Tuesday, May 5, 2009

"I love to travel, but I hate to arrive." – Albert Einstein

Many of us aboard the MV Explorer are feeling like this right now. Our journey, which began in Nassau 107 days ago will be coming to a close tomorrow morning. It has been the experience of a lifetime and one for which there are truly no words to describe it with. During the course of our time together, we have bonded as a community. At one point or another, we all found ourselves calling the MV Explorer home and we looked forward to getting back on board the ship and being with our new family just as much as we anticipated arriving at our next port of call. The experiences that we shared together will be forever ingrained in our minds as well as our hearts.

For those of you back home anxiously awaiting the arrival of friends and family (there are probably even a few of you staked out right now in the port in Ft. Lauderdale), you should know that we are not the same people that left you in January. We have all changed. Our perceptions of the world have changed, our knowledge has grown, and we may view our lives back home through a new set of lenses. The voyagers who will be disembarking in Florida tomorrow will carry with them a greater appreciation for the freedoms and comforts that we enjoy so casually at home. When we spend $4.00 on a drink at Starbucks, we may catch ourselves thinking about how many days that would have fed a family in India for. When we go back to our neighborhoods, we might stop to compare them to the impoverished townships in South Africa that are home to millions. When we see a confused traveler in our hometowns, we will remember the countless people around the globe who came to our assistance. There were those who may have done something as small as take five minutes to walk us to a destination we could not find to others who were kind enough to provide us with a place to sleep.

We will all walk away from this journey knowing more about ourselves and the world. Here is how Semester at Sea has changed us:

Kathryn Cammack, Metropolitan State College
“Semester at Sea has proved and disproved stereotypes that I held before this journey about both people at home and of different cultures around the world.” Kat told me how much both her immersion in different cultures and being a part of the shipboard community has meant to her.
Meriel Colglazier, University of Virginia
“Before this journey, I didn’t know about the world. I only knew what I had seen for myself and outside of the United States, I had only been to Europe. Seeing all of these cultures made me more aware of what is out there and I am looking forward to bringing my experiences home and sharing them with others.”
Alexandra Bosee, Stetson University
“Before going on Semester at Sea, I felt like the world was a lot bigger. I saw the world through what I was told to believe through textbooks. Now my perceptions shape the world that I live in."
Amanda Barbara, University of Miami
“Semester at Sea made me want to see as many places as I possibly can and share them with others. We have seen cultures around the world and now I can apply them to my own life. It makes me appreciate the simple things and not take anything for granted.”
Julius Schwerin, Citadel Military College
“It made the world seem a lot smaller and put everything within my reach. Being on Semester at Sea also taught me to rely on people more than I ever have before. The kindness that greeted us everywhere we went was inspiring.”
Robert Perry, San Diego State University
“I have been around the world. I have everything seen from the Southern Cross in the sky to the lava flowing volcanoes of Guatemala. I’ve made connections with people halfway around the world when we could barely speak to one another and it showed me the similarities and cultures of people around the globe”
Naazaneen Hodjat, University of Washington
“It was really interesting to see different cultures mixing and see how people fulfill their needs. People are the same all over the world, they are just trying to live and their main priorities are just to be able to do the basics, like providing food and shelter for their family.”
Gavin Booth, University of Arizona
“Reflecting now on Semester at Sea, I have made the best friends and connections of my life. I have been able to see the entire world and as a business student, every aspect of the world has changed. I’m thinking more globally than I ever did before.”
Jie Chen, Shantou University (China)
“I saw that visiting China changed the way people viewed my own country. They learned more about life in China and how our country works. Being with students in this community also changed my life. It gave me a feeling that everything is going to be okay in the future. They taught me to be confident. My attitudes towards life have changed a lot.
Robert Arnot, Pepperdine University
“Once you see things for yourself, they really have meaning in your life. After seeing the grandeur of the Taj Mahal and the other magnificent places that we had the opportunity to go to compared in stark contrast with the poverty of the common people in India and others around the world that I saw for myself, I am beginning to develop a new perspective on people and society in general. You also always hear people talk about what is wrong with society. Well, now I have seen the world and I have seen for myself how beautiful it really is.”
Miguel Castillo, Emmanuel College
“I was shocked by how similar people were. We went to all of these different countries all over the world and we got to see all of the different cultures and had incredibly unique experiences in all of the countries but in the end, I discovered that everyone, that all people are essentially the same.”
Braxton Henderson, University of Pittsburgh
“I used to think that I would never go to all of these places, that they were too far. Even when I was actually in all of these countries, I didn’t really believe that I was there. I had to step back on reflect on the incredible journey that I was on. I found that we all live in the same world, we’re all human…everyone wants the same things from life. They just want to be treated with respect, to be able to be happy and live with their families. The differences between us all are not so big…we shouldn’t allow them to become barriers. Semester at Sea has exposed me to people around the world and the differences I saw just made me want to learn more about them.”

