Cruising Smart

Published: Oct 5, 2004

It's not exactly Around the World in 80 Days. Add 20 for spring or fall, subtract 15 for summer. And forget the balloon: We're talking the high seas for this trek. Oh, and forget the movie: This is the real thing.

To have more than one global travel experience is to have more than most people enjoy in a lifetime. What if you could have a dozen world experiences packed into a mere 100 days, and complete some of your college courses in the process?

 

Enter Semester at Sea. The Institute for Shipboard Education, founded by the University of Pittsburgh, runs the program for undergraduates at colleges and universities across the country, as well as some foreign institutions. Students earn Pitt credits with full transfer eligibility.

The unique program offers the student seeking cultural experiences and worldly wisdom a dozen adventures in a dozen countries on five continents in a single semester.

It’s not all fun and exploration, though. A range of studies is offered to complement any major, and students attend classes at sea, just like the land-based students do. The spring or fall minimum class load is 12 hours, with a maximum of 15.

Ah, but those days off. Cuba. Brazil. Africa. China. When ship is in port, school is out, at least in the traditional sense. In the real-life learning sense, though, that’s when it just gets cranked up.

Organized group excursions are available in each port, but students also have the option of exploring on their own. Semester at Sea does not allow them to rent vehicles or drive, so the hardy individualists walk or take public transportation, further immersing them in the people and culture of the land they’re exploring.

Such adventures, of course, come with a price: $16,375 for a room with a view (two to a cabin), $14,375 for an outside triple or an inside double (no view). While that might seem hefty at first, subtracting a semester with room and board at a private university reveals a relatively small additional expense for a 100-day world cruise, and just like semesters on land, financial aid packages and work grant options are available. The latter offers the trip for a measly $8,175. The 65-day summer cruise boasts pre-aid price tags of $10,775 for outside double, $9,175 for outside triple or inside double, or work grant rate of $5,375.

Community Afloat

Lisa Bardill, UT’s director of Residence Life, went in 1992 as an administrator. Fresh out of her MA at the University of Miami, she had not had the good fortune of hearing about the program before completing her degree. She could, however, try to go aboard as an administrator, which had its up side and its down side. Up: Faculty and staff have their fees covered, and are paid a stipend, to boot. Down: The combination of free world travel and few administrative positions available made for a three-year wait. Bardill bided her time, and she’s glad she did.

Community, she says, is the biggest benefit of the trip.

“Some faculty members told me they couldn’t believe how close they got to the students on the ship. At UT, I think the faculty get very close, but when you’re talking public institutions, they don’t get close to their students. For them, that was amazing.

“You’re all on an equal platform when you start out, because no one knows what they’re going to encounter. Because of that, there’s just this openness to get to know everyone, whether it’s a student, administrator—it doesn’t matter what you are. That’s why I thought the ship community was amazing.”

Although she values her experiences in the lands she visited, especially seeing Israel, where she was awed by the religious history of Jerusalem, and India, where she and a group of students spent a night in an “untouchables” village, Bardill speaks of the ship and the bonds she developed with the people on it as the highlight of her voyage.

A Promise Delivered

The SAS brochure promises “a life-altering learning adventure.” Kathryn Ward, UT’s study abroad coordinator, says it is that and then some.

“Like most study abroad programs,” Ward says, “Semester at Sea is a life-changing experience. However, it provides a breadth of cross-cultural awareness that probably no other program can. Students return not only overwhelmed by all they have seen and experienced, but by how much they have learned about themselves and their own ethnocentricities.”

For those few UT students who have taken the plunge, the brochure’s promise is a promise delivered.

Troy Hadeed, class of 2001, was the first UT student to sail aboard the S.S. Universe Explorer, the program’s full-sized ocean liner made over into a floating university replete with cafeteria, student union, campus store, library, computer lab, study lounges, classrooms and theater. In the spring of 2001, the native of Trinidad and Tabago left port with some 650 other students, plus faculty, and soon encountered adventures that he could not even have conceived of before, not to mention lessons that go a lot higher than sea level.

Almost backing out of the trip because a friend who had planned to go had backed out, Hadeed knows now that that would have been a regrettable error of omission. So, after the usual pre-departure chores of obtaining multiple visas, getting shots and packing up his whole life (although he returned with three times as much, he says), he was on his way.

Hadeed talks a lot about spirit and an unwavering belief in things meant to be, notions only reaffirmed by his SAS experience. The avid surfer, discouraged by flat waves at a world-class site in South Africa, trudged dejectedly through Cape Town, where he wound up in an impromptu conversation with a Rastafarian, who invited Hadeed to a Twelve Tribes camp. Hadeed spent the night and much of the next day there, living a cultural experience by chance that most would never be able to orchestrate with careful planning.

