Journalist Þóra Arnórsdóttir discusses her experience as a Yale World Fellow
In 2012, Þóra Arnórsdóttir, a respected journalist for Icelandic State TV, RÚV, launched a formidable campaign for the presidency of Iceland, challenging the four-term incumbent Ólafur Ragnar Grímsson. Although many recession-weary Icelanders were eager to see a change of executive power at the time, Þóra’s entrance into presidential politics drew surprisingly intense public scrutiny for an unusual reason: she was eight months pregnant with her third child when she formally entered the race.
Her bold decision to campaign while pregnant generated a slew of laudatory and skeptical headlines in Iceland and across the globe, for many media outlets questioned the young mother’s ability to effectively serve as leader of a nation while fulfilling her role as a mother. The media onslaught saddled Þóra’s promising campaign, and she ultimately lost the race by almost 20 percentage points. However, the important discussion that her candidacy prompted about about the fair treatment of mothers in the media and political arena caught the attention of Michael Cappello, the director of a prestigious and competitive international leadership program at Yale University.
Now Þóra is studying and lecturing at the Ivy League university as one of sixteen Yale World Fellows—a distinguished group of global leaders, scholars and innovators, chosen annually, who are working tirelessly to affect positive social change in their respective countries and throughout the world.
Beating tough odds
“It didn’t take long to see that this was an amazing programme, so I decided to apply,” Þóra explains in an email from New Haven, Connecticut. “Apparently the applicants were 3,995 [in number], so I thought of this as a long shot very unlikely to work out.” After the selection committee narrowed the candidates down to 50, Þóra was asked to participate in a phone interview before she was eventually selected for the honor. “I was at home, working on my laptop and saw the acceptance email had arrived… My partner, Svavar, was the first to know. Then I notified my mom and my brothers. Oh, yes, and my boss.”
Once she reached New Haven, Þóra quickly found herself immersed in a rich, intellectual environment with a closely knit group of professionals from diverse nationalities and academic backgrounds—all of whom have made significant contributions to the betterment of their home countries. “My fellow Fellows have become like my brothers and sisters,” she reports. “I love them dearly and dread the goodbye. They have given me both inspiration and insight… I could write an essay on each and every one of them.”
Like Þóra, the other fifteen World Fellows have made great strides in illuminating, addressing or resolving their nation’s unique, pressing challenges. “It’s priceless to spend your time with different types of leaders from all over the world and hear firsthand how their battle has been,” Þóra describes. “To realize what happened in Syria before everything spiraled out of control. How different Tunisia was. The ongoing horror story in the south of Mexico, where one of the fellows has worked a lot… also very positive things—for example how a fellow from Nigeria very successfully built up African TV with African content… and how a Pakistani fellow has been working on waste management, water rights, and better habitat in his city of Lahore.”
Participating in the World Fellows program has been a life-changing experience so far, Þóra reports. “The international network that I’m building up is hugely important for a journalist in a small country, where specialists are few. To have access to the faculty here and the whole group of more than 250 World Fellow [alumni] is a treasure for me.”
A “typical” day in the life of a World Fellow
“It’s difficult to describe a typical day; they differ so much,” Þóra says of her daily experiences at Yale. “We divide our time between classes, seminars, lectures, meetings, readings and presentations that we ourselves give on campus.”
As a requirement of the programme, every fellow is expected to deliver eight to ten talks in an area of their expertise, and Þóra has seized the opportunity to educate Yale’s talented student body about her experiences not only as a woman in politics, but also as a media personality and documentary film producer. She adds: “There is also a high demand from individual students to meet up with World Fellows… I recently met up with a girl from South Sudan who was interested in making an impact in her country and wanted to chat…We use the opportunity while we are here to meet with people, enlarge our network and gather useful information.”
Þóra and the rest of the World Fellows have also sat in on exclusive lectures from influential American leaders with diverse, impressive resumés. She has met former Clinton administration official Charlene Barshefsky, CEO of the Ashoka social entrepreneurship program Bill Drayton, and director of the Yale Global Health Initiative Elizabeth Bradley. She even had the privilege of meeting Thomas Ullman, chief public defender for the New Haven Judicial District, who she describes as “a very inspiring man who has dedicated his life to defending the worst off in society, fighting against the death penalty and for the rights of everyone to have a fair and just trial.”
When she is not participating in private seminars, Þóra audits several courses at the university that cover a range of relevant topics, including a class on Women in Global Affairs and a course on Leadership in Politics, which is taught by two professors who worked with Barack Obama for years before he became president. “The quality of the courses is high,” she says. “Liberal arts education in the US requires a lot of participation from the students, and it’s sometimes just wonderful to follow the discussion and debate in class.”
A former Fulbright scholar and graduate of the John Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington DC, Þóra has devoted substantial time as a Yale World Fellow to reacquainting herself with the American way of life and the unique challenges the nation currently faces. “I’m very glad to have this opportunity to live in the States again—these are interesting times here,” she reports. “I’m improving my skills and knowledge on many important issues in the world today, which I can hopefully make use of in my work.”
Although the demands of being a World Fellow are numerous, Þóra has also had the opportunity to take a few days off to travel outside of New Haven, visiting old friends and classmates. “My best friend from grad school lives in [New York] now with his family, and we have gone camping on Lake George and had some get-togethers with our old classmates,” she explains. “So many families have been founded, children everywhere, beautiful global citizens.”
Before her time in America is up, Þóra also intends to journey across the Northeast with her family when they come to visit her later in the semester. “The intensity of the programme won’t allow for any long trips… I did drive cross-country eleven years ago, from California to Washington DC, and would love to do that again with the kids one day.”
The next step
Although Þóra has repeatedly stated that she has no intention of running for the presidency of Iceland again, that does not mean she is finished making an impact on Icelandic society through her work as a journalist at RÚV. “This experience will be useful in so many respects… RÚV is a great workplace, and I’ve had the chance to do so many interesting and challenging things there,” she says. However, Þóra admits that she one day hopes to move overseas to continue her work on an international stage. “It’s always been a part of the family plan to move abroad for a while, for the kids to broaden their horizons and learn other languages,” she says about her plans for the future. “I’ve been saying that for ten years, though, so no promises about when it happens!”
Whatever Þóra decides to do after her Yale World Fellowship is completed, it is clear that she will continue to dutifully inform the public about issues that matter and provide vital leadership in journalism, gender equality, and improving political discourse—invaluable efforts that Icelanders can surely be proud of.