The thing about living on a ship is that, after two weeks, you finally arrive on land for a couple days of blissful, uninterrupted Internet, and you wonder why Twitter and the blogosphere have gone silent, and it never even occurred to you that it could possibly be an American holiday back home.
(Happy Labor Day, y’all.)(Or, Happy Monday to the rest of you.)
Here’s the honest truth: When I arrived at the Black Falcon Cruise Terminal in Boston a few weeks back, I didn’t know what to expect out of my new job. I was just thrilled about the prospect of circumnavigating the globe, as well as working in the field of international education for the first time. We’d had a Semester at Sea staff, faculty and families page going for much of the summer, so I’d had a fleeting chance to interact with a few of the people with whom I’d be spending the next four months, but beyond that, I was going into the experience rather blind. Sometimes, I think that’s the best way to do it: There are no expectations, no setting yourself up for disappoint, just pure, unadulterated excitement.
But before the participants even got on board, there was training and orientation to be done. On most voyages, this is all packed into one very busy day and a half; we were lucky in that we got nearly a week to learn the ropes before being thrown into a mosh pit of excited students. After a bit of a travel mess that had SVV and me diverting to Wisconsin once O’Hare shut down just as our connecting flight was beginning its descent—due to thunderstorms no less! lame—we made it to Boston and onto the M/V Explorer around dinnertime on Aug. 20. The first five days of sailing from Boston to Montreal corresponded with the Forum on Global Engagement, so the 100-ish family members would not be the only ones on board; additionally, more than 100 conference-goers and alumni would also be along for the ride.
So imagine my surprise when we checked into the ship to find not just 200, but nearly 1,100 people on board! What I didn’t know is that there was going to be a large alumni party that first night we spent on the ship. SVV and I wandered around a bit aimlessly at first amid a sea of Semester at Sea alums in cocktail attire, the pair of us grimy from a full day of sitting on planes and in airports, until we spotted a familiar face: another Kristin and her husband Brian, both of whom I knew from Facebook (oh, the wonders of social media). They had sailed with Semester at Sea before—and actually got married on the ship back in January—so we glommed onto these two experienced sailors from the start.
Brian is also working as the ship’s IT coordinator, so it’s always nice to be pals with the guy who can be your technological savior (Lord knows I need one) when things go wrong!
The first week was smooth sailing and we maintained a fairly lax schedule before the four months of chaos ahead. We had a leisurely 10:30am start time each day, during which all the staff and faculty would convene for a morning session and breakout groups. This was key to getting to know some of the faculty in particular who I wouldn’t be seeing much of once classes started, and many bonds were created and stories exchanged.
During the afternoons, Josh, Paula and I met with the director of international field programs back in the Charlottesville office, who thankfully came along for the first two weeks to help out and download her wealth of knowledge into each of our somewhat overwhelmed brains. The field office can be tricky terrain to navigate, as there are about 1,372 different things to remember and details to tend to, and I was so relieved that we had her by our side during those initial dark hours.
We also had safety, honor code and medical talks, as well as lifeboat drills, just so we were prepared for anything Mother Nature threw our way.
After five days of being fed as much information as we could possibly hold, we docked in Montreal and the lovely ISE team back in the UVA office returned to their headquarters and let us loose on the shipboard community. (Eek! No pressure!) But first, we all had the afternoon onshore off—our last for nine days until we would arrive in Morocco—to wander about the city in the rain. I took advantage of the opportunity of a girls’ night out in the Old Town and left SVV on the ship, while I went out to dinner with my new co-workers-turned-friends.
The next day was a very long morning and afternoon of checking students in and doing last minute sign-ups for trips, which is what the three of us in the field office do. This was also an excellent opportunity to get to meet each of the students (even though I likely forgot many of the names five minutes later!) before they went their merry ways and got settled into their routines.
Of course, we were all a little concerned when we were scheduled to set sail from Montreal on Friday, Aug. 26. If you recall, this was what the forecast looked like then:
But we did manage to evade Irene (and later Katia) and, instead of being pummeled by rain, enjoyed a dinner on the back deck the first night under the most gorgeous, warm skies on the Atlantic instead.
We not only set sail on time, but early—so early in fact, that before I could even run out on the deck to wave to the parents watching us from below, we were booking it along the St. Lawrence River.
And now I write this from a train in Morocco 16 days into the gig and can say it has been one fantastic, hectic, sometimes nutty and tiresome journey already, and I can’t wait to see what the next 100-something days bring.
Our voyage—don’t you dare make the mistake of calling it a “cruise!”—is the 107th in Semester at Sea’s 48-year history, and the breakdown of participants looks a little something like this:
- 447 students
- 71 lifelong learners
- 31 faculty
- 36 staff
- 40-something family members
- from 42 states
- hailing from 19 countries
- representing 198 universities
- 200 crew
- a total of 900 people sailing
The whole idea of a floating campus—or “academical village” as it is often referenced—is based on Jeffersonian ideals of interactive learning within a global community. If those comprising our ship are any indication, I’m going to return to Florida in December with an encyclopedia’s worth of new ideas, friends and memories.