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UT Professor, Student Adapt to Life at Sea

Published: February 26, 2009

Jody Tompson has taught classes in countries all over the world, but he has never taught on the open water in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.

Tompson, an associate professor of management who is on sabbatical from UT this semester, is teaching classes in international entrepreneurship and global management as part of the Semester at Sea program aboard the 590-foot MV Explorer as it circumnavigates the globe.

He is joined on the trip by his wife and three children and teaches daily while the ship is at sea. The only breaks come when the ship reaches a port, which sometimes takes more than a week when crossing the ocean – making for what he said is a grueling teaching schedule.

We might have nine consecutive days of classes, then five consecutive days of no classes,” Tompson said in a recent interview with the Tampa Tribune. “It's hard to get into any rhythm. And of course there are waves. It's not easy to teach while the ship is rolling back and forth.”

“The students are ambitious and organized, so it feels familiar in that respect,” Tompson said.

For Meghan Hacas, a UT junior and finance major who is also spending the semester aboard the ship, every stop is a chance to extend the learning experience.

“Instead of just going to one country for four months, I get a little taste of everything,” Hacas said. “I got to see the amazing architectural aspect of Spain and then a week later I will see the socioeconomic problems in India.” 

The only breaks in the class schedule come when the ship arrives at a port in one of the 12 different countries it is scheduled to visit along the way. Faculty, including Tompson, lead trips into places like Cadiz and Sevilla, Spain; Morocco; Namibia and Cape Town, South Africa.

Hacas applied for the program specifically to learn more about the world’s cultures. So far she has camped in a nomad camp in the Sahara Desert, watched snake charmers in the markets in Morocco, witnessed the living conditions of a native tribe in Namibia, and gone on a safari through Kruger National Park in South Africa.

“It has been a very big culture shock,” she said. “My views on other countries have changed drastically and materialistic things suddenly do not look as important as they once did.”

The more than 700 undergraduates participating in the journey earn credit through the University of Virginia, the program’s academic sponsor.

The MV Explorer is a modern passenger ship that the Semester at Sea program uses twice a year to circumnavigate the globe. Among its amenities are a student union, wireless Internet (available via satellite connection when the ship is at sea), an 8,000-volume library, a swimming pool, a faculty and staff lounge, and many of the other items one would find on a land-based university campus.

The ship also has planned stops in Bangkok, Thailand – one of the cities Tompson says he most looks forward to – as well as Chennai, India; Hong Kong; Kobe, Japan; and Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala.

Tompson has maintained a blog chronicling his Semester at Sea experience .