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Semester at Sea

The 24,300-ton cruise ship that docked in Chennai in October didn’t carry camera-laden tourists just anxious to visit the famous beaches of southern India. Rather, it brought 520 American university students for real-life lessons that will earn them college credit as they sail around the world for a semester. On the ship and off, the classes are nothing like a normal campus.

One learning session occurred in a community center near a huge, open sewer in a Chennai shantytown. Five American university students and several Indian students from a local Rotary Club offshoot, Rotaract, were discovering what it takes to make a sustainable difference in the lives of people they want to help.

“For 100 dollars, we can get two water purifiers and 50 mats for the kids to sleep on,” says Caroline Langford, a student from University Presbyterian College in Clinton, South Carolina.

The $100 comes from the American students’ own pockets. With input from their Chennai counterparts they decided what they could afford to do and what would have to wait. The real-world application of the lesson for the shantytown is whether the 50 young children who sleep in the community center will have mats between them and the cold floor and the nearby residents would have cleaner water, or whether women learning a trade there will have fans to keep them comfortable so they can continue learning and working.

Rotarians had built the center to train women as beauticians, tailors and computer technicians. The water quality in the area is tolerable, but many children become ill every month. About 50 children, aged 4 and 5, sleep on the floors of the center at night. The computer room and the beauty parlor do not have fans and it can get stifling in the 38-degree summers. The residents would like all three problems solved. But the $100 will not cover everything.

For 10 minutes, the students debate the pros and cons of investing in an answer for each problem as their professor, Bernard Strenecky, observes, seeing how they turn his classroom lectures into lasting solutions.

L. Jayashree, a Chennai student, chips in: “If they drink clean water, they won’t get sick. Their health will improve. And if they can sleep on mats instead of on the cold floor, they will also be well rested. There will be improvement on two fronts. The fans can wait. We can make that the second project.”

Heads nod. And a “$100 Solution” has been found. The $100 Solution teaching program was created by Strenecky in 2005, in collaboration with the Rotary Club of Prospect/Goshen in Kentucky.

He uses it to bring his students face-to-face with applications of the lectures and reading he gives them in classes aboard the ship M.V. Explorer. The ship’s stop in Chennai was part of the 100th voyage of the Semester at Sea program.

Langford had only been ashore a couple of days before she was participating in the decision about how best to spend $100 to benefit some of the poorest residents of the city. Other students undertake projects such as painting walls and planting trees or they meet with local writers, thinkers, activists and political leaders.

Semester at Sea, which began in 1963, aims at providing students with the skills to compete in a rapidly globalizing world. Students from American universities sign up to spend one semester aboard the ship, taking courses with leadership or global relations elements as they sail around the world. Classroom work is supplemented with field visits and individual studies. Many students spend two or three days with local hosts, often in villages, to get a better understanding of the lives of people they have studied about.

The ship sails to eight to 12 countries three times a year, with 500 to 700 students and 30 teachers, nearly all of them from the United States. The emphasis is on having fun while learning. At the same time, there are few parties, no drinking, no smoking and of course, no drugs. In fact, the casino and bars of M.V. Explorer house classrooms. Tuition and passage cost about $21,000 for the cheapest rooms and about $30,000 for suites. Some 40 percent of the students receive financial aid. Academic credits are awarded by the University of Virginia and are transferable to the 280 universities from which the students come.

“We are committed to providing profoundly transformative study-abroad experiences that emphasize global exchange and awareness,” says Academic Dean Robert Chapel. “We will continue to make a positive world impact by developing leaders who have the knowledge and perspective necessary to promote greater understanding of all peoples and all cultures.”

The $100 Solution teaching program is one of the unique features of the Semester at Sea curriculum. In recent months, students have donated money to buy goats in a village in Tamil Nadu; ceiling fans for stuffy classrooms in Accra, Ghana; English language textbooks for senior citizens in Hong Kong; and a hot water heater for an orphanage in Saigon, Vietnam, to allow kids to take a hot bath for the first time in their lives. Members of the Global Nomads Group, an international NGO that creates interactive educational programs for students about global issues, are traveling on the ship to document the program and to see what has been achieved so far.

