~from English Department Communications Intern Joyce Bohling
In June 2016, Colorado State University officially became the campus partner of Semester at Sea, an international academic program through which students from over 100 campuses spend a semester taking courses onboard a ship, each course’s curriculum directly tied to the places and ports visited. Professor Sarah Sloane, who first taught on a Semester at Sea voyage in Fall 2013 and will return to the program in Fall 2017, is one of serveral CSU faculty members who have experienced the joys and rigors of the program.
I asked Sarah about her experience sailing from Southampton, England to Capetown South Africa, traveling across the Atlantic Ocean to Buenos Aires, and then traveling north to Havana, Cuba before finally disembarking in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. During this 12,000-mile voyage she traveled through 17 port cities and 15 countries going in a giant circle around most of the Atlantic Rim. She taught Introduction to Creative Writing, Introduction to Travel Writing, and Women’s World Literature. She has given several presentations to faculty and students about her experience and currently serves as a member on the six-person Semester at Sea Advisory Board for CSU.
What follows are excerpts from our interview.
Q: Was the process of Colorado State becoming a partner with Semester at Sea already in progress when you first applied?
Nope. Pure coincidence. I applied to teach on Semester at Sea’s 50th anniversary voyage in Fall 2013, and was lucky enough to be accepted as a member of an international faculty hailing from six different countries. At that time the Institute for Shipboard Education (SAS) partnered with University of Virginia to award academic credit and maintain the intellectual rigor of the voyage. It was an amazing discovery for me to learn two years later that Colorado State University, out of the 3000-plus four-year colleges and universities in the United States, was negotiating to be the new home for the program.
An important element in the negotiations with the Institute of Shipboard Education was to ensure that Colorado State University undergraduate students would be amply represented on these academic voyages. In addition to paying their regular tuition fees, students on Semester at Sea have to pay for travel around the world, three meals a day, and living for sixteen weeks in a shared ship’s cabin. It was important to CSU that they negotiate a contract that would give CSU students scholarship monies and financial aid so that they could afford the costs. In addition, they negotiated a contract whereby four CSU faculty members would sail on each voyage as Global Teaching Scholars. Instead of taking a leave or sabbatical to teach for Semester at Sea for the relatively small stipend of $11,000 (plus, of course, free room and board and 12,000 miles of travel), as a GTS I will receive my full CSU salary as well as be considered full-time faculty not on leave. I’ll be teaching for CSU, in other words, but on a different (floating) campus. I will also have some new responsibilities upon my return to CSU, such as infusing my current courses here with new international content and working with prospective CSU SAS students, but I would do both of those duties anyway. While I was thrilled to be able to travel and teach on the MV Explorer in 2013, and felt quite happily spoiled by someone else doing the cooking, the cleaning, and the laundry, it will be very nice to have health insurance and be fully paid.
Q: How has it compared with other teaching experiences that you’ve had?
In a way — this is not just puffery or PR — in a way, it’s the best that education can offer. I have taught at six universities: three of them private and three of them public. What I love about public universities is the kind of student you get to teach. Almost 25% of our CSU students are first-generation students, and it is an honor to help new university students acclimate to college learning. I love working with students from rural Colorado who might have grown up on a cattle ranch or belong to the CSU Rodeo Club; I love working with undergrads from Denver who are adjusting from living in a large city to our small one. In my experience our CSU undergraduate education is world-class, and to offer opportunities for new students to learn everything from pathology to environmental writing, from construction management to how to build a good essay, demonstrates our breadth of opportunity and depth of commitment to offering the best courses we can devise.
Nonetheless, sometimes undergraduate courses at CSU are very large for effective undergraduate education, for the give and take of thorough discussion and analysis of everything from scientific data to what it means to be human in the early 21st century. Further, our CSU undergrads are often working 40 hours a week to be able to afford to go here, which is smart from the point of view of accruing as little debt as possible to earn a degree. But it sometimes worries me that they do not have the luxury of time; their tightly scheduled days and their challenges of balancing responsibilities with their coursework, their jobs, their families and friends, can be very challenging. Some undergrads here have to rush across town to get to classes and jobs, or are taking large classes where there is not the kind of personal interaction with professors that study after study shows is essential to good educational experiences. And Semester at Sea, by virtue of its being education on a ship, erases both those difficulties.
On Semester at Sea, my class size was very small. I think I had 10 or 12 in two classes and then 24 in my literature class. My only professional responsibility was to teach these three writing classes. I had no administrative responsibilities. I was able to respond to different learning styles; I had at least three hour-long conferences with every single student in all three classes over the course of the semester. I really could get in there and teach students how to write well by going through sentences with them; discussing the rhetorical appeals that would best achieve their aims. Also, other people were doing my laundry and feeding me. I even had my own steward who called me “Madame Sarah” and took care of my laundry, cleaning my cabin, and helping me with any problem I might have. I was able to return student papers within 24 hours. Every single day at sea I would have an hour-long lunch in the cafeteria I had scheduled with a different student; I’d set up a time and we’d spend that hour talking about their writing in progress. I didn’t have to do anything except teach and talk with students. It was wonderful! My time was expected to be spent teaching alone. That was what I was hired to do, and I felt myself sort of downshift into an approach to undergraduate education that I just loved. I missed being at places where you have small classes where students are only there to learn. I know that’s a very privileged environment, but it was nice to be back in that for a little while.
