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Polar Law program garners interest in the University of Akureyri

Rachael Lorna Johnstone - University of Akureyri

Rachel Lorna Johnstone is the director of the Polar Law Program at the University of Akureyri. She moved to Akureyri with her husband Giorgio in 2003. Originally, they planned to stay in Iceland for a year, but nearly 19 years have passed since then. During this time, Rachel has been actively involved in various academic positions at the University of Akureyri, starting as an adjunct, then lecturer, associate professor, and finally a professor.

Unique position of the University of Akureyri

The University of Akureyri is the only university in the world that offers a program in polar law, focusing on laws and governance in both the Arctic and Antarctic regions. "We are very unique in this regard, and that's why we attract international students," says Rachael.

Polar law is not solely based on laws but also encompasses general governance in polar regions, including the inhabitants and their history. "It's not just about laws that tell us what we can and cannot do. If we don't examine international relations, economics, anthropology, culture, and history, we won't understand how laws work in reality," says Rachael.

Indigenous peoples constitute about 10% of the population in the Arctic, and a significant part of the program involves studying their rights, resource utilization, environmental law, as well as policies and international relations between both countries and the people living there.

Three study programs are offered for those interested in polar law: an LLM program for students with a legal background, an MA program for students from other disciplines, and a diploma program as an additional qualification.

Encourages Icelandic students to apply

Most students in polar law come from abroad, but Rachael says they would like to attract more Icelanders as well. She also hopes to further develop the program and offer it every year, as currently, students can only apply every other year. Unfortunately, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted the plans, resulting in fewer student applications than usual. However, Rachael states that the applicants they have received are excellent and strong students.

Didn’t intend to move to Iceland

Rachael and her husband, Giorgio Baruchello, lived in Canada while Rachel was working on her doctoral studies in human rights at the United Nations, focusing on gender equality in the labour market. A friend suggested that she apply for a position at the University of Akureyri, to which Rachael initially responded, "No, I'm finishing my doctoral studies, I don't have any time!" she says, laughing. However, after some consideration, Rachael and Giorgio decided to apply for positions at the University and come to Akureyri for a year. "I thought it would be fine to come here for a year. Then we got the jobs, moved here, and I haven't looked back. I started as an adjunct, then became a lecturer, associate professor, and finally a professor, and I'm still here!" says Rachael with enthusiasm.

Happy in Akureyri

Rachael says she cannot imagine leaving Akureyri as it is: "Recently, someone asked me where I would want to live if I could go anywhere, and after much thought, I always ended up back in Akureyri. It's such a great place to live and raise children because it's so peaceful. I grew up in a town in Scotland with about 9,000 people, so Akureyri is not much different. We're also fortunate to have a strong and excellent university here without it being too big."

Rachael Lorna Johnstone

"It's not just about laws that tell us what we can and cannot do. If we don't examine international relations, economics, anthropology, culture, and history, we won't understand how laws work in reality."