One of the newest voices in UArctic is our Board member Aaja Chemnitz. She is an eight-year-long member of the Danish Parliament on behalf of Inuit Ataqatigiit, the Greenlandic party, where she covers 32 areas on behalf of Greenland. While it is now her third term at the Danish Parliament, she previously was Greenland’s spokesperson for MIO - National Advocacy for Children's Rights - as well as an Associate Expert of the United Nations working with Indigenous peoples’ rights.

We invited Aaja for an interview where we discussed some of the current issues and future opportunities related to education in the Arctic.

What do you feel are the most important challenges for education in the Arctic? How do you envision UArctic contributing to solving them?

“It is especially important for small communities to have well-educated young people and to have education on a high level in our home country,” begins Aaja. As someone who has received education both in Greenland and Denmark, she has noticed there are a lot of differences in the way that their nationals are educated. “It was very important for me to be educated back home, but it was also necessary to travel abroad and see how the educational systems vary.”

Studying away from home can allow us to get a better sense of our own country and at the same time compare different ways of operating. “A lot of Greenlandic students go to Denmark to study. While 53% of them return to Greenland after graduating, a big percentage continue to live in Denmark. This is something we need to address. It is crucial for Arctic countries such as Greenland to have well-educated young people returning to their communities to facilitate nation- and identity-building.”

From a Greenlandic point of view, it is a valuable part of education to see things from a different perspective by studying abroad. “However,” continues Aaja, “it is perhaps most important to see the similarities that we have within the Arctic community.” UArctic is providing that possibility together with a lot of other partners, involving both students and educators through exchanges, seminars, webinars, and events. These practices ensure that both the quality and the diversity of education are strengthened.

What is one change you would like to see in education to better meet the needs of the Arctic?

“I think the Arctic is very diverse; all eight Arctic states are very different compared to each other. Therefore, there is not one thing I can say that applies to all of them,” says Aaja. From the Greenlandic perspective, she believes that even more people should pursue and finish their education, whether they are studying abroad or studying in Greenland. It is influential not only for the individuals but also for the future of the whole society and community. “Even though we might be few in numbers, we are so valuable!”, Aaja exclaims.

The same applies to many other small Arctic communities. Understanding how we can make them more attractive for well-educated people, including those who would like to pursue a PhD path, needs to be a priority in the next few years. “Just to give an example, my stepson is studying medicine, and he is the chair of the medical students from Greenland in Denmark. Even though there might not be a lot of them, they are the future of the healthcare system in Greenland. Giving them a chance and a reason to practice and invest in their own country is the best thing we can do for them, to ensure the future of Greenlandic society is in good hands,” Aaja explains.

“Some people say that we become different when we get an education. They say we're not as Indigenous as we used to be.” That is because a lot of the education is in a different language and within the parameters set by a different culture. “We need to praise that choice and acknowledge the struggle it is to study and to become better in different issues, instead of undermining the self-identity of members of our community.”

Are there any innovations in Greenland’s schools and universities that might be good for other northern countries to look at?

“I think connecting the business life and academia is something that is at an early stage in Greenland and would be fruitful to develop further - making sure that there are more PhDs connected to different businesses, so they can provide solutions to what the businesses are asking for,” states Aaja. A concrete example is a new education path, a biology program, that is being established at Ilisimatusarfik, the University of Greenland. This new program implements traditional ways of living and focuses on food security in Greenland. It has been subsidized by a fund that supports Indigenous communities in the endeavor of promoting education in the Arctic. “It is very encouraging when we see new things being produced that function as a bridge between the Indigenous knowledge and the more widely accepted knowledge based on hard science. That is definitely something that other countries should look up to.”

Building bridges between different fields and areas in small communities, and thereby making innovation come to life, has a lot of potential for both Arctic and non-Arctic communities. “There's so much knowledge that we don't necessarily have on climate change and also on societal issues. Research can help us find solutions for those,” she adds. “Usually, when we talk about the Arctic, we talk about the problems and the consequences of past happenings. I think it would be much more useful to look into the Arctic as something where you can find solutions, maybe innovative solutions, to some of the issues that we are dealing with such as natural fires, avalanches, and even tsunamis. There are so many areas that we're not covering, and we need to strengthen collaboration towards finding those solutions.”

To conclude, what gives you hope?

“The youth give me hope. Even though we often hear and say that there are so many difficulties and challenges in the Arctic, there is also so much hope to be found in the fact that there are so many young people from the Arctic willing to find and sometimes create their own solutions. They are just loving to be with other students from around the Arctic, to compare their experiences and unite forces.”

“Every year, when we have financial negotiations at the Danish Parliament, we are always very much aware of the work that UArctic is doing for students in Greenland and, at the same time, promoting exchanges for staff between the various universities in the network. It has been very important for me to support the work that UArctic has been doing for students all over the Arctic, and this, as well, gives me a lot of hope.”

By Francesca Stoppani, Freelance Writer, Former UArctic Intern

[Originally published in the UArctic Shared Voices Magazine 2023. Read all articles here]