Semester at Sea
Semester at Sea is an overseas exchange program overseen and administered by the nonprofit organization of the Institute of Shipboard Education. The program has a long history of partnership with top US universities in offering students a global comparative education.
Every year, SAS embarks on two voyages which take place either during spring (Spring Voyage - January to April) around the world and autumn (Fall Voyage - September to December) around the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean.
Between the two options, I have opt for the Spring 2016 “A Voyage Around the World” which circumnavigates the globe in 102 days, traversing the waters of 12 countries, namely, the US, Mexico, Japan, China, Vietnam, Burma, India, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Morocco and England.
“The World Campus Afloat”—The MV World Odyssey
The MV World Odyssey is the 6th ship to sail with SAS. Meticulous maintenance had been carried out to remodel the German-built luxury cruise liner so as to better accommodate the academic aspect of SAS. With a tonnage of 22,400 and 10 decks, the ship carries approximately 50 faculty staff members, 150 crew members and 600 undergraduate students from all over the world.
How did I study on the ship?
• Academic Structure
The standard SAS course requirements include enrolling for 4 courses, of which one of them must a Global Lens course. The days spent at sea sailing between different countries are normal class days, alternating between Day A and B without breaks. Occasionally, designated “Study Days” are arranged before mid-terms, special activities and finals, providing students either with some downtime to relax or to catch up with schoolwork. This rigorous academic system allows students to complete all 12 credits by the end of the semester and their courses with the equal level of depth and class time compared to on-land campuses, if not more.
Additionally, each course is paired with a Field Lab (a field trip) in one specific country of the professor’s choosing to learn more about local customs. Afterwards, students are expected to put pen to paper a “Field Lab Report” to reflect on the day trip and in what ways did the Lab relate daily textbook concepts and class learnings to a country’s history and practices.
• How do we study on a ship?
To much of my surprise, prior to my departure, I was informed by a 2012 SAS alumni from HKU that Wi-Fi is not available on board. The principal reason for internet restriction is due to SAS’s goal for students to pay greater attention to forming actual human nexuses rather than clinging onto distant, virtual friendships.
Nevertheless, to assist with on-ship and external communication, students are provided with email service (“Seamail”). Given Seamail only authorizes text messages and attachments, it had challenged students like myself to come up with ingenuous methods to stay connected to our families e.g. I attached pictures to Word documents and converted them to PDFs before sending it to my friends and family. Also, the academic platform of Moodle and a public drive were used extensively to turn in assignments, attempt quizzes and share information.
You may wonder: without internet access and other forms of entertainment, what were our pastimes for 4 months at sea? In fact, as aforementioned, studying had already taken up the majority of time and kept us occupied throughout the day. For the rest of the time, one could work out at the gym to maintain physical fitness, sunbathe or swim in the pool, host or participate in student clubs on board. Here are a few examples of what I did on board:
• The Amazing China Cultural Club
Me and nine other Chinese students on board have co-founded “The Amazing China Cultural Club” to present the intriguing side of Chinese culture to foreign students, prepare them for the possible culture shock before visiting Shanghai and Hong Kong and teach them basic survival Chinese/Cantonese phrases.
Ballroom Dancing Club
Apart from hosting a student-directed club, I was also an active member of the Ballroom Dancing Club.
Our student instructors have taught us the basics of four latin dances: Cha-Cha-Cha, Rumba and Samba and Tango. As part of club showcase, we have performed a dance number during the Talent Show.
Places Visited: Favorite and Least Preferred Country
Students gathered at San Diego, CA to be bused over to board the ship at Ensenada, Mexico. We ventured out from the Americas, setting sail across the Pacific Ocean to Hawaii and finally, after the longest stretch of 18 days, the MV World Odyssey docked at Japan (Yokohama, Kobe).
From then on, we sailed through the waters of many Asian countries: (Shanghai) China, Hong Kong, (Ho Chi Minh City) Vietnam, (Yangon) Burma, (Cochin) India and to (Port Louis) Mauritius, a tiny island nation in the Indian Ocean.
For the third part, we continued with our journey up and around the African continent to (Cape Town) South Africa, (Takoradi, Tema) Ghana and (Casablanca) Morocco before disembarking at (Southampton) England, officially ending our around-the-world endeavor.
• Favorite Country: South Africa
Cape Town (South Africa) was definitely one of the best ports of call I have visited. It was the epitome of both education and new experience. For my Gender and Society class, we got to visit the Blikkiesdorp Township just 30 minutes away from downtown. It was a place where we obtained extensive insight about HIV/AIDS, poverty and crime among the grass-root class as it was plagued with problems as such. This posed as a drastic contrast to the façade of Cape Town’s prosperity, especially when compared to what we have seen at the Waterfront area close to where we docked, a district that radiates a sense of establishment and affluence.