These are just a small representation of what we will all walk away with tomorrow. No voyager has had the exact same journey and we will all take something different from our experiences. I want to thank all of you who have followed this blog throughout the semester. We’ll be seeing you soon!

Samples of Academic Work

I received some requests following yesterday's post so see some of the work that was mentioned so below are copies of the papers submitted by Grace Dixon and Natalie Elghossain. Enjoy!

Grace Nixon
April 13, 2009
Demography, Dr. Grindstaff
2nd Port Report
Death and Dying in Asia

While death and dying is certainly a universal topic, perhaps no region of the world has more varied beliefs and traditions from our western approach to the subject than Asia. Many of the countries that spanned the first half of this Semester at Sea voyage were greatly influenced by Islam and Christianity – two religions that indubitably have substantial histories, but which could be considered relatively “new” when viewed in comparison to Asian religions such as Buddhism or Hinduism. These ancient religions provide a sociological playground when examining rituals and traditions associated with death. With histories that span millennia, the countries of India, Vietnam, China, and Japan provide fascinating views into the means by which many Asians deal with the universal experience of death.

I. India

The Hindu religion influences much of the country of India and thus guides most of the traditions surrounding death in this area of the world. The layers of Hinduism could fill multiple books – indeed, they have. As such, it would be impossible to use a few short paragraphs to fully cover all that is involved when a person of the Hindu religion dies – however, an overview can certainly be attempted.

According to Shaid, an undergraduate student from Chennai, a body is generally cremated upon death if the person belongs to a higher caste. However, burial is also accepted within Hinduism, particularly among those of lower castes in southern India. When someone dies, all the relatives are called and the body is taken from the house. Daughters are not allowed to see the corpse or the burning of the body once it leaves the home and is taken for cremation.

The cremation ceremony begins with a one rupee coin being placed on the middle of the deceased person’s forehead. The chief mourner, generally the eldest son, circles around the body three times. The son carries a bottle of water over his shoulder and every time he circles the body a hole is punctured in the bottle. On the third circling, the bottle is broken and the fire is lit. Bathing by the people in attendance must take place, along with the shaving of the men. Later, there is a gifting of a cow which may be symbolic or actual. If the body has been cremated and not buried, a bone-gathering ceremony takes place, the contents of which are eventually spread in a sacred river such as the Ganges.

The entire funereal process takes place over ten days – death and the crossover to ancestry is a tenuous transition and certain rituals must be performed in order to aid the soul in this journey. It is interesting to note that the belief in ancestors is held in conjunction with a belief in rebirth of the soul. As is noted by Religious Traditions of the World, there is a “sense that after three generations ancestors begin to dissolve into vaguer zones from which they are eventually reborn” (795). The many rites and rituals surrounding death in India almost serve as a mirror to the Hindu belief in the complex process that a soul undergoes as it transitions from life to death and into new life once again.

II. Vietnam

Whereas Hinduism is the religion of the majority of people living in India, Buddhism takes center stage in Vietnam and directs many of the beliefs and traditions surrounding death. While both Hinduism and Buddhism subscribe to the belief in reincarnation, there are significant differences when it comes to rituals that are performed around a person’s death and beliefs that the living hold about the afterlife.

According to Hiep, a a tour guide for Destination Asia, ancestors in Vietnam are buried in the rice paddies under tombstones that all face one direction. The family comes once a week to pray for the ancestors’ intercession in asking for good crops. Thus, while the soul is reincarnated, it can still hear the prayers of the family.

In the villages, the belief in reincarnation is certainly present and is passed along through stories that are shared amongst the villagers. According to Quan Nguyen-Huy, a Bangkok tour guide who lives in the Mekong Delta region, there are reports in his village of children telling their parents that they contain the soul of the parent’s best friend, brother, or sister. They demand that the parents treat them well or buy them nice things since they hold the soul of someone who was loved and has died. Quan said that these children are five or six years-old, not yet old enough to be of the age of reason and manipulate information about reincarnation to work to their advantage. As evidenced by these accounts, Buddhist beliefs regarding the afterlife and reincarnation are not simply contained within books outlining the tenants of Buddhism – they truly are held by the people.


Like Vietnam, the country of China is largely influenced by Buddhism. Much of the proceeding information regarding Chinese customs surrounding death, however, is not necessarily associated with any one religion but rather reflects the traditional, ancient Chinese belief systems.

