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Sonia Gunderson in a parka.
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SONIA GUNDERSON Graduate student and intrepid traveler meets challenges of life in the Arctic

Sonia Gunderson can tell you about traveling to Switzerland and India. She can share stories of moving to Fairfield, Iowa, to train as a teacher of Transcendental Meditation or her work with Harvard's Institute for Research on Consciousness and Human Development. She can describe growing up in Toledo, Ohio, and studying music as an undergraduate at Temple University.

But her eyes really light up when she talks about the Arctic and the people she has come to know and love over the last seven years.

Gunderson, a Master of Arts student in professional journalism at the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication, "fell into" journalism after a 2000 trip to the Arctic, and she hasn't stopped since. Her fascination with the people of Igloolik, a small Inuit hamlet in the Canadian territory of Nunavut, has spurred three more trips to the region and provided the topic of her master's project: "Igloolik: One Inuit Community's Efforts to Blend Traditional and Contemporary Life."

"In my project I'm looking at what it is about the location of the community, its geography and the other factors, that protected it from being destroyed by outside influences," Gunderson says. "What is it about the leadership of the community that contributed to that? What are the cultural preservation initiatives they put into place? I'm endlessly curious about this particular community and what it can teach other indigenous communities in the Arctic and other parts of the world."

Judy Polumbaum, professor of journalism and mass communication, was one of the first faculty members to work with Gunderson on her writing and considers her an asset to the program.

"Sonia is intrepid, excited, a good listener and interviewer," Polumbaum says. "She is interested in so many things, and when she's interviewing people you know she's interested in them. She's just an amazing person."

With help from a Stanley Fellowship for Graduate Student Research Abroad and UISG and Small Murray grants, in spring 2007 Gunderson spent a month in Igloolik and four other Nunavut communities. She interviewed elders about the territory's new cultural school and profiled the Inuit guides for polar explorer Will Steger's global warming expedition.

During the 2007-08 academic year, she will return to Igloolik on a Fulbright Fellowship to complete her master's project and work on a book about the community's cultural preservation initiatives.

What makes Gunderson's trips to the Arctic even more amazing is that she has limited mobility because of a bout with polio when she was five years old. Although disability has not held her back, Gunderson says her mobility has declined in the last 10 years.

To traverse the snow and ice in Igloolik, she uses spiked canes and grippers on the bottoms of her boots. Every once in awhile, she's offered a ride on the back of a snowmobile.

Despite the challenges, Gunderson says it's all worth it.

"To learn about this great tradition of knowledge is an amazing privilege," she says. "I just go up to listen and absorb all I can. I hope, through my writing, I'll be able to share some of this cultural gold with others."

Story by Kelli Andresen; Portrait by Tim Schoon

Aug. 27, 2007