Apart from the knowledge (Apartheid and South Africa’s current development) that this country has to offer, it had also proved itself to be one diverse, thrilling and incredibly hospitable travel destination. To begin with, I have had the privilege to go on an phenomenal safari trip organized by SAS to meet “The Big Five”, skydive out of an airplane at an altitude of 9,000 ft., climbed 3,558 ft. back up the world-renowned Table Mountain and finally, got to sample some of South Africa’s native game meats such as ostrich, kudu (a type of antelope), Springbok (another type of antelope) and warthog (an African wild boar).
• Least Preferred Country: Ghana
Intriguingly, the other country that I would like to evaluate is also in Africa. Upon my first day arriving in Ghana, I could already sense the economic hardship this country is in from the highly prevalent occurrences of graft.
During our 4-hour drive to and from the Kakum National Park, we stopped at 6 police checkpoints. Every time, our driver would utter an excuse to shake the policemen’s hands and pay them 1 Cedi each time (about HKD$2). On the right shows a discrete snapshot I took of a Ghanaian policeman ordering our taxi driver to pull over before an instance of corruption took place.
The locals have given me such polarized impressions of this country. On one hand, we did receive a lot of warm welcomes and hospitality from students of the University of Ghana as well as from University of Cape Coast. They had magnanimously helped us navigate our way around the cities of Takoradi, Tema and the capital of Accra and provided much valuable information useful in completing our academic research papers.
Yet, on our Field Lab with Introduction to Social Psychology at the Oxford Street Market, unfortunately, most female participants, including myself, had experienced some of the worst cases of sexual harassment over the course of this voyage, usually directed from local street vendors. For me, I was verbally harassed by stall holders as I was about to get on the bus and depart for our ship. It is very commendable that our course instructor, Mikki had tried her very best in shielding us from the vendors’ distasteful comments and unprovoked aggression during the Field Lab and took quick precautions such as swiftly reporting the incidents to the SAS administration and relocated the Lab to a different venue the next day.
Difficulties and Special Moments
SAS as a sobering and enthralling experience certainly did not occur with ease for me. One cannot believe the mounting pressure the program bestow upon you as there was so many items and so much detail to esteem for such as financial considerations, health and safety, packing and constantly overcoming the obstacles that preparation throws in your way.
As a case in point, the application for visas was indeed a very close call pushing all time limits and effort. As a Hong Kong citizen, I have to complete 3 entry visas and among them, the one for Ghana deemed the most vexing. Since Hong Kong no longer has a Ghana Consulate that process visas for visitors, I had to make contact with the Ghana Embassy in Beijing that redirected me to an honorary consular in Hong Kong. The official gave me his word the visa would be completed in two weeks’ time but it ended up taking three working weeks before I rushed over to collect it in one afternoon and with only 10 minutes left on the clock, dashed off from one end of Wanchai to another towards the India Consulate to apply for the remaining visa.
It is indescribable how relieved I was when I finally made it to the India Consulate out of breath, profusely perspiring, with precisely 2 minutes to spare but finally filed all documents in just in time. Nevertheless, I have heard visa stories from my fellow shipmates that completely humbled me: Chinese students were required to apply for 7 visas and even more ludicrous; for Lebanese students, a jaw-dropping number of 10.
Bracing Ourselves for Finals
If you think SAS is an extravagant 102-day lavish vacation around the world with sumptuous food, free-flowing wine and pleasure in all of its forms, you cannot be any more mistaken. As the voyage drew to a close, during the last 2 weeks before the final exams, I had lived a dreaded routine of passing out from exhaustion at 1am and springing back to life at 7am the next morning, meanwhile spending the rest of my waking hours studying, writing and revising. But I am fortunate to say that I have a group of friends that worked hard together with me every day at the Berlin Restaurant to leap over whatever hurdles that came in our way.
How to make use of this experience?
Why should one take part in this costly undertaking? My response to that is: it is a life-changing process that helps to define yourself. Not only does SAS nurture independence more so than any other exchanges as it encourages its students to travel independently in so many different countries. But it also fosters incomparable problem-solving capabilities in due course by allowing them to handling unfamiliar situations e.g. itinerary planning, locating transport and dealing with the most unexpected predicaments one might encounter in entirely foreign cultural backdrops.
The most pivotal calibers that I have sharpened throughout this journey are open-mindedness and adaptability. SAS had trained us prolifically with observing, experiencing, accepting and finally adapting to various cultural differences around the world. These alone, I believe, are traits that will continue to serve me well whatever settings I find myself in in the future.