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Currents: semester at sea

Transformation at Sea: A Semester Exploring the World

by Amber Cronin '11

“Being able to experience different countries, cultures and people opens your eyes to a world that you are oblivious to here in America.”

So says Whitney Clark '09 of Brunswick, Maine, who spent spring semester of her junior year on an incredible voyage around the world through Semester at Sea, a program offered by the University of Virginia that allows students to experience 10 countries while earning college credit on a floating campus.

Since 1963, Semester at Sea has perfected its mission to provide “profoundly transformative study-abroad experiences that emphasize global exchange and awareness” and “make a positive world impact by developing leaders who have the knowledge and perspective necessary to promote greater understanding of all peoples and all cultures.”

How It All Began

With 45,000 alumni (among them TV host Joan Lunden, authors Arthur C. Clarke (2001: A Space Odyssey) and Robert Fulghm (All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten), actress Cynthia Nixon ("Sex and the City") and Olympic athlete Kerri Strug), Semester at Sea's journey from idea to revered experience has been a long and storied one. The concept of a floating university was born around a hundred years ago in the mind of James Edwin Lough, a psychology professor at New York University. He felt that travel and first-hand experience of different countries was crucial to the development of students and led the charge for a change to the education system. He found a supporter in Greek student Constantine Raises, who eventually assisted him in academic and travel preparations.

After setbacks, postponements and a split from NYU, Lough set sail on the SS Ryndam on Sept. 18, 1926, from Hoboken, N.J., with 504 students from 143 colleges on board and 63 faculty and administrative staff.

“This shall not be a mere sightseeing tour, but a college year of educational travel and systematic study to develop an interest in foreign affairs, to train students to think in world terms, and to strengthen international understanding and good will,” Lough told his new academic community. The ship covered 41,000 miles on its seven and a half month voyage, visiting more than 90 cities in 35 countries.

Though it was a successful first voyage, the concept of shipboard education did not take hold until the 1960s. After leadership and academic affiliation changes, the program gained momentum in the 1970s and '80s. The year 1977-8 was a transformative one, as the University of Colorado-Boulder became the program's sponsor, the non-profit Institute for Shipboard Education was formed, and the program took the name Semester at Sea. In the 1980s, the program moved to the University of Pittsburgh, where it remained for 25 years before finding a new home with the University of Virginia (UVA). UVA's belief in and support of Thomas Jefferson's “Academic Village” makes it the perfect fit for the program, now considered the premier comparative study program in the world.

How do you apply?

The first step for Colby-Sawyer students interested in Semester at Sea, or any study abroad program, is to meet with Nancy Teach, director of Academic Affairs.

“Students interested in study abroad should talk with me as soon as possible to plan when and where to go, discuss their expectations, and decide what program is the best fit,” said Teach. “They should do as much research as possible, ask lots of questions, talk with others who have studied abroad, learn to be flexible, and keep a sense of humor.”

The Semester at Sea web site provides loads of information, and can help decide which voyage – fall, spring, or a shorter summer option – is the right choice.

Completed applications are reviewed and a decision made within four weeks. The biggest obstacle for most students considering studying abroad is the cost. Not only is tuition expensive, students must also have spending money for travel and other expenses. They must also be sure to submit all of their financial aid information and scholarship applications on time.

Program fees for Semester at Sea depend on time of year, cabin size and how much spending money a student desires; the cost for the fall 2009 voyage, in a quad cabin, is $20,895 and goes up to $30,395 for a junior suite with an ocean view.

“The primary reason most students don't study abroad is cost,” says Teach. “Students can usually use federal and state funds, such as loans and grants for study abroad, but the college does not allow its money to 'travel'.”

Students are, however, able to apply their federal Stafford loans to the Semester at Sea program. Additionally, the program offers options for financial aid from Semester at Sea as well as outside sources.

Another major hurdle for students interested in studying abroad is meeting all the requirements within their major if they leave for another institution. Some majors can make it virtually impossible to travel abroad, though many majors do offer opportunities for field studies for those who wish to escape the windy hill for a semester. In this situation, the shorter option of a summer program may be the best choice.

Life on the Water: A Student Perspective

“You can't fully prepare yourself for something like Semester at Sea, because you never know what's going to happen,” said Clark.

The program's 592-foot ship, MV Explorer, was built in 2002 in Germany and is described by Maritime Telecommunications Network as “one of the safest ships afloat.”

The ship can carry 836 people and has state of the art classrooms, wireless internet, an 8,000-volume library, and study areas. There are two dining rooms, a swimming pool, and fitness center, as well as a student union and a wellness center.

There are also plenty of ways to fill days at sea besides classes, with more than 50 organizations on board that include performing and visual arts, service and multicultural organizations, publications and even student government.

There are several types of cabins, all furnished with beds, closets, dressers, desks, a television and a private bathroom. Each day a steward cleans the cabins and does laundry for the students.

“They keep the ship in really good shape. It's always clean: they clean 24 hours a day,” said Clark. “It's not a lot of space, but you're not spending a lot of time in your room, you're out around the ship spending time with friends or in the pool or something.”

Aboard the ship, life is much like that at any university. Students take four or five courses, and classes are held at sea, but not when the ship is docked – that's when students explore on their own and really get the chance to take in the cultures. Classes are 75 minutes long and held every other day. With the whole world available, guest speakers have included heads of state, diplomats, Nobel Laureates and authors.

While not in classes students spend time in the ports, exploring, shopping and learning. Some professors give assignments to do while in port, and students also have the opportunity to go on enrichment voyages. These voyages can take students to historic landmarks and other points of interest within the country.

In port, students are free to come and go as they please, but are required to fill out an itinerary if they are planning any trips beyond the port or to another country.

Life on the Water: An Educator's Perspective

The fall 2009 voyage, in which I will participate, departs from Halifax, Nova Scotia and circumnavigates the world. The MV Explorer will depart Halifax on Aug. 28 and travel east to Casablanca, Morocco. From there it will continue on to Croatia, Turkey, Egypt, India, and Vietnam with stops in China, Japan and Hawaii before finally docking on Dec. 6 in San Diego. The spring voyage takes a similar path, but leaves from the Bahamas (the program alternates starting points due to hurricane season).

Teach has also had the opportunity to travel the world aboard the MV Explorer. This past summer, she and five other study abroad advisors made the voyage to Bergen, Norway. They spent several days participating in the orientation of the faculty and staff and assisting with the embarkation of the 583 students aboard that voyage. They also attended the student orientation, several classes and ship meetings. In Norway, the group enjoyed the chance to immerse themselves in the culture.

“I highly recommend an entire voyage for students, staff, faculty and life-long learners,” said Teach. “Where else can a person travel so long with hundreds of people; find solitude in a lounge chair with miles of ocean in sight and experience the value of a Jeffersonian learning and living community? We lived with an honor code; visited multiple countries; attended classes; experience diverse cultures; and made life-long memories.”

The World Awaits

Semester at Sea is a unique study abroad program that allows students to see the world, not just one country, and to discover things about a country that cannot possibly be learned in books. With a travel opportunity such as Semester at Sea, students have the chance to break cultural barriers. One person really can change the world, and with the knowledge garnered from a Semester at Sea voyage, that person could be you.

“In the great ocean of human affairs, this idea may seem like a small fish, but one fish can reach others, and those others can reach still more until the great web of understanding and enlightenment spreads out to encircle the globe.” –Archbishop Desmond Tutu, on Semester at Sea