Friday, May 4, 2012
The Broadway Pier on San Diego Bay was filled with people waiting to greet family members as they disembarked from The Explorer. There were moms and dads holding bouquets of flowers. There was a lovesick fiancé who hadn’t seen his betrothed in four months.
Students from around the country wrap up a trip around the world as they dock in San Diego harbor.
The people coming off the boat were students laden with backpacks and mementos. They hugged their parents and were feeling definitely festive. They had just done the Semester at Sea, a 50-year-old academic program run by the Institute for Shipboard Education. Les McCabe is president of Semester at Sea, who spoke of the ship as he watched it be unloaded.
“It’s our version of a floating land-based campus that just happens to travel around the world,” he said.
And it did travel around the world, stopping this semester in the Bahamas, Cape Town, Singapore and Yokohama, to name a few. The student body totaled 570, and they came from colleges around the country. Their parents had been hearing about the voyage through emails and the occasional postcard.
One Dad, Ken Gabrielsen of Croton-on-Hudson, News York, said his son had some adventures.
“He went sky-diving and swam with sharks in South Africa,” he said. "He wrangled with a guy who pulled a gun on him for his money. But he told him he wasn’t going to give it to him and the kid walked away.”
Mind you, there was some classwork. Academic sponsor, the University of Virginia, selects faculty who teach a broad range of classes. The professors also have some experience residing in one of the countries they visit. Student Sam Berry attends Humboldt State in California. He said his favorite place was Ghana.
“It’s a wonderful country, and the people there are so genuine and caring, once you get past the fact that they are aggressively trying to sell you stuff,” he said.
By the way, he wants to clear up one point about Semester at Sea.
“It has a bad reputation because of ten percent of the students treat this voyage like a party around the world,” said Berry, who pointed out it was only ten percent. The other 90 percent want chance to visit and compare other cultures.
Africa seemed to make the biggest impression on the students I talked to. One parent told the story of her daughter visiting a child center in Ghana, where a mother asked her to adopt her child because she would have a better life in America.
Hillary King, of Phoenix, was struck by the difference between the poverty of West Africa to the relative wealth of South Africa.
“You’re going from Ghana and then, boom, right to South Africa. And I’m on the same continent!” she said.
Hillary stood next to her father, Scott. They represent two generations of Semester at Sea graduates. Scott went when he was a college kid in Fall of 1978.
Hillary summed up her experience by saying; The world is not Phoenix, Arizona.
Today there are 50,000 graduates of Semester at Sea who know the world is more than just Phoenix. The cost of the program is $23,000, though Les McCabe says they can offer some financial aid.
I asked him what can go wrong on a Semester at Sea, and he said basically the same things that can go wrong on any college campus. He says the program does face the risk of going to countries undergoing political or environmentally calamities.
“The nice thing about having a floating, mobile campus is we can change course,” said McCabe. “We can say, You know what, we’re going to bypass this country and go somewhere else.”
And on Wednesday, they were in San Diego, the terminate port for Semester at Sea. I asked one student from Maryland why she wanted to spend a semester sailing around the world.
"Why wouldn’t you?" she said.