Not surprisingly, many of these traditional Chinese rituals are conducted in the more rural areas of the country that have not been modernized to the same extent as most of China’s cities. When someone dies in rural China, at least 200 people gather at the family’s house. A monk says some prayers and then everyone eats. During this gathering, traditional Chinese music such as ancient Chinese opera is played or sung by performers who are brought into the home. This music may not be anything current-day or popular.

Following the meal, a procession to the burial ground takes place. There is a definite order to the procession – in the forefront ahead of the coffin are the people who chose the burial plot. The coffin is next in line, proceeded by the eldest son who carries a picture of the deceased. Next come the members of the close family to the deceased, all of whom wear large masks that cover their faces. These family members also carry walking sticks that are wrapped in beautiful white paper. They lean on these as they walk, symbolizing the fact that they are nearly immobilized by the immensity of their grief. In keeping with the great sadness that the family members have, they are supposed to weep loudly and cry out things such as, “Oh father, now that you are gone there is such a void in my life! How will I go on without you?” If a family member cannot bring himself or herself to weep, he or she will hire a professional mourner, a woman who can cry on command with great feeling.

Following the immediate family in the procession comes the rest of the people who have gathered for the funeral. Finally in the rear of all of the mourners comes a band of musicians playing sorrowful music. Everyone in the procession – from the people leading the throng to the person in the very rear – wears white which symbolized mourning in China.

Upon reaching the burial grounds, the body is buried and a group of people will bring small buckets of food to leave at the grave. This offering of food symbolizes the sustenance that the person will need in the next life. In addition to this custom at the time of death, there is also a yearly festival occurring in April in which offerings are made for the deceased. This festival, called the Cleaning of the Tombs, consists of families going to their ancestors’ tombs; here they leave three cups of water and wine along with other useful items and money. Oftentimes, the money will be folded and arranged into some type of object like a house. The money is placed on the grave and burned in hopes that the ancestors will witness the regard that the living family members still hold for them and bless the family with good fortune.

The day following the burial, the friends and family gather again to partake in another meal and a hearty celebration. Just as happens for the initial lunch, musicians are brought in – this time, however, a popular band from the city is brought in and joyful, popular melodies are played.

Despite much of China’s modernization, the ancient rituals applying to some of life’s most significant and weighty moments are still alive and well throughout the nation.


While Japan is an incredibly modernized nation in many ways, its people still hold very traditional views that hearken back millennia. Interestingly though, according to Mayu Kanai, a college student from Tokyo, the Japanese’s rituals surrounding death are undergoing an interesting transition as they teeter between traditional practices and more western means of approaching death and dying.

Customarily, funerals in Japan occur within the home and are only intended for the close family. A Buddhist monk will come to the home and read prayers in front of the casket. Then each person present puts a flower into the casket before it is closed. The casket is then taken in a hearse to be cremated. This ceremony and the cremation occurs two days after the death. The bones are buried in the cemetery in the family tomb, underneath the family headstone. Wives are buried under the family stone of their husbands.

Forty days after the death, the family prays again because the soul must be sent up to heaven. Mayu mentioned that the Shinto religion (which, along with Buddhism, predominates in Japan despite the small numbers of people who actively subscribe to either) teaches the concept of heaven and hell. Mayu also mentioned that the Japanese traditionally believe that a soul behave differently depending on the type of death that a person underwent. If the person did not die a peaceful death, his or her ghost may remain on earth seeking revenge. In such a case, it would require the help of a mediator to send the soul up to heaven.

While traditional ideas surrounding death undeniably still exist in Japan, western means of approaching this event have started to take hold more and more. One such example can be seen in regards to the deceased being buried in the family tomb – Mayu explained that currently one would find only two or three generations being buried in the tomb with ancestors since people are gravitating towards being buried underneath their own stone. Similarly, while funerals were traditionally held in the home, the recent trend is for these ceremonies to take place in funeral homes. As is the case with living, breathing societies (particularly in our increasingly globalized world), traditions can morph and change as is evidenced through these trends in Japan.

V. Conclusion

The countries of India, Vietnam, China, and Japan each bring a wealth of traditions revolving around death and a rich complexity of ideas regarding the role of ancestors, reincarnation, and the afterlife. In delving into such material, one is not only able to better understand core beliefs held by the people of these countries, but is also able to better understand the general cultures themselves.

