Extorted for money in Ghana ... ate a cicada in South Africa ... hiked a glacier in Argentina — these are just a few of one young man’s adventures in the past four months. Leo Dorich, a 2010 HRVHS graduate, writes about Semester At Sea, which took him from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Florida, in fall 2013, by way of Ireland, West Africa, Brazil, Cuba, and many other ports. On the voyage, Dorich earned credits for study at University of Oregon.
Here is Dorich’s summary of his program, with dispatches from Belgium and Argentina to follow:
Semester at Sea is celebrating its 50th year anniversary, and yet the name eludes so many people. It’s a study abroad program where the classrooms and dorms are in a floating vessel, a repurposed cruise ship called the MV Explorer. School days are at sea, but about every week the ship makes port in a country abroad.
My fall voyage is Atlantic Exploration. The ship traveled to Russia, Germany, Belgium, France, Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Ghana, South Africa, Argentina and Brazil. Our last stop is Cuba, a first for American students since 2004.
There are no weekends; only class days at sea, or port days. In port we are free to explore as much as we wish, as long as we make it back to the ship before it departs. The ship has left behind students before. And due to the compressed semester, missing two days of class means missing 10 percent of the semester. Most students left behind are expelled from the program.
Many people hear about the program and picture a booze cruise of students sun tanning while pretending to read their sociology textbooks. However, the program is accredited by the University of Virginia, and has been completely revamped academically in recent years. The classes are intense and demanding. Field programs take place in ports that tie in with course material. And most students struggle with the large workload added to the stresses of planning for each new port.
And we love every moment of it.
The MV Explorer lives and breathes; it’s a living organism. The metal walls expand and contract like lungs with each wave crashing against the hull. Inside is a complex human body. Countless functions take place beyond the students and staff. The crew organizes and maintains the essential life systems aboard, ensuring the ship makes it to its next port.
At sunrise, the ship arises from slumber. During the darkness, the dreams of the MV Explorer merge with the night crew’s work. But now the ship slowly stretches in the light of a fresh sun. The chief officer is on watch in the cardiovascular system, tracking the ship’s progress against the GPS and chronometer, the Explorer’s ticking heart. Some Lifelong Learners and staff are watching that same sunrise. Maybe some students from the astronomy and art classes are observing as well.
It’s 7 a.m. and the kitchen staff in the digestive system are ready to serve breakfast. The crew waiters have been preparing the dining halls for at least 30 minutes. Ambitious students with an 8 a.m. class (and disgruntled students with an 8 a.m. class) file into the hall with lifelong learners (adult travelers) and staff. Everyone relishes the temporary stillness, marred only by the occasional silverware clatter.
Classes have begun for most students by 10 a.m. The learning and exchanging of ideas is the Explorer’s nervous system. Those drugged from seasickness medications are still comatose. The crew stewards intuitively knock on their doors first to clean the disastrous cabins. The medical office is the lymphatic system, and treats those with malaria, Dengue fever or mono. Maybe they treat the occasional STD borne from the students in the overactive reproductive system. Professors fight with faulty PowerPoint presentations and projectors, trying to stabilize a class in the midst of rolling waves.
At lunch, Dean Rita’s announcement pierces the soundest of sleepers who have skipped their only class of the day. These announcements form the endocrine system, the communication between all parts of the ship. The kitchen crew has only just finished cleaning from breakfast before starting on the lunch menu. The dependent children have eagerly broken from morning lessons and the second mate has taken over watch duties for the ship.
Afternoon classes coincide with sunbathing slackers, snack bar chefs preparing pesto-pizzas, Internet junkies complaining at IT, ping-pong grudge matches, humidity fried salon goers, and crewmen vacuuming the same staircase they cleaned the previous day. Dinner passes just like lunch, freeing most of the kitchen crew until breakfast.
In the evening, students discuss difficult essays and port experiences over light beer, or maybe attend a lecture about the astronauts onboard, or work feverishly on overdue assignments. Some are nursing dastardly sunburns, or watching their 12th consecutive episode of Modern Family, or lifting weights to burn off the pasta and potato dinner. Crewmembers off duty are relaxing in crew lounges or sleeping. Professors off-duty are relaxing in the Glazer lounge, grading papers over the newest cocktail concoction, straining the ship’s urinary system.
After a last joke or card game, most of the passengers disperse to bed, the seas gently rocking the ship to sleep. The crew continues to maintain the boat’s life-support, the skeletal and muscular systems, and everyone prepares for a nigh-identical day upon awakening. And yet, after over 100 days at sea, with the end drawing near, most would give anything for the ship to continue sailing, past Florida, for one more day.