- The Washington Times - Sunday, May 27, 2007

Gene Hammond, former chairman of the English Department at the University of Maryland, says the teaching he did during a recent Semester at Sea trip was “the toughest I’ve done in my life.”

Vanessa Emdadi, 21, a student at New College in Florida from Warrenton, Va., calls course work on the Semester at Sea ship “fairly difficult, considering that every other day we were in another port, depending on where we were in the world.”

Two opinions are not conclusive in judging the integrity of this unusual program — more than 600 students earning college credit while visiting 10 countries in 100 days going around the world — but they help dispel doubts about whether such a seagoing adventure is a valid academic substitute for a more traditional campus life.

At first glance, spending a college semester on an ocean liner with hundreds of students from across the country has overtones of indulgence akin to American collegians’ vaunted spring break. Several faculty members at the University of Virginia questioned early on whether a floating classroom could maintain high enough standards when their institution became the academic sponsor of Semester at Sea (www.semesteratsea.com) in 2005. (The program previously was linked with the University of Pittsburgh.) Students receive UVa. credit for successful completion of courses.

The program’s spring 2007 voyage had 702 students from 250 colleges and universities, 17 “lifelong learners” (nonstudent adults who audit at a professor’s discretion), plus 63 faculty and staff members on the voyage that began in Nassau, the Bahamas, on Feb. 4 and ended May 14 in San Diego with Nobel laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu aboard as a special guest.

In its 44-year history run out of Charlottesville, by the nonprofit Institute for Shipboard Education, some 45,000 students from some 1,500 institutions have traveled to 60 countries.

The trips, billed as “A Voyage of Discovery,” cost a minimum $20,000 and take place three times a year, with different students and faculty each time. An executive and an academic dean are along on every one. A third of the students are on scholarships, says Lauren Heinz, SAS director of communications, and faculty members are able to bring their families. In addition to classrooms, the passenger ship, called the MV Explorer, has been outfitted with a library, access to UVa.’s online library resources, wireless Internet, plus such recreational facilities as an outdoor pool and, yes, even a spa.

Increasingly through the years, the majority of undergraduates participating have been business majors — as many as 70 percent of the total currently — who want a global perspective on the world.

That was the case for Rick Rickertsen, an engineering major at Stanford University when he joined the ship in the fall of 1981. He went on to work for Morgan Stanley and now is managing partner of Pine Creek Partners, a Washington private-equity firm. While an undergraduate, he took a year off to work for IBM as an engineer to be able to afford the trip, which he recalls as a “most unbelievable experience” with high academic standards.

Paul Rosen, a U.S. government attorney who joined a spring 1999 voyage as an undergraduate majoring in international relations and political science at the University of Colorado, said the semester “allowed me to see the world as a multicultural and societal place where there are different people and levels, from poverty to government corruption — what you don’t experience in a classroom.”

“The effect [the SAS program] has is so unique that I wish more people would know about it,” he says.

Mr. Rosen had never been outside North America, but since the voyage has traveled to some 40 countries.

The most recent Semester at Sea voyage scheduled stops in Puerto Rico, Brazil, South Africa, Mauritius, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China, Japan and Hawaii. A daily mandatory global studies course alerted students to the culture, geography and history of countries and states they were about to see, and special excursions were planned on land, often at an additional cost. Archbishop Tutu lectured a few times, impressing Alisa Barnett, 20, a UVa. student from Manassas who decided en route that she would major in foreign affairs.

Overall, she found the experience “even better than I thought” although “definitely research papers were more challenging to accomplish.” Her priorities have changed as a result of the trip so that she is now more service oriented, she says, and interested in working in the near future at an orphanage in Cambodia. This summer she is working to earn money at a camp in Northern Virginia.

Miss Emdadi notes the difficulties of studying when “every other day we were in another port,” changing time zones almost daily. She also wasn’t pleased to discover it would cost an extra $1,000 for a trip up the Amazon: “They kind of candy coat it and then you get on and see it is more pricey than you thought.” She says she had “a lot more fun when I went off on my own than on scheduled trips where we were rushed through everything.”

Nevertheless, she says her voyage was a great experience for the money, and she even managed to find ways to make the trip valuable for her pre-med major in natural sciences in spite of finding no laboratories aboard. She now is considering a career practicing overseas.

Mr. Hammond, currently a teacher at the District’s Maret School, was paid $8,000 for teaching three courses and was charged the same fees the students were for field trips, which he declined to take. Teaching was difficult because of the condensed schedule, which left few weekends free.

“The only way to catch up was to give up time in port,” he says.

He estimates that 90 percent of the students were “substantially transformed” by their experience.

While difficult, the opportunity to teach a book from each country ahead of time, he says, “then immediately to visit those countries, allows the courses to achieve a depth of understanding and usefulness that is not possible elsewhere.” He benefited personally, he notes, by being able to apply what he learned in courses he teaches regularly on ancient history and colonialism and postcolonialism.

Oceangoing opportunities

A floating university offering 16-week-semester world tours is planned under the name of the Scholar Ship (www.thescholarship.com) and the backing of Royal Caribbean Cruises, with an inaugural voyage in September leaving from Piraeus, Greece. The education program is under the direction of what Scholar Ship President Joseph D. Olander calls a “consortium of academic stewards” — a variety of institutions around the world with course work accredited by Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. Tuition is $20,000 and students will be responsible for seeing that their home colleges and universities will accept credits from Macquarie.

In addition, Sultana, the “Schoolship of the Chesapeake,” a 1786 schooner affiliated with Washington College, in Chestertown, Md. (www.sultanaprojects.org), offers specialized teacher training programs each summer in conjunction with the Maryland State Department of Education for continuing education credits.

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