From Ashland to the Arctic

It's very cold and dark and hardly anyone speaks English, but Geoff Mills, dean of Southern Oregon University's School of Education, had a great time teaching his specialty — research for teachers — to 17 graduate students in Greenland.

The author of the best-selling U.S. textbook on research for teachers, Mills was summoned for an all-expense paid week-and-a-half teaching stint at University of Greenland, where most of the students are indigenous Greenlanders — and speak mostly Greenlandic — but they gave Mills a high compliment, that he "has a great laugh and fit right in" with the indigenous culture.

"It was lonely there, because English is not widely spoken, but they always had someone translating for me," said Mills. "They're a very happy people. I'm Australian and like to laugh and so do they." Mills taught in a "smart" classroom with all the latest technologies, including large touch-screens, and had a view out the window of the glacier-filled oceans and the sun creeping across the horizon for three hours before setting again, as it does in winter.

Mills kept SOU up to date on his remote teaching jaunt by blogging tales and pictures of the Arctic at In several photos, a cold-looking Mills is floating in a tiny and aged wooden ice-breaker surrounded by glaciers and icebergs, an experience, he noted, that "scared the beejeezus out of me." One pic shows the sun scraping the horizon, an event that starts annually on Jan. 13, with much celebration, after nearly two months in total darkness.

It took Mills two days each way to get to Greenland's capital, Nuuk, flying to Copenhagen to catch the only flight to the isolated, almost continent-sized island off the east coast of far northern Canada — a total of four ocean crossings by the time he got home.

Mills' classes took place in Ilulissat — which means "iceberg" in Greenlandic — 120 miles north of the Arctic Circle. It's a town of 5,000, a World Heritage Site, has the northernmost hotel in the world (where Mills stayed) and absolutely no night life.

"We got together for meals in the evening," he said. "The economy is fishing. Everyone can fish and hunt. For dinner, we'd have smoked whale salad and musk ox steak." The town sits by an ice-fjord crammed with giant icebergs calving off a big glacier and, notes Mills, the locals are very aware of global warming, pointing to the warmest January ever — and a navigable Disko Bay that used to be frozen in winter.

"Absolutely, they're concerned. It's living proof of climate change," he said. "They're concerned about how it will affect their traditional culture of hunting and fishing. Instead of snow on the ground, now it's ice — and the musk ox can't dig through it to get moss and lichen they eat. They're concerned too about caribou and reindeer dying." Mills' 17 students are already teachers and some will go on to be leaders in education and cabinet ministers, he said.

"They're a unique group of teachers, the future leaders of this country," he adds. "Most are very worldly and have traveled a lot or were foreign exchange students."

What's the attraction of the frozen north? Mills says, "It's a opportunity to teach in a unique culture, with very bright teachers who have a passion for the future of education in their country." Mills says he feels a kinship with Greenlanders, as both their nation and his Australia are remote areas that had to gain self-rule from colonizers. Greenland won its independence from Denmark in 1979.

He plans to teach again in Greenland three more times in the coming year.

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at

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