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Our Stories

Discovering Iceland

by Sophie Rosenthal, COVID-GEA Research Assistant

From October 12–17, I was granted the exceptional opportunity to travel to Iceland and represent the COVID-GEA project at the Arctic Circle Assembly. There, GW student Riya Bhushan and I were two out of 50 youth representatives in attendance of more than 2,000 Arctic experts and policy-makers. As someone who has been involved in the COVID-GEA project since its early days, I have helped plan and develop our Arctic Gender Tracker to monitor and evaluate the COVID-19 policies enacted at national level and regional, local levels for selected Arctic communities. From the Arctic Affairs class I took with Dr. Rozanova-Smith, Zoom meetings with our partners in different Arctic countries, and extensive literature reviews, I thought I was grasping an understanding for life in the Arctic during an exceptional period in history. However, our trip to Iceland offered the education of a lifetime.

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From the moment we landed on October 12, tours of municipal buildings and street art showed a passion for civil expression and gender equality. We were able to tour the city with Mayor of Yellowknife Rebecca Alty and compare our findings with her experiences and learn the context of municipal processes that had been challenging to find. That evening, an art gallery’s debut at the Museum of Reykjavik highlighted the works of artists throughout the Arctic. I remember feeling particularly moved by Sámi artist Anders Sunna’s piece “Torne STYX” which highlighted his family’s experiences as reindeer-herders and how their livelihood had been continuously threatened. With representations of Torne, a river in his homeland of Sweden, and Styx, the mythological river separating the living from the dead, layered with photographs of forests and mining as well as his own family images, I was able to see an artist’s creative representation of topics I’d only been able to read about until then.

“Torne STYX” by Sámi artist Anders Sunna.

On October 13, we attended Dr. Rozanova-Smith’s co-hosted panel about “Arctic Urban Communities: Resilience Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic.” I was able to witness, firsthand, four Arctic mayors and two Indigenous scholars from five Arctic countries share the successes and challenges of their communities’ responses to the pandemic. Again, seeing decision-makers and stakeholders in a space where honesty and open conversation was encouraged, and Indigenous leaders shared their knowledge offered insight that no book or website could compare to.

On October 14, in a continuation of exceptional opportunities Dr. Rozanova-Smith has offered her research team, Riya and I were able to present preliminary findings of our research on Alaska communities to Arctic Indigenous youth leaders Stacey Lucason, Tone Frank Anderson, Varvara Korkina Williams, and Zakary Myers, as well as Mayor Alty and partner project leader Prof. Andrey Petrov. With limited undergraduate representation at the conference, we remain the only two undergraduate students granted a chance to present. Using the case study of Alaska, we discussed the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on women, and specifically on Indigenous women in remote communities, and opened up the forum to expert insight from our project partners. We had previously met Stacey over Zoom, but in-person we were able to share myriad of ideas, listen to feedback, and plan next steps in an organic and inspirational manner. Her insight regarding maternal care in Alaska is a valuable contribution for COVID-GEA’s research.

What I remain most grateful for, however, is the genuine bonds I formed throughout this conference. Every day, our team would grab dinner all together with partners from the project, mayors, and Indigenous leaders. People who I had previously only heard about or met online were now sitting next to me, brainstorming ideas on how to make our research as impactful as possible, how it connects to others’ work and can better address their communities’ needs, sharing personal stories from our lives, and laughing like old friends rather than new acquaintances. I will never forget the passionfruit dessert we all shared that became a running joke for the rest of the trip, the late nights spent chasing (and finding!) the Northern Lights, or the deeply personal conversations and moments of connection I found with everyone I met.

This research has become one of my proudest tasks I’ve undertaken, and this trip has only solidified my commitment to advancing gender equality on a global scale and discussing effective policies in this sphere. I cannot thank Dr. Rozanova-Smith and everyone I have met throughout this project enough for the life experiences and wisdom they have enabled.