So Semester at Sea has the ability to combine the best of public education — giving support and access to first-generation students and serving the land grant mission of the university’s commitment to community — with the best of private education, including small class size and students who were not distracted by commutes nor other jobs. The CSU students on the MV Explorer were in very small classes.
CSU has negotiated some fantastic scholarship opportunities for our undergraduates. President Frank mentioned informally that he hopes over the years that we will eventually have 75 CSU students on every single voyage. We’re very different from the kind of university that has sometimes run the program before. It took almost a year of negotiations, and what I’ve heard is that we just really stood strong on insisting on affordable access for our own students.
Q: How does the program compare with other study abroad programs that other students here at CSU might be interested in?
Different kind of experience. The difference is getting a taste of life in several different places. It’s more of a comparative international experience as opposed to an immersion in a single country. It’s set up better for global and intercultural studies rather than Spanish studies or study in Australia or Ireland. It’s a curriculum and experience that encourages multiple or plural understandings of culture. A student does not spend six months studying Hindu ritual in Kathmandu, for example, which would be an intensely valuable experience. Instead, SAS students might study world religion and complement intensive shipboard study with onshore experiences from attending a Catholic Mass in Dublin to learning about traditional Buddhist practice in China, studying the Japanese Tea Ceremony or talking first hand with undergraduate Tibetan Buddhists in Macleod Ganj to understand how traditional debate practices are translated in a new study context like northern India.
Semester at Sea is different because it allows you to take a multinational, multicultural lens. Every culture is understood through knowledge that accrues and in comparison to other places and cities and countries.
Q: What would be the pros and cons of that multinational approach versus just studying in one country?
Every time we would enter a new port, the night before we would have what was called the cultural pre-port lecture, the safety lecture, the nuts & bolts lecture; we would be prepared for each new port by experts from the country about what to do next. And when we came back from Cuba — sailed from Havana to Ft. Lauderdale — the sixty international students that were on the ship got together and gave the cultural pre-port lecture to visiting the United States of America. It was so odd to hear about our own country in the context in completely fresh ways, given that we were all seeing it now through the lens of 16 other ports. We learned we were going to a country where almost 40% of the population was armed, and a country that still had the death penalty, and where 30-some thousand people had been killed by firearms the year before. Baltimore’s crime rate was the same as that in than Bogotá, Colombia. The multinational perspective allowed those of us who were from the U.S. to see our own country in a brand-new way. It made us more flexible people, and maybe people who questioned received norms a little more intently.
I would think that people who go on Semester at Sea and visit 15 different countries or 12 different countries are less inclined to believe there are universal truths, that there are universal ways of living in the world, and that there is only one way to understand religion, social stratification, ways to dress and ways to think.
Every course taught on a Semester at Sea voyage includes a one-day field trip in a port city. For Sarah Sloane’s Women’s World Literature course, she was able to arrange lunch and a special visit for her students with Ghana’s premier author, Amma Darko. The students had read Darko’s work, Not Without Flowers
I had, with some difficulty from the US, arranged for my students and I to have lunch with Amma Darko while she talked with us for an hour. We ended up talking to her for about 2 and a half hours. My class was so into it. They had spent two weeks planning what questions they had wanted to ask her, and Ms. Darko enjoyed their energy and questions immensely.
She said that in Ghana most people don’t read a lot, not because they don’t have literacy but because it’s not the cultural custom to buy books and read. There’s a saying in Ghana that if you have a secret to keep, put it in a book because no one will read it. But one of her novels had just been picked up by the Ghanaian school system, which meant every kid in Ghana was going to read be reading one of her novels. She was so excited.
She also said one of the most inspiring things I have ever heard about writing. In response to a student’s question about how she found time to write given all her other responsibilities, Amma Darko said this: “I work from 8 to 5 every day at the post office. I have four children. I do all the cooking and cleaning, not because my husband won’t help me but because I don’t like the way he does it. And I have written six novels. If you want to write, you will find time to write.”
All of us remembered that.
Q: Do you have any advice for students who might be interested in participating in Semester at Sea?
Come talk to me. I’d love to talk with any of them about the experience. Go the International Study Abroad Fairs because there’s always someone from Semester at Sea there.
Students are chosen based on academic record but also based on evidence of flexibility, open-mindedness, and potential to get a lot out of the voyage. We want to work with students who want to drain every drop they can from this amazing experience. And while there are a lot of valuable programs through Semester at Sea where students bring aid to people we meet (for example, in Langa Township near Capetown, South Africa, where SAS students gave away thousands of toothbrushes through a program called “Global Toothbrushes”), students also are given as much if not more through local citizens’ generosity in helping us understand their world. The learning and giving go both ways.
Q: Do you have any advice for faculty who might be interested in participating?
