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Student Participant Report

The Semester at Sea

A Voyage of Discovery in a Floating Classroom

A cruise around the world! One hundred days of sailing on a voyage of discovery. A fantasy come true. And this was no ordinary voyage; it was a “semester at sea.” We were traveling with over 600 undergraduate students and their professors to places we had only dreamed about.

The Semester at Sea program is a floating college campus. Students study a full academic load on board the ship as it travels to 10 or more different ports. While in port, they meet with local university students, go on sightseeing trips, and do volunteer work.

Each fall and spring semester, 40 to 50 nonstudent passengers are invited to travel with the students. The adults (mostly seniors) audit any classes they choose and participate in all the activities on board the ship. In the spring of 1999 my husband Arthur and I sailed with the students. Our ship, the S.S. Universe Explorer, was not a luxury liner, but it was very comfortable. The food, wholesome and well prepared, was served cafeteria style. On sunny days, we ate al fresco on the promenade deck.

The cabin was air conditioned and on the upper deck, removed from the students. Its 9 x 17 space held twin beds, two closets, a porthole, a desk, chests of drawers, and a shower. Closed circuit television showed films, documentaries, and student news broadcasts. There was no formal entertainment, although dance music was provided by student musicians under the direction of their music professor.

In the evening there were open forums for discussions on a variety of topics, often related to our observations and experiences in the ports. Lounges provided comfortable seating for bridge, mah jong, cards, table games, and reading. There was even a movie theater that doubled as a classroom by day. The more active passengers played volleyball, basketball, swam, walked, and jogged.

Although there was a fully staffed clinic on the ship, we prepared in advance for personal medical needs because some medications would not be available in the ports we were to visit.

Classes, held every day except when we were in port, covered a wide range of subjects—economics, history, art, literature, business, theater, biology. The well-stocked library and computer lab were always busy. Everyone attended a daily core curriculum class during which we heard lectures about our upcoming port.

In addition to the on-board professors, guest lecturers traveled with us. On the way to Cuba, a professor from the Univ. of Havana, assisted by two Cuban university students, described education and medical care in his country. (We were the first U.S. ship to enter Havana harbor since the U.S. embargo was imposed 37 years ago.) Before we reached Malaysia, a theater professor explained and performed traditional Malay dances. A Japanese lecturer spoke about the history and language of his country.

When we arrived in port, we were always greeted by a representative. Pete Peterson, the American ambassador to Vietnam, talked to us about the changes that have taken place from the time he spent six years as a prisoner of war in Hanoi. The black female mayor of Capetown spoke about the changes that have taken place now that apartheid has been outlawed. Each in-port briefing prepared us for what to expect when we left the ship.

We were free to travel outside of the port city to other parts of the country, but we were always reminded that the ship would leave promptly, even if we were not on board.

Some of us traveled independently. Others went on tours arranged through the field office, for which they paid extra.

Now that the trip has ended, I’m trying to sort out and process all the images and events.

I learned so much, not only about the extraordinary variety of people and places but about how alike we all are, and about resilience in the face of what may seem to be insurmountable problems such as racism and poverty. Most of all, my faith in the future was renewed as a result of spending time with the young people.

Was it important to be flexible and adapt to new situations? Absolutely. Would I do it all over again, if I had the chance? A resounding yes! It was (forgive the cliché) the experience of a lifetime.

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