Nov. 28, 2007 — According to legend, the Icelandic explorer Leif Eriksson was the first European to set foot on North American soil — nearly 500 years before Columbus’ epic journey in 1492. A millennium later, modern explorers from both sides of the North Atlantic have the opportunity to venture forth in search of new discoveries with the help of a collaboration between the University of Virginia and the Central Bank of Iceland.
Established in 2001, the Leifur Eiríksson Foundation offers multiple student exchange scholarships of up to $25,000 to support the research efforts of graduate scholars from the United States who want to study in Iceland, and Icelandic scholars who want to explore topics in the U.S. Work may be in any area, including, but not limited to, the sciences, the humanities, the arts, history or architecture. American students in any field can apply — and have, says foundation secretary Susan Harris. Scholarship recipients have studied everything from medieval trade relations, monasteries and nunneries to snow buntings and Icelandic nicknames.
A volcanic island of less than 40,000 square miles, Iceland is home to a relatively homogeneous population roughly the size of Richmond, and a rich linguistic and cultural heritage dating back at least 1,000 years. Isolated until comparatively recently, the North Atlantic country is a laboratory offering rare research opportunities and a surprising abundance of academic pursuits.
The Leifur Eiríksson Foundation, which uses the Icelandic spelling of the name of Erik the Red’s seafaring son, was the brainchild of former Iceland Prime Minister Steingrimur Hermannsson, who wanted to celebrate the 1,000th anniversary of Eriksson’s accomplishment. To fund the venture, the U.S. Congress in 1999 passed legislation authorizing the minting of silver commemorative coins: a U.S. dollar and an Icelandic kronur. To date, the fund has raised nearly $4 million.
U.Va. was a natural choice for the foundation’s American home, says Hermannsson, who served on the bank’s board of governors in the 1990s. “I selected University of Virginia primarily because I was well aware of its excellent reputation. I also felt that it was of a reasonable size and, furthermore, there has been good contact between U.Va. and Iceland.”
Several U.Va. faculty members have deep scholarly interests in Iceland and its culture. An authority on medieval literature intrigued by Iceland’s long linguistic tradition, U.Va. President John T. Casteen III chose to serve on the foundation’s board and appoints its American members. Former U.Va. English professor Donald Fry is a Scandinavian literature scholar and is also a board member.
One scholarship is set aside for a U.Va. student, and it honors the University’s strongest faculty connection to the island: the late Robert Kellogg. Kellogg began and ended his career in Iceland and was instrumental in establishing the foundation’s home at U.Va. A former dean of the College of Arts & Sciences and chair of the English Department, Kellogg studied at the University of Iceland in the 1950s, spoke Icelandic and taught university courses there several months each year after retirement. Kellogg, who died in 2004, served as the first chair of the foundation’s board of trustees.
The Robert Kellogg Memorial Scholarship has not yet been awarded. In this, the third year of the awards, U.Va. hopes an application from one of its scholars ranks in the top five in the foundation’s blind review.
Students have until Dec. 3 to submit proposals that will allow them to travel to the Land of Legend, perhaps exploring ideas as diverse as alternative energy sources, population genetics, medieval language and literature or even elfin magic.
— Written by Linda J. Kobert, a freelance writer and poet living in Charlottesville.