The selection criteria might be changing now that CSU is partnering on the program, but on my voyage, it seemed like there were two or maybe three criteria that were important. Obviously, you had to have a Ph.D., and you had to have experience teaching undergraduates and do a pretty good job of it…and be committed to undergraduate education in a real way….But what mattered as much, I think, is evidence of substantial and prolonged international travel. I was surprised by that. Even before I went on that voyage, I’d gone to over 40 countries, and I’d lived overseas, I’d lived in Spain for several months, and I’d lived in Scotland for two years. I had visited or lived in a total of over 40 countries. Yet when I joined the other 30 faculty, I learned I I had traveled less than many of the faculty that I sailed with.
Any place on earth you could think of, there was someone who had been there. I think what such extensive travel showed was that the successful faculty applicant was very flexible. I think that really is the most important criterion for both faculty and students: the ability to “roll with it.” In most international travel of more than a couple of weeks, one cannot get invested in a particular schedule or a particular route or a particular experience because things will definitely change.
As an example of the need for flexibility, Professor Sloane shared the following story: when she and three other faculty from her voyage disembarked in Salvador, Brazil, chose to travel overland through the interior of Brazil. None of them spoke Portuguese, although one had a phrase book from which she incanted irrelevant expressions from time to time. For example, one night when we had been traveling for hours on a local bus to Lénçois, still 200km away, the bus came to a sudden halt and all the lights went off inside. No one said anything on the whole bus, but we four middle-aged women from the US were all silently wondering about the real risk of bandits boarding the bus. My friend whispered aloud in Portuguese gleaned from her phrase book into the darkness of the empty road unfurling ahead: “I am a vegetarian.” On the other hand, we probably spoke six other languages altogether, as well as had eight graduate degrees among the four of us; and most important of all, on a quick count the four of us had probably visited or lived in 70 countries and, indeed, we all knew how to roll with it.
We got in an aqua blue Landrover. I sat in the front seat because I’m so tall, and the door wouldn’t close. We were bouncing over dirt roads; the door would fly open and I’d close it. We drove over a wood bridge and it broke. We saw a dust devil, and I thought it was a tornado. We drove through a river and across the river. We drove down boulders.
We got to our first destination. It was about 95 degrees out, high humidity in the interior of Brazil, and everyone said, “We’re gonna go down. We’re gonna go down like 300 hundred steps and see this waterfall. I had my sunglasses on. They meant there was 300 actual steps, but that was the start of the trail. But then we went down about another 500 feet. I’m getting redder and redder, hotter hotter, clambering over boulders, until we get to this one place and they hand out the helmets.
I’m like, “Helmets?”
They’re like, “Yeah, the light’s right here.”
I’m like, “Are you kidding me?”
And we went another 60 feet straight into the ground. I have on sunglasses. We are in the middle of a cave; it would not have passed a single safety regulation in the United States….After about 45 minutes, we end up at the very bottom of this cave, and yes, there’s a little pool of water that might be over a billion years old and a teenie beam of sunlight from about 300 feet above.
There’s photographs of me sitting on this stone, with my helmet and my sunglasses, beet red, and the only way back is the way we came in. It was unbelievable.
With about 35 minutes still to go on the climb up sixty feet with ladders and ropes in the pitch-black cave–wearing my prescription sunglasses didn’t help–then over boulders and rocks another 90 minutes, all the way back to the bottom of the 300 steps and then on up those, between the hot, moist air and my thirst and fatigue, I really wasn’t sure I could go another half hour.
So I asked Diego to tell me a story. “What about?” he asked.
“Anything,” I said. “Anything to get my mind off how hot I am and how hard this climb is.”
Diego started to tell me the origin story behind each mountain. His were fairly stock folk tales of rescue, royalty, marriage, a maiden turned into stone, a boy suddenly being able to fly, but all his stories did an excellent job of keeping me distracted from my discomfort and got me up the stairs. At the top of the stairs there was a small restaurant and I threw myself on a chair and panted. One of my friends (who had already bounded like a gazelle from the belly of the cave to the restaurant and probably was on her second lunch) handed me a liter of cold water. “Not yet!” Diego gently put out his hand to signal she should stop. “Sarah’s blood is boiling. We need to wait five or ten minutes until the blood cools down and then she can drink.” My friends looked at me doubtfully, and I said, “Hey. Diego got me alive out of the cave and all the way back up here. If he says my blood is boiling, my blood is boiling. We’re going to wait ten minutes.” He conceded to a bandana soaked in cool water and put against the back of my sweaty red neck.
Q: Is there anything else you want to add?
If people are interested, do come see me. Send me an email, set up an appointment, have a cup of coffee, whatever they want.
Professor Sloane is starting an essay contest for students who participate in Semester Sea that, she hopes, will not only create a history of CSU’s relationship with the organization, but allow students to think comparatively about the worldviews of the many countries participants visit.
For more information, or to apply to participate in Semester at Sea as a student or faculty member, visit the program’s official website at www.semesteratsea.org. Students must also register through the Office of International Program’s Education Abroad, where they can apply for grants and financial aid.