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Breaking Tradition: PittServes Students Spend “Alternative May Break” in Iceland

PITTSBURGH (June 11, 2018) … Spring break evokes images of palm trees, white sand beaches, and the gentle ocean breeze. But what about Icelandic Birch trees, black sand lava fields, and 70 mile-per-hour arctic winds? Although a mainstream beach trip might sound tempting after a long winter studying, a group of students from the University of Pittsburgh’s PittServes office had no trouble trading fun in the sun for lending a hand in Iceland.

As part of the inaugural PittServes Alternative May Break, a dozen University of Pittsburgh students traveled to Iceland for the opportunity to learn about sustainability issues while helping local organizations with service projects. The trip took place from May 13 – 23 and was co-sponsored by PittServes, the Student Office of Sustainability, and the Mascaro Center for Sustainable Innovation.  

“The students spent 10 days learning about the successes and challenges of sustainability in Southern Iceland, worked on sustainability focused services projects at Sólheimar eco-village, and collaborated with Iceland’s oldest conservation organization Landvernd,” said Erika Ninos, PittServes sustainability program coordinator and staff representative for the trip.

Sólheimar, the world’s oldest eco-village, is home to roughly 100 people, nearly half of whom live with disabilities. The community houses the nation’s largest solar panel, the only certified organic farm on the island, and a sustainability education hub called the Sesseljuhús Center for Sustainable Development, which is named after the community’s founder Sesselja. Her vision to create a self-sustaining, equitable, and enriching community continues today, almost 90 years since its founding. The Sólheimar community hosted the Pitt students for most of the trip.

“One aspect of service in a different community, whether it be three or 3,000 miles away, is getting to know the community before and during the service experience. This is essential to make an impactful and lasting difference,” said Ellie Cadden, who will start her junior year this fall studying Environmental Studies at Pitt.

At Sólheimar, the students spent their time volunteering to improve two main areas: the “Troll Garden” and the “Tree Museum.” The former is a garden used as a food source and for therapeutic exercise with a large troll statue at the entrance; the latter is an arboretum for housing and preserving Iceland’s biological diversity.

“There are only three native tree species in Iceland, and only roughly four percent of the land has sufficient forests today. To have this ‘Tree Museum’ with about 36 different types of tree species which can thrive in the Icelandic climate is precious,” explained Cadden.

The PittServes volunteers didn’t get to catch waves or soak up rays for their break. Instead they got to discuss sustainability with writer and environmental activist Andri Snœr Magnason, visit Iceland’s largest geothermal power plant Hellisheiði, and plant 1,200 trees to combat soil erosion in the foothills of Mount Hekla, one of Iceland’s most active volcanoes. After all, they still spent their spring break on a beautiful, exotic island in the Atlantic Ocean.


Author: Matt Cichowicz, Communications Writer

Contact: Paul Kovach