SCMP Saturday, September 29, 2001

Cruising classes embark on a voyage of discovery


It's a gleaming cruise liner, to all appearances just another ocean-going playground for the leisured classes.
Appearances, of course, can be deceptive. Welcome to the SS Universe Explorer - anything but a party boat, in fact a floating university that gives adventurous students a taste of the exotic.
Most of the glitz and trappings of this luxury liner have disappeared, and even the once flashy casino has had a make-over and now serves as a library.
It is also devoid of fancy restaurants: instead a cafeteria serves student canteen fare. But to these particular students the cafeteria is all part of the fun and a chance to socialise with their peers.
The 650 disparate undergraduates - who hail from about 250 different universities across the US, Canada, Europe and other countries - also see this floating classroom with its porthole windows as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to peek into life in foreign countries.
The marriage of academia with adventure comes courtesy of Semester at Sea, run by the Institute for Shipboard Education (ISE) and with the academic side sponsored for the last 20 years by the University of Pittsburgh. The ship sails three times a year, in spring, summer and autumn, with the spring and autumn "semester" lasting 100 days and taking in 10 different cities. A shorter summer course lasts 65 days.
Unsurprisingly, learning on board - and in port - can be a spontaneous and unpredictable affair: it is not unusual for classes to come to an abrupt halt when students, gazing out of portholes, suddenly spot a surfacing whale. There are other surreal facets to this seagoing schooling: seasickness is a genuine excuse for missing lectures, regular phone calls home are a thing of the past and for most of the journey the students are essentially cut off from the world. Students only got to hear of the September 11 attacks on the US, for instance, when they arrived in Japan several days afterwards.
These attacks have, however, led to a slight itinerary change and instead of calling in at Indian, Middle Eastern and north African ports, this semester's students will now head for southern Africa and South America instead.
But this change and fears of an impending war have done little to dampen their enthusiasm, and when Education Post interviewed some of the students - as they called into Hong Kong en route from Japan this week - they were eager to talk of their adventure.
They chatted about life on the Universe Explorer, its meeting places, swimming pools and the ports they had visited.
Their night-time arrival for a five-day stay in Hong Kong had also left a lasting impression on many, and, for those whose cabins faced across the water to Central while their ship was docked at Ocean Terminal, the view was breathtaking.
Soon after the cruising campus docked, hundreds of eager students stepped on to dry land for a bit of sightseeing, and many joined a three-day trip to Beijing. But this adventure comes at a price, and it is only those who can afford the fares who can spend a semester at sea. Prices range from US$15,000 (HK$117,000) to US$18,000 for the duration. This does not include the cost of field trips. But there is relief for less well-off adventurers. Four hours' work a day on board the boat can earn them reduced rates.
Meanwhile, learning on board is largely the same as on land, and the education programme offers a complete university curriculum. The curriculum offers 100 different courses, from anthropology through to zoology. All students on the cruise have to take a core course entitled Global Perspective: World Regional Geography, plus three additional full-time courses. On-board study takes up about 50 per cent of the trip, while field trips make up the rest.
Psychology undergraduate Bailey Jordan, 21, of South Carolina, said she was learning more than she ever had. She said she had found out about the programme on the Internet and knew immediately that it was something she had to do.
"It's so challenging, and you learn about things that you will need for the rest of your life. You don't just learn about the country, you learn about the culture, and then you see it so you apply everything.
"You would never learn this kind of stuff at home."
Deme Yuan, 22, a sociology student from Colorado, said one of the most enriching experiences so far had been staying with a Japanese family in Kobe for two nights. She said this had enabled her to begin to learn about their society and political issues. "There's a lot of chance for open discussion - it's so different to living in the bubble of a university campus. People from the US don't know very much about other countries," she said, adding she had been able in return to tell her host family about the US.
Deme confessed the trip had taught her much she had not known - such as the name of Japan's Prime Minister. During her brief stay in the country she learnt more about Japanese politics, culture and history than she would be exposed to back home.
German economics student Dominic Holy, 20, said he liked meeting and mixing with the other students from around the world, and brushing up on his language skills.
"It's great to be able to see other countries other than Germany and America while still studying. I also get to improve my English," he said.
Also on-board the ship are 30 professors from the US, Australia and Canada, who travel with their families. About 50 "senior travellers", who choose to travel in an academic setting, have also joined the voyage.
Some, like one elderly couple who are both in their 90s, return regularly. They are currently on their 17th voyage as senior travellers. Students from the ship's ports of call also often join the cruise for a few days. They are called "in-port students" and their mission is to tell the others a little about their country.
One University of Hong Kong student joined the current voyage in Japan. She flew to Japan and then sailed with the others back to Hong Kong, using the time on board to explain the city and its culture.
Meanwhile, American students back on land, from kindergarten to Grade 12, are not forgotten. They can keep in virtual contact with those on board through its Vicarious Voyage Around the World programme.
Groups of up to five Semester at Sea students adopt a school class and then communicate with them throughout the term, sending "culture packets" including items such as newspapers, menus, maps, stamps, or language brochures, to enable teachers to make an international learning experience come alive for their pupils.
To be accepted for Semester at Sea, students should ideally be in their second year of university or above and need to apply about a year in advance. The next trip is due to sail in Spring 2002 and applications will be accepted at the end of this semester.
The first step is to download an application form from the Internet and send it with transcripts and references to the Semester At Sea selection committee, which will choose on the basis of academic performance and merit.
Students should then take the curriculum to their university and choose the subjects that will match their courses so they can obtain transferable college credits.
Semester At Sea says most universities around the world, including Hong Kong, accept such credit transfers.
For more information and an application form to join the SS Universe Explorer go to the Web site