Natalie Elghossain
Migration Around the World
Field Report #1
People Following Jobs

Migration, particularly at the international level, is undoubtedly a prevalent and pressing issue in today’s globalized world. Due to the significant impacts that migration has on both sending and receiving nations, it is important to understand the root causes of such frequent, widespread migration around the world. The push-pull theory characterizes the general dynamics of migration, whereby some people move because they are pushed out of their previous residence while others move because they are pulled or attracted elsewhere. Potential migrants tend to develop a cost-benefit analysis to help determine whether or not moving is the most advantageous decision. Research has shown that the desire to get ahead, particularly economically, has served as a significant and beneficial pull factor for many migrants, one that outweighs many of the costs associated with migration. Indeed, "if it is assumed that people spend much of their life pursuing various goals, then migration may be seen as a possible means--an implementing strategy--whereby a goal (such as more education, a better job, a nicer house, a more pleasant environment, and so on) might be attained" (Weeks Chapter 7, pg. 11).
From my own personal observations in Spain, Morocco, Namibia, and South Africa, it is apparent that a significant pull factor for many migrants is a job opportunity, one that is typically more desirable and more economically prosperous than what is being offered by the potential migrants’ current location. These observations are consistent with the Dual Labor Market Theory of International Migration, which separates the labor market into primary and secondary sectors. The following observations involve people in the secondary labor market, which is characterized by low wages, unstable working conditions, and lack of reasonable prospects for advancement. It appears that the people involved have been recruited passively into their jobs, through the diffusion of information that jobs are available. It can be argued, then, that "the flow of labor ought to be explained by a simple supply-and-demand model, with people moving from places where there aren’t enough jobs to places where there are jobs" (Weeks Chapter 7, pg. 22).

Although Spain has one of the largest immigrant populations in Europe, I did not come across any international migrants. In both the cities of Granada and Barcelona, I stumbled upon many international students who temporarily reside in Spain while they study abroad in the country, but because they have not permanently changed their place of residence, they represent mobility but not migration. I did, however, learn that Gorca, my walking tour guide in Barcelona, is an internal migrant of Spain. Gorca leads walking tours around the major metropolitan city of Barcelona multiple times a day and almost every day of the week. He originally comes from a small town outside of Barcelona but moved to the city about five years ago. He is extremely knowledgeable and passionate about the history and culture of Barcelona and found that he could share his knowledge with tourists in Barcelona where tourism is particularly fruitful. In this case, Gorca serves as an example of migration evolution, whereby the populations in many developed countries are largely urban based, and people are increasingly moving between and within urban places where jobs are plentiful.

Additionally, in Morocco, I found that I was unlikely to come across people who have immigrated into the country. Indeed, there is a large population of Moroccans who have emigrated from the country and have settled in Spain, and many people from Southern Africa travel through Morocco in order to ultimately reside in Spain. However, I did not meet a single person who was not a native of Morocco. Additionally, according to Nadia, a middle-aged Moroccan woman whom I stumbled upon at the train station in Casablanca, only a small number of Moroccans have traveled outside of the country. According to her, few in Morocco have the means or the opportunity to travel a significant distance within the country let alone outside of the country. Like Gorca, Nadia is a follower of the tourist industry, as she is a full-time tour guide for French and English tourists. The day I met her she was traveling to Marrakesh to conduct a pre-scheduled tour in the city, but she travels all over the country constantly, wherever her company sends her, in order to conduct tours. Although she symbolizes mobility only and not migration, her story is representative of the significant pull that a job can have on a person and, also, that the benefits of having a job, particularly for those in the secondary sector of the labor market, are very much worth the costs associated with travel.

Despite the relatively small, young population of Namibia, I met a handful of locals in Swakopmund who had immigrated to the country, all of whom migrated with the intention of obtaining a specific, more prosperous job. All of them had chosen Namibia because its gorgeous landscape attracts a growing amount of tourists, making it easier and more conducive for their particular lines of work. All three of my sand boarding instructors, Jay, Clayton and Heini, came to Namibia with the intention of teaching sand boarding on the largest sand dunes in the world. Clayton emigrated from neighboring South Africa, but Jay made the move all the way from Northern California in the United States, symbolizing a drastic, permanent change in residence for the sake of a desired job opportunity. Heini, a native of Namibia, moved to Kenya for a while to work in the sporting industry (other than sand boarding), but was recently pulled back into Namibia when a friend told him about the good money that can be made as a sand boarding instructor in Namibia. Similarly, when I asked Lawrence, our hot air balloon conductor who is originally from Kenya, “What brought you to Namibia?” he replied explicitly, “Hot air ballooning.” Lawrence has been an international migrant for much of his life, as he has lived in Kenya, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe, Germany, the U.S., and, finally, Namibia. He received his licenses as a pilot and as a hot air balloon conductor in California, where he worked for a few years as a pilot. He later developed a passion for hot air balloons, and once he discovered how wonderful hot air ballooning can be in Namibia, particularly in Swakopmund where he monopolizes the industry, he moved to Namibia and brought his wife along with him. Therefore, Lawrence also clearly demonstrates the concept that "people migrate for job-related reasons and then, very often, their family members follow them in a pattern of chain migration that involves family reunification" (Weeks Chapter 7, pg 22).

