Get on course with a cruise

April 12, 2002

Liz Doig reports on a scheme that offers a semester of study while travelling from the Bahamas to Japan. It might sound like a breeze but James Walvin (below and right) explains why it is not all plain sailing.

The SS Universe Explorer - home to the world's first university at sea - makes twice-yearly trips around the globe, carrying hundreds of students and crew and numerous lecturers. The Institute for Shipboard Education, based at the University of Pittsburgh, has been running the Semester at Sea programme on various ships since 1963, with the aim of introducing participants to multiple cultures and an international approach to study, vital after September 11.

Mr Cormack said a system "could no longer be trusted" after a security breach.

The "war against terrorism" has had an impact on the ship's itinerary, but has not thrown it off course entirely. The autumn schedule normally takes students through the Middle East and into the Mediterranean, but it will now avoid the region. The spring 2002 voyage, which left Nassau in the Bahamas on January 21, docked in Cuba, Brazil and South Africa, before heading north to Mauritius and India. Other stops include Singapore, Cambodia - an optional trip for students - Vietnam, China and Japan.

Both spring and autumn programmes are 100 days long and provide an alternative to taking a period of study in a single overseas location. For the past few years, the ISE and the University of Pittsburgh have also run a shorter, 65-day, summer voyage that takes 440 students to ports in Spain, Ireland, Norway, Russia, Poland, Belgium, Italy and Croatia.

Some 640 students from universities across the United States - each of whom has paid $14,375 (£10,000) for the trip - and teaching staff - who each receive a stipend of about $8,000 - are on board the SS Universe Explorer.

The former cruise liner's casino has been converted into a 10,000-volume library, and eight other "leisure facility areas" have been turned into lecture theatres.

More than 70 courses covering subjects as diverse as astronomy, Asian art, international law and pirate studies, are provided on board. The curriculum is not set, as lecturers are drawn from around the world and their line-up changes on each trip. Academic staff try to tailor their subject matter to fit the ship's itinerary and they all participate in teaching core lessons on the geography, history and customs of the countries the ship will visit. The only subjects not taught are lab sciences and languages.

"We do not teach languages because we are not in any one place long enough for language study to be beneficial. But we have taught linguistics," says Max Brandt, Semester at Sea's academic officer.

"In fact, the debate about whether we should teach languages gets right to the heart of what the programme is all about," he says. "It is an introduction to international study of many different cultures. It is not, and is not meant to be, a total immersion experience.

"The programme deliberately sets out to take students to places that they would not normally visit, such as Vietnam, China, Cambodia and India."

The programme organisers certainly display flair in getting their students to parts not reached by other Americans. Since 1997, Semester at Sea alumni can count themselves among the few Americans to have legally stepped onto Cuban soil. US Treasury officials decided to grant special permission for the programme to visit Havana, in the interests of promoting "people-to-people" contact.

The Institute for Shipboard Education likes to promote as many "people-to-people" contacts as possible, organising visits to an untouchable village in India, for example, as well as getting students to join in a range of charity projects across the world.

Participants are also exposed to some of America's unlaid ghosts. Visiting Vietnam continues to prove an emotional experience for many of the students and staff. Lawrence Butler, who teaches history of art in Washington DC, and who taught on the autumn 1999 trip, wrote in his travel journal how difficult the experience was for anyone over 40.

"I was surprised to realise how sinister Hollywood had made this landscape seem. Objectively, it is beautiful in a low, steamy, watery way. But when one starts putting names to it - Mekong Delta, Hanoi, Danang and Saigon - one starts conjuring up the darker images with which we all grew up, of pungee sticks, rainy green hell and all that Oliver Stone stuff.

"Vietnam actually inspired strong debate among the faculty staff. It was not just like we were teaching students about any other country. How do you teach students that this is a place where your countrymen killed 3 million people?"

Although lectures are given only while the ship is at sea (albeit continuously, without weekends), shore time is also viewed as an important component of the programme.

"Students are given tasks to accomplish while they are in port," says Marcus Rediker, a professor of American history at the University of Pittsburgh, who taught piracy studies on the 2001 spring voyage.

"I was amazed at how seriously these young people took their studies. I think pirates really captured their imagination, particularly because when we passed through the Makassar Strait, which has serious problems with piracy, the captain requested students take part in pirate watch for real.

"In one port, a couple of students managed to board an oil tanker and interview the crew about their experiences with pirates, and in another, a young woman tracked down a port official who was regularly involved in gun battles with pirates. There is no way you can bring learning like that into a conventional campus environment."

On board, lessons are mandatory and, unless rough seas and seasickness intervene, classes take place as they would on a regular campus. Crossing time zones can mean that some lectures feel like they are being delivered at 3am. Exams, however, are set, and course requirements must be met for students to gain credits from the Semester at Sea towards their eventual university qualification.

Some educational establishments back on dry land in the US are a bit sniffy about the standard of education offered on the cruises and question the suitability of the ship environment as a place for serious study.

"Semester at Sea is thought of by many academics as being not much more than a leisure cruise," Butler says. "But I was very impressed with the intelligence and talents of many of those young people and I truly believe that it changed many of their lives. I would go again in a heartbeat. A good majority of the students took their time on board very seriously and were very moved by many of the things they saw and experienced."

Pat Lilja, a graduate of Cornell University, is one of them. The 24-year-old, who took the Semester at Sea voyage in spring 1999, works for an organisation in New South Wales, Australia, which preserves the seeds of non-manufactured crops for use by the world's indigenous populations.

He studied ethno-medicine and intercultural communication on the voyage and says it opened his eyes to global issues and made him resolve to use his biology degree in a socially responsible way.

He has travelled extensively through Ecuador, and says that many of his friends from the trip are now following very different life paths from those they might have had they not taken part in the trip.

"Of the friends I made on the ship, many are still travelling. One teaches English in Japan and another works in fashion, importing designs from third-world countries in a fair-trade relationship. They are all living fulfilling lives."

For further information about Semester at Sea and to apply to teach on a voyage, visit: www.semesteratsea.com

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