“As the trip went on, I saw that repeatedly. If things don’t work out the way you planned,” he says, “trust in it, just go with it.”

“I would say everywhere I went, there were experiences that kind of blew me away,” Hadeed says in his heavy Caribbean accent.

“Now, being from Trinidad and from the Caribbean, I’m very familiar with Rastafari, and I share a lot of beliefs, although I am a Catholic and a Christian. So it was really interesting for me. It just happened. I was walking in the street and I met this guy, and he invited me up. And I went up to the camp and stayed with them for two days. Our eyes met, and it was like there was a connection. I actually stood there and talked with him and some of the teachers for three hours, and he invited me up.”

First, his new friend had business elsewhere, but promised to return. Both went on their way. Later, Hadeed went back into town to meet at the designated spot. When he saw no sign of his friend, he became anxious, but an acquaintance of the Rastafarian reassured him.

“One of the guys told me, ‘Don’t worry about it. If he said he’ll be here, he’ll be here. He lives far away.’ So I sat for an hour writing in my journal. Next thing I know, I feel his hand on my shoulder and he was there. So it was a really touching experience. I stayed there two days and one night. I actually wish I could have stayed longer.”

Happy Lessons from a Chocolate Bar

But of course, Hadeed had a ship to catch and many more international ports of call ahead. One was Calcutta, India, where Hadeed would learn another lesson of the higher order.

“We were outside a hotel that was in the middle of slums. I saw a friend with a homeless family on the street, and they had this one little kid, and he had no eye—one of his eyes was gone, just like—flesh. When we were walking back to the hotel in the afternoon, he ran up to me and started talking to me and my three friends. And then he tugged at me and was like, ‘Buy me candy, buy me candy.’

“So, I bought him a Kit-Kat bar. Before this kid even took a piece of it, he broke off a piece, and he offered it to me. And I was kind of in shock, because I know this kid obviously doesn’t get much food, as far as candy and so on. So, he offered it to me, and in shock, I took it.”

The boy then offered a piece to each of Hadeed’s friends, who all refused.

“And all this before this kid even took a bite. If all of us said yes, he would have been left with nothing. Yet he didn’t hesitate to offer everyone a piece. I ended up giving him back the piece I took. I thought it was unbelievable that this kid would do that.

 

“Throughout Calcutta, although the poverty is beyond anything I could have imagined, people smiled at one another. They showed a lot of love. That really showed me a lot. As polluted and poverty-stricken as it was, I hope to return there someday.”

He also keeps in touch with his Rastafarian friends in South Africa.

Post Cards and Kisses

Like most real adventures, an element of hardship is part of the package. Amanda Hale, who circled the globe on the Universe Explorer last fall, felt the pinch.

“I was really homesick. I had never been homesick, although I’d been away from home before, because I knew that I could catch a late-night flight, and I could make it home within a few hours. But in this case, I was as far away as possible from everyone, and it was hard to communicate. It taught me more about myself than I’d ever known.”

Anxiety over being out of the country during a crisis also posed difficulties that experience then transformed into lessons.

“The threat of terrorism changed our entire trip in terms of who we could trust and what our role was as Americans. I basically learned that there’s a big difference between being a tourist and traveling. Once you break away from the group, you can go out and meet the most amazing people, and find out first-hand how they view you. You learn their idealistic perspectives on religion and life and pride for their country. It really made me question my major and what I’m trying to do with my life.”

One of the places that left the biggest impression on her was Vietnam, Hale says. Typical for her recollections of the voyage, it was dominated by the human angle.

“This one little kid was in a suit and tie. He must have been 3 years old. He ran up to us with a little book of post cards. My friend said to him, ‘I’ll give you a dollar. We just want your picture. You can keep your postcards.’ This little boy smiled and gave her a big kiss on the cheek, and then he ran over to me and started handing me post cards. He gave me a kiss, too….

“It was about 11:30 at night. These kids stay up all night. I heard that they cannot go home unless they sell all of the things they have to sell for the day. Some of those children make the money for the entire family.”

Who They Really Are

All three of UT’s SAS pioneers said returning to life in the States was another difficulty.

“Being back has been very strange,” Hale said. “I’ve had serious reverse culture shock. About a month before we got back, I stopped looking forward to it, and starting making every day last as long as possible.”

 

From the rare perspective of someone who got to experience semester at sea but not as a student, Bardill says she does all she can to encourage students to undertake the SAS adventure.

“Students should know about study abroad in general, and all the opportunities available. If it’s not this program, they need to go somewhere, because it is an important experience. I didn’t have that, and I think that if I would have had it, I might have made different choices in my life.”

When asked what to tell students who might be interested in the program, Hadeed seemed to summarize what each traveler had to say.

“Tell them to forget who they are as they walk up the gangplank,” he said. “In the next four months, they will begin to find out who they really are.”