Allegheny’s only Icelandic alumna invited to speak


Rachel O'Brien

During their study-to-work tour, Allegheny faculty and staff hike a glacier located along the southern coast of Iceland.

Speaking is something of a forte for Helga Edwald, ’83. The Allegheny alumna speaks five languages—four Nordic languages plus English—and works as a medical translator for the European Union. This month, she will be traveling from her home in Reykjavik, Iceland, to speak to students and faculty at Allegheny about her unique career path.

Edwald was originally drawn to Allegheny through a program designed to bring Nordic students to the United States. She began her academic career interested in English, but graduated with a degree in environmental science. She remains Allegheny’s only Icelandic alumna to date.

The visit would give students a chance to meet with an Allegheny alumna who formed a career path out of the languages that she speaks, according to Briana Lewis, assistant professor of French and faculty adviser of the Allegheny chapter of Phi Sigma Iota, a language honor society.

“We want everybody to have a good sense of the variety of opportunities that come from knowing multiple languages,” said Lewis. “It is helpful when students can see just how many directions in which they can go.”

Edwald will be visiting the college between Sept. 26 and Sept. 30, according to Anna White, ’17, president of the Allegheny chapter of Phi Sigma Iota. Although they just recently learned of Edwald’s visit, student officers in the society are already making plans to host events for those who want to meet her.

“We would love for her to talk about her international experiences,” said Elsie Hendricks, ’18, vice president of Phi Sigma Iota. “It will be a great opportunity for Allegheny students to hear how they can get out into the world.”

Edwald’s visit will be made possible by part of an internationalization grant received by the college from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, according to Lewis.

The idea came after a twelve-day employee study-to-work program brought ten Allegheny staff and faculty members to the small Nordic country during the spring semester of 2015. The school reached out to Edwald to meet the group in Reykjavik, Iceland’s capital. Rachel O’Brien, associate professor and department chair of geology at Allegheny, stayed in contact with Edwald after the group left for the U.S.

“[Edwald] has had an interesting and diverse career path,” said O’Brien. “She feels strongly about how Allegheny helped her develop as a human being. And she is excited to come back and share a little bit of Iceland.”

According to O’Brien, Edwald will speak with a number of classes about Iceland, including women’s, gender, and sexuality studies classes about gender equity, and environmental science classes about geothermal energy.

Iceland’s natural volcanic activity makes it an excellent spot for geothermal research. The study-to-work team experienced much of this environment firsthand.

“Iceland is a mostly barren location, with lots of volcanic activity and glaciers,” said O’Brien. “While we were there, we saw spectacular coastlines, hiked across lava fields and climbed a glacier.”

Furthermore, the country has progressive social policies on gender equality and persons with disabilities, making it an interesting locale for social research, according to O’Brien.

During their time, the study-to-work group visited a small community village known as Solheimar. This self-described ecovillage houses a community of around 100 persons with various backgrounds and disabilities. The village focuses on sustainability and social experiences for all its members.

Faculty members from the environmental science, psychology and art departments were represented in the trip and thought that spending time at the village would be a rich and rewarding experience for their students, according to O’Brien.

Through conversation with Edwald, the idea to send Allegheny students to live and work in the village through an international internship was born. Any official proposal to do so would have to be sent through the Study Away and Campus Internationalization Committee, said O’Brien. No official program has been drafted.

Hendricks herself studies four languages in a self-designed European studies major. She admitted that she had not heard of Phi Sigma Iota until she received her letter of acceptance, and hopes that Edwald’s visit will draw students’ attention to the international community at Allegheny, including the society itself.

“We are still planning on figuring out our new face,” said Hendricks. “Our meetings will take the shape of the events that we hold, so that we can invite not just our membership, but the larger community. We do not hold traditional meetings in that sense.”

We want everybody to have a good sense of the variety of opportunities that come from knowing multiple languages. It is helpful when students can see just how many directions in which they can go.

— Briana Lewis

The society’s current goal is to become more involved with the campus community as a whole through events including Edwald’s visit so that students are more aware of the language society’s presence, and all of the international opportunities that Allegheny students can have, according to Hendricks.

When Hendricks first joined Phi Sigma Iota, she recognized many of the faces she saw from her various language classes. Still, she admitted that she wished she had known about the language society earlier. Hendricks said that she enjoys the Phi Sigma Iota philosophy of inclusion, tolerance and curiosity toward foreign languages and cultures.

Phi Sigma Iota events are usually open to any student on campus, said White. The society is working toward crafting cross-cultural events open to students who speak native languages at home but do not pursue them academically at school.

One such upcoming event that White and Hendricks discussed is a Mundo Lingo, a sort of mixing bowl of languages and cultures for native speakers and students of foreign languages. Hendricks herself experienced a Mundo Lingo in Cologne, Germany, and was inspired to bring the idea back to Allegheny.

“Every Wednesday night, our hostel opened its doors to everyone in town,” Hendricks said. “As soon as you walked in you were given flag stickers for all of the languages you spoke. You could eat, drink and chat in various languages. I wanted to bring that to Allegheny so that everyone who, say, grew up speaking Arabic, but doesn’t speak it at Allegheny, has the chance to speak it here.”

According to White, the event would also give students who are interested in learning a foreign language a chance to pick up a few lines from native speakers or other students.

Although a date and time have not been set, White said that the society is hoping to set the event up in Grounds For Change.

Phi Sigma Iota typically hosts career-oriented events, many of which include inviting back alumni to speak with students about their experiences. The society is also working with language houses to organize cultural events and foreign-language movie nights.

Individuals or student groups who are interested in meeting with Edwald should contact Rachel O’Brien at [email protected].