“These projects are all sustainable,” says Strenecky. “Problems can be solved not by millions of dollars but by small sums of money, with a good heart. People are appreciative of the work and, on behalf of the U.S., we are spreading a lot of goodwill.”

Forty such field activities, some of them purely tourism-oriented, fill the five days in India for the students and faculty.

“Twenty years ago, there was little or no awareness about India,” says Hamsapriya Srinivasan, who has been coordinating the twice-yearly visits for the past two decades. “Even the faculty used to say, ‘You speak good English.’ They knew very little about India,” she says. “With India becoming so prominent now, their views have changed. The Indian students interact with their American counterparts. They go shopping together, they eat together. They make longstanding friendships. It builds their confidence. For the Americans, it provides them a global focus.”

The teachers say American students usually tend to focus on their immediate area, so the visits to several countries over about 100 days in the fall and spring passages help broaden their perspective. The summer voyage usually lasts 65 to 70 days and is confined to a specific region. The current voyage covers Spain, Morocco, Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius, India, Vietnam, Hong Kong, China and Japan. 

So far, more than 50,000 students from 1,500 institutions have studied and traveled to 60 countries as part of Semester at Sea programs. Some of them have come back, as faculty. Byron Howlett is one of these. “I was on Semester at Sea 21 years ago, as a student,” says Howlett, who is now dean of students. “I came to India not knowing what to expect. But the people were so warm and embracing, I fell in love with India.” It’s Howlett’s third voyage to India. In Chennai, Howlett goes around persuading fence sitters to take part in a reception aimed at providing them a window into Indian culture. “If there’s one program you shouldn’t miss, it’s this,” he tells them.

The idea behind most programs is for Americans to take interest in a community activity and contribute something to the people. Henry Thiagaraj, organizer of one such visit to a poor school in Chennai, says: “From past experience, I’ve found that the American students want to work and give their labor. So, we encourage that.”

Hours after sailing into Chennai, he leads two dozen students to the AIWC Primary School. They scrub the walls of a room and paint it yellow ochre; others fix blackboards or plant saplings.

“It was fun,” says Joanna Greene. “I’m all excited about this school. The welcome by the kids was simply amazing. All the love and affection they showed. Everyone wanted their pictures taken. And they would ask to see it!”

Her fellow student, Joey Coe, from Western Kentucky University, says: “I was taken aback at how lively they were. There were so many kids. It was so beautiful and I’m happy that we were able to touch their lives.”

Some programs, such as the one conducted by the Art of Living Foundation, try to help people get in touch with their feelings. “Laugh your problems away! Laugh your worries away!” says Niharika Peri as she leads 30 students through a brisk session of yoga and meditation at a beachside cultural center. The yoga session has left the students limp and they flop down for a 20-minute relaxation program.

“I thought this session was going to be more about yoga and meditation,” says Jeremy Sloane, from Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton. “But it was more like self development. It was really interesting to dive into all the stuff that we never thought of before. I discovered so many things about myself,” he says.

While more than 400 students decide to fly to the Taj Mahal, take in the bathing ghats of Varanasi in Uttar Pradesh or tour New Delhi’s monuments, a handful of them choose to visit rural areas.

Fourteen students board an overnight train to the town of Erode in Tamil Nadu. Another group, of nine, brave a longer journey to the southern tip of India, to Nagercoil. The activities are varied: bathing in a farm well, trying to climb a coconut tree, tapping latex from a rubber tree, watching women draw intricate rice powder patterns on the floor at dawn, or seeing farmers in rice fields and laborers plucking cardamom pods. Visits to Hindu temples and retreats provide an insight into the religion.

“It was a great cultural experience seeing the real India,” says Madison Henry. “It allowed for the transmission of ideas with the local people and to compare and contrast urban and rural India.”

Hosts Padmanabhan Kumaraswamy and his wife, Latha, find the departure of the students from their Nagercoil home difficult to handle. “We had a great time with them. The house is so empty and quiet now.”

The executive dean of the Semester at Sea’s 100th voyage, Nicholas Iammarino sums it up: “If the students come back with an appreciation of how small our global village really is, if they come back wanting to do more in and for the world, then I’ll know I did my job.”


Krishnan Guruswamy is a freelance editor, writer and photographer based in Palghat, Kerala.