Although South Africa is often referred to as “the world in one country” because of its vastly diverse population, a large amount of whom are immigrants, South Africa is also currently suffering from the so-called “brain drain.” During my FDP with Professor Strouse to Plumstead High School in Cape Town, I talked with a math teacher, whose name I have regrettably forgotten, who had only recently returned to Cape Town to teach after many years of teaching in Kuwait. She is a native of Cape Town, where she originally began teaching, but she was lured many years ago to teach in Kuwait where teachers are better compensated. According to her, she has returned to Cape Town because of family issues, but she made it seem as though she would have stayed in Kuwait otherwise because the socioeconomic opportunities for teachers are greater. She noted that there is a common problem in South Africa with many other well-educated teachers leaving the country because they are not nearly as valued or as compensated as they should be or as teachers are in other places around the world. In this case, emigration of well-educated South Africans is detrimental to society, particularly when it includes teachers because they are responsible for educating the rest of the population.

In conclusion, these several cases based on informal observations all exemplify the significance of the job market as a pull factor for both internal and international migration.

Sunday, May 3, 2009

Crossing the Panama Canal

After a long day of crossing the Panama Canal, we are finally through and back out on the open seas. I’m not sure any of us really grasped the scale of the canal itself before we saw it with our own eyes. The locking system that was dreamed up by brilliant engineers over 100 years ago is astounding.

For those of you who are not familiar with how the canal system works, here is the simple explanation. The Panama Canal is not at sea level and in order to make it across, ships must be elevated through a series of locks. These are basically compartments where the water level can be raised to elevate ships or lowered to bring them back down. Once a ship is in the lock, its gates will be sealed and the water level will be adjusted to bring the ship to its appropriate height. Engines running along the side of the canal on tracks then pull the ship through the lock until it is back in open water. There are three locking systems that ships must pass through in addition to a number of both natural and man-made waterways that carry ships most of the way through.

Altogether, the Panama Canal is about 48 miles in length but that is nothing compared to the 14,000 mile journey around the Cape Horn that it replaced. We entered around 8:30am this morning and we were probably out by about 4:45pm. It is estimated that about 14,000 ships pass through a year and there were quite a few out there with us today.

There has also been a lot going on aboard the ship. Yesterday marked the last day of finals and there was one exam in particular that caught the shipboard community’s attention. All semester long, Aniseh Burtner’s World Dance class has been studying and learning different styles of dance from around the globe. For the final exam, students prepared their own dances and performed in the Union for all of us. There were performances based on styles from all of the countries that we visited over the past three and half months.

This afternoon, there was also an Academic Gallery to showcase exemplary work during the semester. Faculty were given the opportunity to nominate students from their classes, who were then recognized during a brief ceremony that was followed by presentations from the students themselves that gave us a chance to see what they have been working on.

Grace Nixon, a student from Santa Clara University, has been conducting interviews with locals in every port for a project for her geography class. The assignment was to choose a topic in sociology to research and Grace chose to compare the different views on death and dying around the world. “It was fascinating to see different views around the world,” Grace remarked. Natalie Elghossain of Cranbury, NJ has been studying immigration issues as she traveled around the world with Semester at Sea. The focus of her research has been the main factors that cause people to emigrate.

Visual art was on display as well. Rebecca Braun of Tenafly, NJ and a student at the University of Michigan has been enrolled in an arts class aboard the MV Explorer. Her sketches and drawings combined with a written journal captured the spirit of our journey and of the people and places that we visited. Elyssa Tanenbaum, a student at the University of Florida chose to show us some pieces that she created for her digital photography class. There was some amazing work on display and all of the students aboard the ship have a lot to be proud of.

Photos #2, 4, and 5 by SAS Photographer John Weakley

Saturday, May 2, 2009

Providing Safe Passge

In 1997, a schoolteacher in North Carolina named Hanley Denning decided to spend a year in Guatemala to work on her Spanish so that she could communicate better with her Spanish-speaking students. Somehow, one year turned into two but after that, she was all set to go home. As Hanley neared the end of her time in Antigua, however, a friend of hers brought her along on a visit to the slums next to the Guatemala City dump.

What she saw there would change her life. The families living in and next to the dump basically survived off of what they could find there. They made their living on whatever they could unearth and sell amidst the trash, often ate whatever remains they could find, and without any money for an education, they had no prospects of ever being able to lift themselves out of poverty.