Attending the Arctic Circle Assembly

By Riya Bhushan, COVID-GEA Research Assistant

In October, Sophie, a fellow research assistant for the COVID-GEA project, and I had the phenomenal opportunity to accompany Dr. Rozanova-Smith to the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland. And I cannot speak more highly about my experience in Iceland! I joined the COVID-GEA project after taking Dr. Rozanova-Smith’s Arctic Affairs class in the fall of 2022, and I am forever grateful for the opportunity to work on this project, especially the Arctic COVID-19 Gender Response Tracker. Through our work on the Gender Response Tracker, I thought I understood the daily plight of those who lived in the Arctic. However, attending the Arctic Circle Assembly showed me the true strength of Arctic communities.


At the beginning of our trip, we explored the city with our panelist, the Mayor of Yellowknife, Rebecca Alty, touring various municipal buildings such as the city hall and the public library. Along our walk, we saw lots of remarkable street art. In particular, this mural on the side of a building reminded me of “resilience”. Earlier in the day, Sophie, Dr. Rozanova-Smith, and I went on a 4-D tour of Iceland. During this tour, they explained that hundreds of years ago, the Icelandic people bonded together through their collective struggle against the harsh winter elements. This mural reminded me of this concept of “resilience” because, to me, it appeared that the fist symbolized strength and power against the elements.

The next day, Dr. Rozanova-Smith participated in two panels: “The Arctic’s Experience with a Global Pandemic: What Have We Learned?” and “Arctic Urban Communities: Resilience Beyond the COVID-19 Pandemic”. The “Arctic Urban Communities” panel was incredible because the panelists included four Arctic mayors of Fairbanks (Alaska), Yellowknife (Canada), Akureyri (Iceland), and Luleå (Sweden), Indigenous scholars such as Dr. Dalee Dorough and Varvara Williams, Dr. Andrey Petrov, and Dr. Rozanova-Smith. They all spoke about resilience in their communities during the COVID-19 pandemic, and hearing their stories brought me back to the mural and the idea of people banding together over a collective struggle.


On the 14th, Sophie and I presented the regional case study of Alaska of the COVID-GEA Gender Response Tracker to the Young Arctic Leaders in Research and Policy (YALReP) project members–Indigenous youth leaders from Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, expert community representatives Dr. Petrov and Dr. Rozanova-Smith, and her Worship Rebecca Alty. It was astonishing to hear their feedback on our presentation, and we learned about various policy measures were missing or neglected by local governments for the Arctic youth community and other demographics. In particular, I enjoyed Sophie and I’s conversation with Stacey Lucason about women’s health in Alaska. Afterward, we attended various panels/sessions about topics such as: gender equality in the Arctic, the relationship between NATO and the Arctic, engaging Arctic youth with nature, and Arctic infrastructure. I enjoyed hearing experts discuss topics they are passionate about and see that enthusiasm in person. For example, Dr. Timothy Heleniak gave a wonderful presentation about the Arctic infrastructure of the Faroe Islands, explaining the nuanced tunnel system they use to travel.

On Saturday, Sophie and I did a bit of sightseeing. We saw the Golden Circle, a tourist route that included the Gullfoss waterfall, the Strokkur geyser, and the Pingveiller National Park, where the first Parliament of Iceland is located. It was beautiful to see! In addition, we visited the Frioheimar Tomato Farm, a tomato farm that grows its tomatoes in a geothermal-powered greenhouse. It was fascinating to see their facility and their process of growing tomatoes by using geothermal energy. Plus, the tomato soup was delicious!


In general, I enjoyed getting to know and forming a personal connection with all the wonderful people we met throughout the conference! Their wisdom and experience inspired me to pursue my post-graduation plans of getting my Ph.D. and becoming a research professional. Overall, it was a wonderful trip! I am so thankful to Dr. Rozanova-Smith for being such a wonderful mentor and to the entire COVID-GEA team for their hard work. Truly, an opportunity of a lifetime!

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