UC study abroad course explores travel writing in Iceland

Honors study tour gives University of Cincinnati students plenty to write home about

Early one morning last December, 20 University of Cincinnati students stepped out of the airport in Reykjavik, Iceland. They were whisked away to nearby Grindavik. There the group plunged straight into Icelandic culture with a visit to the Blue Lagoon, the famous geothermal spa nestled in the mountains. 

It was a moment for the students in UC’s Travel Writing in Iceland course to pause and relax after their lengthy plane ride. That journey had capped 15 busy weeks of work: reading travel literature, completing writing assignments in the genre, keeping travel journals and making preparations for a final, post-trip project that would visually document their experiences.

But the moment was also the end of a much longer pause.

Claire Minton, a communication design major, remembers how excited she was about the Iceland study tour when she heard about it as a first-year student. But the COVID-19 pandemic shut down study abroad across the country in March 2020. Though that year’s Travel Writing in Iceland tour got out—one of the last UC programs to go abroad before lockdown—the travel opportunity wasn’t offered again until fall 2022.

“For three whole years, I was like, I have to do this,” Minton recalls. “This is all I want to do in college.”

For Minton and her classmates, the dream was finally coming true.

Putting the travel in travel writing

Three women, dressed in heavy winter coats, stand on a black sand beach with a rocky cliff in the background.

Three UC students pose on Reynisfjara Black Sand Beach in Iceland. Photo/provided by Jenny Wohlfarth.

UC Journalism professor Jenny Wohlfarth created Travel Writing in Iceland as a course for UC’s University Honors Program to teach the fundamentals of travel and place-based writing. She introduces her students, who come from a variety of majors and backgrounds, to literature in that field from all over the world. The Iceland study tour at the end of the course gives them the chance to practice real-world journalistic writing skills.

Wohlfarth makes sure they do a deep dive into the culture of their specific destination as well. The students create presentations about a particular aspect of Icelandic culture, such as fashion, geology, literature, family structure or gender equality. They keep travel blogs throughout the semester and have a final writing project to complete when they return home.

Bria Howard, assistant director and honors advisor in the University Honors Program, assisted with the course and co-led the Iceland trip. She gives credit to Wohlfarth both as an educator and as a confident study abroad leader for both experienced and anxious new travelers.

“I feel like she’s very intentional with her students,” Howard said, “[Wohlfarth] does such a phenomenal job of getting students to ethically travel.”

Ethical travel requires being mindful of the consequences travel has for the environment, for animal life and for people in communities that become tourist destinations. Wohlfarth hopes that her students take what they learn in the classroom and apply it to their experiences abroad.

She incorporates a philosophy of “the fine art of being there” into her teaching. She wants students to be open to any kind of experience. As travel writers, they need to be all in. They learn to fully submerge themselves in the culture of a place with the intent to tell their story afterwards.

Integrating international experiences into her curriculum is an important way for Wohlfarth to offer those all-in experiences and teach those real-world skills. It’s a lot of work, but Wohlfarth enjoys the students’ joy in exploration.

“Each time I go, it feels like a new time because I’m experiencing it with people doing it for the first time,” she concluded. “Their joy, excitement and what they connect with is what I love about it.”

“I remember when it was my first time leaving the country and how pivotal and important that was for me,” Howard said. “It’s really fun to watch them, especially the ones where this is their first time even outside of Cincinnati.” 

Seeing the lights

On one of the coldest nights of the trip, the students ran around in a large, open field near the town of Vogar on the Reykjanes Peninsula, jumping in a circle and playing games to keep warm and stay awake. They were hoping for one of those all-in, out-of-the-classroom experiences:  catching a glimpse of the Northern Lights. Suddenly, someone spotted them in the distance. Screams of joy filled the air as the group lived their perfect movie moment.

“It felt like being on another planet,” Minton said.

Although the Northern Lights are hard to catch on camera, international affairs student Temurbek Sulaymonov was able to capture the image perfectly.

A man, back turned to the camera, sits in a field and looks at the Northern Lights in the night sky.

Temurbek Sulaymonov takes in the Northern Lights during the Travel Writing in Iceland study tour. Photo/provided by Sulaymonov.

Sulaymonov, an international student from Uzbekistan, had already traveled far from home to come to UC. However, inspired by his plane flight to the U.S. as a freshman, he chose to add this trip to his journey.

“When I was flying to the United States, we flew over Iceland and it looked absolutely incredible,” he said. He added it to his travel bucket list and says he might never have traveled there without UC.

Writing in English is not Sulaymonov’s territory, since it is his second language. But in Wohlfarth’s course, he found the inspiration to hone his skills.

He found something else as well. Sulaymonov explained that he usually travels by himself or with a friend. He didn’t talk much to his classmates during their class last fall. But once they were all together in Iceland, traveling as a pack and building strong friendships, he really loved being part of the group.

“I learned that nothing gets you closer to each other than traveling somewhere together,” Sulaymonov said.  “You definitely make friends for a lifetime.”

Rough waters

People sit on a bus. Outside the window is the landscape of Iceland.

UC students travel by bus to explore different areas in Iceland. Photo/provided by Temurbek Sulaymonov.

From the hot springs to frozen waterfalls, from a glacier hike to a walk on Iceland’s black beaches, the students got plenty of chances to soak up impressions of Iceland in preparation for their final writing projects.

Then, on the final day, a snowstorm rolled in over the island.

Students gathered in the hotel lobby for their bus to the airport and began to watch snow fall outside the windows. Two of them ran outside to build snowmen.

By the time the bus got to the airport, they had grown anxious and silent. The snow was so heavy that they couldn’t even see out the windows.

After the group spent hours in the airport and made several gate changes, all flights out of Reykjavik were cancelled.

“This is going to be a disaster,” Howard remembers thinking. “It felt like the apocalypse, because every single person in the airport was heading to baggage claim.” Luckily, the hotel they just checked out of still had room.

The problem, then, was making it back there. A slow and careful bus ride got the group most of the way back to the hotel, but eventually the road became impassable, and they had to walk. Trudging through the blizzard, carrying heavy suitcases, with freezing wind and snow blowing into their faces, the student travel writers found themselves in what felt like another movie scene.

The hero of this cinematic adventure, according to the travelers, was Sulaymonov, who started running back and forth from the hotel to help his peers with their luggage.

“I think he saved all of us several times,” Howard said.

Once they got back to the hotel, it was Howard and Wohlfarth who had to step in to save the day.

 “I was terrified. I was afraid. I called my mom when I got to my room and I cried, how are we going to get these kids home?” Howard said.

The next 48 hours were filled with back-and-forth calls with the study abroad team at UC, all working diligently to get students back to Cincinnati without having them travel alone.

After another five-hour wait in line at the airport on Sunday, everyone made it onto one of the very last few flights that would leave Reykjavik for the next five days. They had to split up, but luckily each student had at least one travel buddy.

“We were sprinting through the airport, and they slammed the plane door right behind us,” Minton said.

Despite some lengthy layovers, all 22 members of the Iceland study abroad trip made it home. Wohlfarth noted that her students handled the situation with grace.

“The students were amazing,” Wohlfarth added. “They were flexible. They were patient. They were understanding.”

And now, with the resilience that comes from having basked in travel’s highs and weathered its lows, they’re ready to dive right into whatever comes next.

UC the World

Prepare yourself for a global future. Whatever your program or passion, UC offers study abroad and international work experiences that will take you where you want to go. Explore the possibilities.

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