by Elaine Church

It was during a chance encounter in Shanghai when I first heard about Semester at Sea. In 1996, I was listening to a jazz band at the Peace Hotel, when I was joined by a recently retired colleague who was traveling the world with Semester At Sea. He and his wife were sailing for three and a half months on this amazing program — a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sail to ten different countries travelling with a fantastic and energetic community of faculty, staff, lifelong learners, and undergraduate students. I took notes, promising myself that I too would one day experience Semester at Sea (SAS).

It took 16 years, but in May 2012, I contacted Semester at Sea (SAS) and signed up for a few short educational trips that were being offered at the time. Finally, in the Spring of 2014 and then again in the Fall of 2016, I sailed for an entire semester as a “LifeLong Learner” (LLL). While each of these voyages visited different parts of the globe, each enabled me to build lifetime friendships with interesting shipmates, including other LLLs, faculty and students. Spending 105-110 days aboard the ship together, sharing classes, special programs, meals and port excursions — that all formed a strong and supportive shipboard community from this very diverse group of travelers. I became a part of a shipboard “Extended Family” on each voyage, and grew close to many students. Several of my ship “daughters” still visit me to this day!

In addition to developing friends amongst the shipboard community, I was excited by the opportunity to participate in some fascinating undergraduate courses taught by experienced and adventuresome professors, all of whom linked their course material to our voyage.

For example, in my art history class, I was able to study the migration of Buddhist-inspired artistic traditions of Asia while experiencing them live in the monasteries of Japan, China and Vietnam, in the temples and towering Buddhas of Mandalay as well as in the museums of Singapore and Shanghai.

On another voyage, I was able to study comparative politics by learning about the political systems and current issues in each country we visited, and then participating in field trips to meet with political leaders or embassy officials and leading non-profits in the countries we visited.

Having received my BA in Literature, I thoroughly enjoyed studying literature from the countries we visited, including modern short stories from contemporary authors of each country.

In addition to attending classes, Lifelong Learners were often asked to support the learning environment on-ship by contributing to class discussions and presentations in their areas of expertise, becoming mentors for students, and supporting specific-interest clubs that sprang up on the ship.

Unlike commercial cruises that spend no more than one day in each country, SAS spends 4-6 days in each port, which allows each voyager to explore the country and interact meaningfully with its people. While I sometimes traveled independently, I also enjoyed many SAS- sponsored learning excursions, most of which were programs that offered people-to-people interaction and intercultural learning.

While visiting historic sites in India, the official at the famous Temple in the Sea welcomed us to join a Deva-Diwali celebration, learning from the participants the significance of the holiday and the importance of their multi-day celebration. In Myanmar, we visited several Buddhist temples, and observed a Noviciation Ceremony, where young boys dedicate themselves to serve. In South Africa there was the “Elephant Encounter,” and in Costa Rica I learned how to make cocoa at a chocolate plantation. In Panama, we traveled to an Embera Indian village and had lunch with the villagers, and learned about their handicrafts and dances. Traveling Ecuador’s Ruta de las Guitarras, we met and jammed with artisans in their home workshops.

In each port there are also Community Service trips offered. One of my favorites was working with students to help rebuild and repaint cages in the Belize Zoo that had been destroyed by a hurricane. Our hard work was rewarded when we were allowed to enter a cage in the jaguar encampment so that an adult Belizean jaguar could come to play with us, letting us feed and pet him.

In addition, I was able to check off a number of my personal “bucket-list” experiences and places to see: Machu Picchu, the city of Lhasa; the Galapagos; the Hiroshima Peace Memorial; the Floating Torii; the Taj Mahal; Siem Reap and Angkor Wat to name just a few.

I hope, on my next trip (oh yes, there will be more voyages for me!) to introduce my grandson and nephew to the world on a Semester at Sea voyage!


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