After overcoming chronic pain that hospitalized her for over two years, 22-year-old Jóhanna Birna Bjartmarsdóttir was inspired to increase health education and accessibility in schools across her home country of Iceland. While living in Hafnarfjörður, Iceland, she enrolled at UF Online in the Spring 2022 and is on track to graduate with her B.A. in Education Sciences in 2025 with the hopes to transform Iceland’s educational landscape as a curriculum developer and instructional designer.
Jóhanna believes that finding the right environment and resources is vital to the academic success of herself and others. “My friends at UF didn’t know I was on the dean’s list while having dyslexia, ADHD, and autism,” she said. “I was just a normal college student to them and when I told my story, I got an outpouring of love. People have told me it’s helped them, so it’s been rewarding to come and talk. I never thought I could go to university because of these things, because there’s no visible representation of people with these compounding factors. Having only one of them is not the same as having three of them. It’s not something that’s wrong with us, it’s the environment that’s not designed for us. I would love for the people who need to hear my story that this message reaches them.”
At UF Online, I found an environment I am able to excel in,” Jóhanna said. “I want to show people they’re not the problem, the system is the problem and there are possibilities for them.
JOINING THE GATOR NATION FROM ICELAND
In 2019, Jóhanna decided she wanted to become a curriculum developer and pursue a degree through UF Online after overcoming health complications and adversity. “I’ve always loved kids and helping people,” she said. “After I got sick, it was very hard to find something to do because I was going to be an athlete but that wasn’t an option anymore. I didn’t really think of education at first. I just wanted to build some sort of program to help kids.” Then, over Thanksgiving at her grandmother’s, Jóhanna met UF’s Associate Provost for Undergraduate Affairs, Dr. Angela Lindner. Dr. Lindner listened to Jóhanna’s story and suggested UF Online’s education sciences program. “UF was one of the only places I knew that had the online education sciences program that could prepare you to become a curriculum developer. I took courses at Santa Fe and Arizona State University so that I could have a GPA and apply as a lower-division transfer student at UF.”
Jóhanna decided to pursue higher education from an American university despite others telling her it would be nearly impossible. “I was sick and I missed so much in school,” she said. “We have a different education system in Iceland. It’s mandatory to take four languages and to learn everything in Icelandic, which is much harder than English. I also knew I couldn’t go anywhere in Europe because they don’t really have a lot of flexibility.” To Jóhanna, UF Online was the gateway to achieving her academic goals and she was determined to get accepted. “I would have just applied until I got in. They also don’t offer this major in Iceland so you can graduate as a curriculum developer or instructional designer. They don’t even have names for those jobs in Iceland. Because I’ve been able to do so well here, it grabbed a lot of people’s attention.”
Being a fully-online student also hasn’t stopped Jóhanna from visiting UF’s main campus in Gainesville, FL, to experience everything offered to UF Online students. “I still want to have some semblance of the real college experience, like you see in the movies,” she said. “I went to a football game and a couple of gymnastics meets. I loved it. I went tailgating and walked around campus. I read a book outside. I did all the things. Now I feel like I’ve gotten everything out of it and I’m glad I did it.”
“It’s nice visiting the campus in person,” Jóhanna said. “This is nothing like you’ll see in Iceland. The student population here is twice as much as my hometown. I’ve met good people here.”
PROMOTING ONLINE LEARNING TO ICELAND’S MINISTRY OF EDUCATION
Jóhanna’s success at the University of Florida has created incredible opportunities to work directly with the Ministry of Education in Iceland. “My two goals are to create a health literacy curriculum for children K-12 and make education more accessible in Iceland,” she said. “That’s my mission in life. Making that and systematically implementing a prevention program to help kids. I’m going to be meeting with the Minister of Higher Education, Science and Innovation, Áslaug Arna Sigurbjörnsdóttir, when I go back to Iceland and last month, I met with the Minister of Education and Children. What I’m currently working on is doing a scoping review because what I’m trying to make doesn’t exist yet. I’ll assess what’s already there and then try to navigate and propose a curriculum that could fill in those gaps from where Iceland is right now and how it can be taken to a level it needs to be at. They announced they’re going to be investing a lot of money in the higher education system, so that aligns with the goals I’ll be proposing.”
“I’m talking with a Minister of Higher Education about how Iceland can make higher education more accessible and incorporate the online aspects that UF has and all the things I’ve been using,” Jóhanna said. “After I spoke at the conference in Iceland, there were people who reached out who related to me and there was such a need for it.”
Jóhanna thinks online education holds the key to the education system’s future. “In Iceland, we have a lot of athletes that travel a lot,” she said. “If they were able to go to class and have access to all the resources and lectures online, their academic performance would not be hindered by traveling for games. You could still be in the school and have the same quality education but you would have the option of going in person or not. It would also provide more resources for people who are also vision or hearing impaired or have difficulty reading like me. The online program is also much more concise, clear, and less time-consuming, which allows both the students and the faculty to devote more time to research. The quality and access improve.”
IMPROVING EDUCATION ON A GLOBAL SCALE
While pursuing her UF degree via UF Online, Jóhanna founded a company and podcast to support her work in education. She is the founder and owner of HARTS (Health, Access, Research, Technology, and Schools), an Icelandic company using research and technology to promote health and access in schools. She also hosts a podcast called “My Atypical Life” to talk about her life experiences while connecting with and educating others. “I’m passionate about creating this health literacy curriculum that would be focused on nutrition, physical and mental health promotion, CPR training, and sex ed. I want to give these children everything they need to make informed decisions and lead healthy lives and overcome adversity. Additionally, my high honors project at UF will be creating the first world-class online course at a university in Iceland to improve accessibility to higher education in collaboration with my company, UF, and the universities in Iceland. I hope this will be the first step in the direction of offering accessible education to all in Iceland.”
To receive a more global perspective on health and education systems, Jóhanna is partaking in several study abroad opportunities that are available to UF Online students. “I’m going to do a study abroad program this summer,” she explained. “I’m going to London and Paris with the College of Health and Human Performance. I’m also doing a medical internship the day after that in Guatemala this summer. Because we’re doing international health and topics in health in London and Paris, then I’ll have an understanding of their health systems, the Icelandic health system, the health system here in the U.S., and also have some personal experience with healthcare in Guatemala. That will make me more culturally competent to construct a universal curriculum, which is my ultimate goal.”
Given UF Online’s abundant student-first resources, Jóhanna was able to find the support she needed from the Gator Nation. “After I was sick for so long and couldn’t do anything, now anything I can do, I do it. I just apply to everything and try to get everything out of life that I possibly can,” she said. “I think the most important thing I’ve done in the UF Online program is take advantage of opportunities and just ask. I’ve contacted and emailed people. Online students, don’t be afraid to go and ask. Seize the opportunities and open the doors yourself instead of waiting for the door to open.”
The University of Florida celebrates Jóhanna’s determination and devotion to improving education around the world. Her conference presentations on education in Iceland can be viewed and found here. UF Online wishes her the best as she pursues her dreams!
EARN YOUR UF DEGREE IN EDUCATION SCIENCES
As the only degree of its kind in the state of Florida, the Education Sciences degree via UF Online teaches students a diverse set of skills within the education field. This degree is not for students seeking teaching certifications. Taught by faculty at UF’s College of Education, the Education Sciences major prepares students for careers in fields like instructional design, curriculum development, technical writing, and more. This program offers five areas of specialization: education technology, disabilities in society, educational psychology and research, schools, society, and policy, and lastly, general studies. To learn more about the UF Online Education Sciences program, visit the degree page or attend an upcoming virtual information session.