That very same week, Hanley founded Camino Seguro, which means “Safe Passage” in English. By going into her savings and having her parents sell her car and computer back in the U.S., Hanley was able to put together enough money to educate 40 children who were living in the Guatemalan City dump.

“We believe every child should have the opportunity to receive an education and to go as far as they are able in school. Our programs are designed so that each child can gain the skills needed to obtain stable jobs, to be self-sufficient and to lead their families out of poverty in a dignified and permanent way,” the program’s goals state. Camino Seguro works to provide the children of families living in and near the dump with an education, nutritional support, medical attention, vocational training programs, and extracurricular activities.

2009 marks the 10th anniversary of the organization’s founding. Tragically, Hanley was killed in an automobile accident in Antigua in 2007 but the work that she began and Camino Seguro have continued on the path that she laid out. Today, over 550 Guatemalan children are being educated by Camino Seguro and receiving assistance through its other programs.

While we were in Guatemala, two groups of Semester at Sea voyagers traveled to Guatemala City on service projects and visited the dump to see the work being done there by Camino Seguro. “It was one of the most inspiring yet horrifying things I’ve ever seen,” said Nancy Abbott. “The people there are in a terrible cycle of poverty that they can’t get out of because they can’t afford education.” Camino Seguro provides the means for these families to pull themselves out of poverty.

During their visit, voyagers were able to speak with the staff of Camino Seguro and meet with some of the families benefitting from their good work. This service project, and the many others that students have participated in over the voyage have really inspired many into action. “I don’t want to just go home and sit down,” said Sarah Shields. When she returns home, she is planning on looking into ways to raise money and awareness for the different causes she has volunteered for while on Semester at Sea. Many students have also said that they would like to return to organizations that touched them to volunteer for lengthier periods of time.

Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Last Stop, Guatemala

Tomorrow morning at 8:00am, the MV Explorer will be docking in Puerto Quetzal, Guatemala, the final port visit of the Spring 2009 Voyage. The port itself is one of the largest in Guatemala and puts many of Guatemala’s greatest sites within just a few hours reach.

One of best destinations will surely be Antigua, located in the central highlands of Guatemala. It is not a big city, but it is known for its incredible architecture and natural beauty, which includes three large volcanoes that surround the city. It was even designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. A number of voyagers will be traveling there through a homestay program that will place them with a Guatemalan family for the duration of our stay in the country.

Another UNESCO World Heritage Site that will be visited by voyagers is Tikal, a major archaeological site of the Mayan civilization. Located in the northern part of the country, Tikal thrived from roughly 200-900. It is located in the midst of a rainforest and is home to thousands of ruins, the largest being six Mesoamerican step pyramids. There is still much to unearth at the site.

There are also scheduled trips to climb Guatemala’s incredible volcanoes, immerse oneself in Mayan culture, and do service visits that will address some of the issues of poverty in the country. The array of options available to voyagers should provide something to everyone, and it should be a great finale to an incredible voyage.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Academic Support

Most students are probably breathing a big sigh of relief right now. Yesterday was the last full day of classes and this afternoon, they completed the final Global Studies exam. There are two more days of exams and then the academic calendar for the semester is finished! I thought this would be a good point to tell you more about the academic support system that has been in place all semester to help students with their classes and other academic pursuits.

Every living learning coordinator (LLC), the equivalent of a resident advisor, also has a collateral assignment. One of those LLCs is Brad Miller, who is responsible for academic support programs aboard the MV Explorer. “I try to bridge the chasm between academic life and residential life and serve as liaison between faculty and students,” Brad told me.

This is the second year in Semester at Sea’s history that this position has been in place, and it has really made an impact on the students. Brad has years of experience in education and has used that experience to design an innovative program that brings together the academic needs of students, their extracurricular interests, and shipboard life.

He received an undergraduate degree from Harvard University where he majored in Latin. Following college, Brad taught Latin at a boarding school while he ran one of their dorms. He then spent a year at the University of Florida where he earned a master’s degree in Latin and worked for the football team in their Quality Control department. He then moved on to Stanford, where he received a master’s degree in education and worked as an assistant football coach. After some time teaching in California, Brad then moved to Florence, Italy where he most recently was the Academic Supervisor of an international school.

To make sure he knows what the students are going through, Brad regularly attends classes and meets with professors, the academic dean, and our registrar. “It’s great to be back in the classroom again after some time as an administrator and experience just a small piece of what our students get, “ he said. Brad told me that his goal has been to setup a “scaffolding of academic support,” that can adjust to fluctuations in the academic workload.

