Greenlandic students in Denmark: A long way from home

IMG_4580“We need everyone to ensure our country’s development towards becoming an independent nation, and therefore we must educate as many people as possible as well as possible – even our children and young people with special needs.”

– Greenlandic education strategy, April 2014

Each year, hundreds of Greenlandic students leave their hometowns, travelling thousands of kilometers from this sparsely populated Arctic nation to universities and colleges across Denmark.

These students are a small but crucial piece of Greenland’s education system painted in the government’s 2014 education strategy, a bi-annual document that will be officially released in April. It depicts an education system that is rapidly expanding but where students nonetheless continue to fall through the cracks.

Qaqortoq, the fourth biggest town in Greenland.

Officially, Greenland is an autonomous country within the Kingdom of Denmark – they have control over some areas of government, and aim to eventually take control over others. Five years ago the Act of Greenlandic Self-Government was passed by Greenland’s home rule government. The strategy emphasizes the importance of education in achieving full independence from Denmark. “Most of us were told when we were in high school we had to go out and experience the world, study and come back home to work for our country,” says Paarnaq Rosing Jakobsen from Nuuk, who now studies in the psychology bachelor’s program at Aarhus University. There was another crucial factor in her decision about studying abroad – the field is not taught in Greenland.

“Most of us were told when we were in high school we had to go out and experience the world, study and come back home to work for our country”

With limits on what programs and degrees are available in Greenland, Denmark’s higher education system remains a crucial link in the country’s education system. In 2012, 1,960 students from Greenland were studying in Denmark above the primary school level, including 18 students who were doing their PhDs. That same year, just over a third of students who were completing a bachelor’s degree were doing so outside of Greenland (although not necessarily in Denmark), and by the master’s level the number had increased to just over 80%. Since 2005, when the first education strategy was released, enrollment in education in Greenland has increased across all levels.  The number of students enrolling in some form of higher education has increased by 50%, and the completion rate has risen by 35%, according to the Greenlandic government.

But the proportion of students who don’t enroll in education, or do not finish their degree, remains extremely high. For teenagers aged 15 to 18, sixty-one percent are not enrolled in any form of education. And for those who do enroll in a bachelor’s degree, more than half do not graduate. “It’s a really sad picture, and something has to be done,” says Merete Watt Boolsen, a professor at the University of Copenhagen who has produced several research reports on education for the University of Greenland.

The challenge lies in the difficulties of transition for many students, she says – not only a move from Greenland to Denmark, but also from their hometowns to Nuuk, and into independent student life. For many students, “going to Denmark is just as different, or just as dangerous, as going to the capital of Greenland, Nuuk,” she says. While academic life can be difficult, she says she has also seen many students struggle with the daily challenges of finding an apartment, organizing their finances, and managing the loneliness and isolation of living far from home, experiences that previous generations have not had. “They have families where they don’t know what it means to tell your child to do their homework, because they’ve never done it themselves,” she says. “The gap is huge.”

“They have a very strict schedule and that is something we are not used to in Greenland; we plan more from day to day” says Paarnaq Rosing Jakobsen in her interview. - To see her full interview with Jakobsen discussing the adjustment to life in Denmark click here.

“They have a very strict schedule and that is something we are not used to in Greenland; we plan more from day to day” says Paarnaq Rosing Jakobsen. To see her full interview click here.

For Jakobsen, adapting to a different way of thinking about society formed the biggest adjustment, a difference that made it difficult to relate to many Danes. “Since I moved here I felt a distinction between collective and individualistic cultural values. I found out I had a mindset that was a very collectivistic way of thinking. I was always dependent on other people and thought of others instead of thinking of myself first,” she says.  She struggled to adapt to the scheduling and business of the university life.

Others say that the negative stereotypes about Greenland and the lack of knowledge about the country

can be discouraging and isolating. “People assume we don’t know so much, “you are a Greenlander, you don’t know this…you don’t understand this” is said to me,” says Aviaja Sørensen, a 24-year-old from Nuuk who is studying at Aarhus’ Købmandsskole. “Some actually don’t know we have internet there. And we are judged for our food because they say it stinks, and for always being drunk.”


Aviaja Sørensen _Fotor

“I think to move away and live in Denmark is the coolest thing you can do today. To break the pattern, we don’t want to be imprisoned in Greenland” says Aviaja Sørensen, see full interview here.

Moving far from home can also be a great opportunity – a chance to experience the freedom and excitement of re-defining who you are, especially without the gossip living in a small town brings. “Here you can be yourself, you can dress in colorful clothes or wear shorts without people commenting on it,” Sørensen says. But for many students, the experience of moving away to study is an experience that they can’t share with their families. When two thirds of the population doesn’t have a formal education, parents can’t help children with their homework, Boolsen says, and they can’t relate to the changes that student life requires. The move can isolate students from their community. “It also means that if you go into education, it can mean – it may mean – that you are losing your family,” she says. “The culture is changing from a hunting society to an educated society, and it takes longer than they anticipated.”




“If you go into education, it can mean – it may mean – that you are losing your family…the culture is changing from a hunting society to an educated society, and it takes longer than they anticipated.”

For Avalak, an association for Greenlandic students in Denmark, the answer to this experiential gap comes in the form of other students. The association runs an “Inspire by Example” group inspired by the way children traditionally learned to hunt – by watching – says Avalak’s president, Hans Peder Maassanguaq Cortzen Kirkegaard in his interview. The program uses current Greenlandic students as inpsiration for others who want to study. “Many of the bigger challenges are social issues, but they are being addressed, so the unaddressed issue is to make the families and kids understand that education is a way to change their life for the better, and that is not exclusive to the “elite” or the special few that can,” he says. On a structural level, the Greenlandic students need more counseling and support to help them with the transitions and guide them, he says.

Arina Kleist

“Only one in three of the population are skilled professionals…we have a long way to independence” says Arina Kleist who is educated in Informatics and communication studies. See full interview with Arina here.

Boolsen also says helping students, one on one, through the process is the key way to motivate them to pursue their education. “And that takes time, and that is expensive. But I think it has to be done, because this is where the motivation comes from.” The most recent strategy report, she says, is not sufficient in addressing the challenges of transition. “I think that strategy plan is minimizing the expectations that were introduced in the 2005 strategy plan.” In the mean time, discussions about oil and mineral extraction continue – but Boolsen says developing education, including universities, is just as important for creating an independent state.

“Education, training people’s brains, is almost becoming the same kind of material as the oil left to Greenland, or the fish in the sea, or the iron in the mountains. It’s something you can sell, it’s something that’s important to cultivate.”

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