ECU has reached the top of the world!”
Global academic outreach is essential for students to develop an appreciation and understanding of other cultures, Chia said. Not all students can undertake international travel. Lack of money, concerns about disease and fears of terrorism often prevent students from gaining global exposure.
“Many ECU students do not travel abroad. But if they cannot go, I can,” she said. “And I can bring a piece of other cultures back to them.”
In 2003, Chia piloted a global understanding program at ECU that incorporates partnerships with colleagues and universities in other countries, using video teleconferencing to bring together ECU students and their peers in other countries. ECU now has 18 international academic partners whose students interact with our students in a course entitled anthropology international studies.
The course connects ECU students with peers in three different countries, which are selected to represent an African, a European and an Asian culture. Faculty members from schools in the participating countries begin the course with lectures, using video conferencing. Faculty members present unique information about their country’s culture, as opposed to data readily available through research.
Following the lectures, students are assigned in one-on-one partnerships with their international peers. The students alternate between two activities. Half the class joins in a teleconferenced group discussion with their peers, while the other half uses laptops to conduct private, individual chat sessions with their partners. Each venue provides a different level of interaction, with partners often sharing more detail in private chats than they would in group discussion.
During several weeks of interaction, the partners collaborate to write a joint paper, which they submit for grading to their respective faculty members.
“This type of interaction opens up and expands their minds,” Chia said.
She recalled an incident in which an ECU student was paired with a student from Gambia. The Gambian student was the third of her husband’s four wives. Upon hearing of this arrangement, the ECU student was outraged. She considered the arrangement a form of spousal abuse. By the end of the session, however, she had changed her mind. “The Gambian student was quite happy with the arrangement, and the ECU student recognized that, while it might not be something she would ever want to do, the arrangement worked for that person in that culture,” Chia said.
While they learn a great deal about the partnering country, the students also benefit from learning how to work with an individual from a different culture.
“Our goal is for our students to learn a living culture from their own peers in another country. The interaction whets the appetite and helps prepare our students for the real world,” she said.
Chia’s efforts to bring unique cultural experiences back to ECU have lead to many exotic locations and some harrowing experiences. While establishing a partnership with a university in Pakistan, Chia was required to sleep at police headquarters because hotel accommodations were too dangerous. A team of 12 armed guards escorted her everywhere she traveled.
Last year, the partnering university in Pakistan was the epicenter of a major earthquake and one of the student partners there was killed. ECU students quickly established a fund raising effort to help those affected by the earthquake.
“The world is shrinking and, like it or not, our students need to know how to get along with people from other cultures,” Chia said.
“I would not allow a son or daughter to attend school in Pakistan,” she said.
“But I can go. And I can bring a part of that unique culture back to our students here at ECU.”
Wherever she may travel, Chia makes a connection for ECU. Global academic outreach: for Chia, that’s a dream vacation.