The programming that the academic team has provided has really done just that. They started off during our first week at sea with a strong presence at the student activities fair. Right then, Brad was able to identify students with unique skills and those who were enthusiastic to help provide assistance during the semester. A popular student interest in creating “language tables” during meals (interested voyagers would sit together and study a language through conversation) also led to the start of a number of language tables including three in Spanish, one in French, and one in Japanese.

As classes began, the emphasis shifted to assisting students succeed in such a unique environment. The greatest challenge to students, Brad explained, is the irregular calendar, caused by the interruptions due to our field excursions. The challenges though, Brad said, “forceseveryone to rediscover their best ways of learning.” To address this issue, a panel composed of faculty, staff, and lifelong learners spoke to students about the study aids that worked for them when they were in school and provided them with other tips to have a successful academic voyage.

As the semester went on, the academic team was there to meet any needs the students may have had. Faculty would refer students to Brad that they felt might be falling behind and Brad also looked out for students that he thought might need a little extra help. A number of students have also been very proactive and sought out assistance when they felt they were having difficulties. In all of these instances, the academic team worked with students to pair them up with stronger people in their classes who might be able to help them with notes or tutoring or help them devise study plans. Brad also pointed out the many faculty who “embrace the 24/7 aspect of shipboard life,” that allows them to interact and assist students on an informal basis. The academic team also started a writing center where students could have their papers reviewed by student volunteers.

Additionally, a Graduate School Night and a Career Night were held in response to student interest. Both drew large numbers of voyagers. For the graduate school session, students attended a dinner and sat with faculty, staff, and lifelong learners who had been through the graduate school application process, and in some cases taught in the relevant fields, so that they could gain some insight into the application process and learn more about specific programs. For Career Night, students had the option of attending different sessions throughout the ship to learn about internship possibilities, what classes might help them in a chosen profession, and get more information on potential paths to their dream jobs. There was really something for everyone, with offerings from medicine, to communications, to politics and much in between.

The students themselves started a number of initiatives though. One of the best examples of this is the Port Research Operations (PRO) Society, which took off after a group of students expressed interest in learning about the current events of South Africa as we approached Cape Town. Over the past few months, interest has spread and the group now meets in preparation of every port and presents on the current news of our next destination to the entire shipboard community during global studies. The group also maintains a facebook group called “PRO Society – Semester at Sea Spring 2009” if you would like to see what they have been up to. The students are planning to continue their research after the voyage is over so that they can keep up to date on the places we have visited.

Thursday, April 23, 2009

Have you ever wondered….?

During an Explorer Seminar the other evening, voyagers were given a rare opportunity to quiz the four most senior officers of the crew on anything and everything having to do with our voyage, their jobs, and the MV Explorer.

There is a lot that goes into the daily operation of the ship; probably more than we’ll ever know. There are over 200 crew aboard the MV Explorer who work tirelessly to ensure that things run smoothly during the voyage. The ship was built as a cruise liner in 2002 by the German firm, Blohm & Voss, and then later retrofitted as a floating campus when purchased by Semester at Sea. It is the fastest passenger ship of its kind in the world, with a capability to reach around 30 knots and it is just under 600 ft. in length, with seven decks.

L to R: Chief Engineer Mario Penniello, Staff Captain Konstantinos Siamantas, Master Captain Jeremy Kingston, and Hotel Director Stefan Heuser

Now meet our incredible officers. Our Master Captain, Jeremy Kingston, has been on the sea since a young child. He joined the P&O Steam Navigation Company as a Cadet Officer in 1974 and then served on a number of vessels as he interspersed his voyages with studies at the Southampton School of Navigation at Warsah in the United Kingdom. It would take him about ten years of training before he qualified to be a captain and another twelve before he received a master position, but in that time, he achieved an exemplary record in the cruise industry.

Our Staff Captain is Kostas Siamantas. He began his career at sea as a deck cadet at the age of 18 for Niarhos Shipping Company and then attended the Merchant Marine Academy of Thessaloniki, Greece from which he graduated in 1985. In 1987, Siamantas began his career in the cruise industry and over the years, he has held the positions of 1st Officer, Safety Officer, and now captain.

This next person is arguably the most important member of our crew, especially considering the fact that there are over 700 hungry college students aboard the ship. Our Hotel Director, Stefan Heuser, runs the operations of the ship that are probably closest to us, such as the dining services and housekeeping. He was born and raised in Germany and started his professional career with a formal apprenticeship to become a chef. He began is career at sea in 1992, working on a small luxury passenger ship, and then he joined V. Ships, the company which manages the MV Explorer, 14 years ago. After a number of successful assignments around the globe for V. Ships, Stefan joined the crew of the MV Explorer in August 2005 and has been with us since.

Our fourth senior officer is the Chief Engineer, Mario Penniello. Mario oversees all of the technical aspects of the ship and literally keeps the engines running. He also is in charge of a number of other essential systems of the ship including our water and electrical systems.

Here are some of the questions that voyagers asked our officers. (Not exact quotes, I have paraphrased in some cases)

Q: How is water made aboard the MV Explorer?
Chief Engineer: The ship has a freshwater system that takes in seawater, which is then run through filters and chlorinated. In addition to the pure water used for drinking , we also have grey water and black water tanks. The grey water is water collected from the sinks, galley, laundry, and showers, etc…Black water comes from our sewage system. While we are at sea, both forms of water can be ejected (black water is treated with chlorine first) according to maritime regulations.

Q: How does our water usage compare to other voyages?
Staff Captain: Voyagers this semester are using the amount that is expected. Consumption is about 220-240 tons per day while we have the capacity to produce around 500 tons per day.

Q: How many pounds of potatoes are used during voyage?
Hotel Manager: We use about 500g/person/day at sea, which is about 400lbs/day. (That’s 43,200 lbs of potatos!!!)

Q: Where is the bread from?
Hotel Manager: All bread on board, with the exception of our bagels and English muffins, is baked fresh for every meal. We probably produce around 700-800 rolls per meal plus the toast at every meal and the pastries provided at breakfast.

Q: What is the ship’s fuel consumption like?
Chief Engineer: The ship’s fuel capacity is 1190 tons. We estimate that we will use about 700 tons to go from Hawaii to Guatemala.
Master Captain: We will probably get around 6 miles per ton. If we are going really fast, we may only get about 4 miles per ton. Our most efficient speed is probably somewhere around 14-15 knots but that is really debatable because the slower you go, the longer you are at sea, and you still consume a lot of fuel just to keep the ship going.

Q: How is electricity generated?
Chief Engineer: There are four generators on board that are separate from the main engines. Two are usually in use, sometimes three during maneuvers such as pulling into a port.

Q: What does it cost to be in port?
Master Captain: It really depends on the port. The cost is generally calculated by the gross tonnage of the ship. Sometimes, we are given exemptions though because we are an educational ship and prices can be reduced or even waived altogether.

Q: Do we have the capacity for green energy?
Chief Engineer: We try but there are no real alternatives to running the ship. All we can do is try to minimize consumption and be more efficient.
Master Captain: To give you an example of where technology is right now, there is now one ship being built with solar panels. All of the panels on board will generate enough electricity to be able to power one elevator.
(I also wanted to note Semester at Sea's Greening of the Ship initiative, which will be a phased $2.6 million project starting in Spring 2010. The plan will include improvements to the MV Explorer's water management system, HVAC, propellers, lighting, consumption, hydraulics, and other ship functions and will be integrated with a sustainability awareness program for voyagers.)

Q: Can you explain how the ship’s stabilizers work?
Master Captain: Stabilizers are basically like an aerofoil, which extend about 4 meters on each side when they’re out. They are controlled by a gyro sphere that automatically deploys them when it detects the ship leaning in one direction or the other. The effect on speed is debatable. I estimate we lose about half a knot when they’re out but if the ship is zigzagging a lot, you may use more fuel.

Q: How much can the ship roll? How far below waterline is the ship?
Master Captain: The MV Explorer is able to roll to about 67 degrees and come back without a problem. The ship extends about 24 ft below the surface.

Q: If you’re all here, who is driving right now?
Master Captain: I really don’t take the controls except for what is essentially parking the ship. There are three people who take turns steering and they work in shifts.

Q: What are the crew’s facilities like?
Staff Captain: There is a crew mess as well as an officer’s mess. There’s also a gym and a crew bar in the evenings where we hold events. Deck 4 aft is also available to them. In addition to the facilities on the ship. We also often organize trips in ports of call.

Q: How many washing machines are aboard the ship?
Hotel Manager: The ship has two large washing machines and 3 dryers. (I have to say, this really surprised all of us!)

Q: In case of an emergency, what is the estimated time to get everyone into lifeboats?
Master Captain: By law, we need to be able to get everyone safely off of the ship in 30 minutes or less.

Q: If there is a medical emergency while at sea, is surgery possible?
Master Captain: We have the capacity on board to perform surgeries but the ship’s medical facilities are generally designed to stabilize a patient’s condition until you can get them to shore. If necessary, we could also call for a medivac.

Q: Captain, in your opinion, what's the coolest room on the ship?
Master Captain: The meat room. (Get it?)

Photo by SAS Photographer John Weakley