Am I seaworthy?

The call came on a chilly evening in mid-October 2002. I was loading logs into the wood burner. Stephanie was snuggled on the recliner under a layer of cats. I was thinking I’d rather be in a warmer place than our beloved, but draughty, 19th century farmhouse in rural southeastern Ohio.

           The first in a series of blogs about Semester at Sea, a round-the-world voyage with 600 students.  David Mould is the author of Postcards from Stanland: Journeys in Central Asia (Ohio University Press, 2016) and the upcoming (2109) Monsoon Postcards: Indian Ocean Journeys. Read excerpts at (Travel Blogs) or Facebook /PostcardsFromStanland/ 

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            In the innocent age before caller ID and robocalls, I always answered the phone. The caller had a deep voice and brusque tone. “Peter Koehler, University of Pittsburgh. Academic dean for the Spring Semester at Sea Voyage. We have an unexpected faculty vacancy for communication courses.” He asked about my experiences traveling with students, then listed the 10 countries on the eastward, 105-day voyage around the world—the Bahamas, Venezuela, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, India, Vietnam, China, South Korea and Japan. “Can you be in Miami by January 17?” he asked. I threw another log into the wood burner and started thinking about cocktails under palm trees.

            I was tempted to say “yes” immediately but decided to consult my cat-wrapped spouse and my department chair before making a commitment. “I’ll call you by the end of the week,” I promised. “I need to know as soon as possible,” Koehler replied. I sensed he was working through a list to fill faculty slots and would not give me much time before calling the next prospect.

            It’s more than half a century since California’s Chapman College pioneered a program to increase students’ understanding of global issues by packing them on board a small cruise ship and sailing around the world for a semester, with classes on board and field trips in ports of call. The University of the Seven Seas (also the name of the first ship) became the World Campus Afloat and then Semester at Sea (SAS), a name that stuck and become a marketable brand. The university management has changed hands several times, with Pittsburgh having the longest tenure, from 1981 to 2006. In 2003, I joined a team that had more than 20 years’ experience running a complex program. They needed all that know-how on a voyage where world events upset all the best-laid plans.

          I had learned about SAS from my former Ohio University student, Val Culp, who had done the voyage in Fall 2001. On her end-of-voyage evaluation form, she was asked to name faculty at her home institution who would make good SAS faculty members. She named me. SAS wasn’t looking only for teaching experience. It wanted faculty who were flexible and culturally sensitive, who could deal with crises and inspire students to learn about different countries and cultures. At Ohio, I had helped found the Global Learning Community (GLC), a two-year undergraduate certificate program. With colleagues, I planned and led trips to Hungary, Ecuador, the Czech Republic and Thailand, where we partnered with local universities for students to work on projects for businesses and non-governmental organizations. I wore many hats—as teacher, counselor, travel guide, negotiator, disciplinarian and problem-solver. If I could deal with binge drinking in Bangkok and Brno and an erupting volcano in Quito, GLC student Val figured I could handle a round-the-world voyage with undergraduates. She may have overestimated my abilities.

       I had applied to join SAS for the Fall 2003 voyage because of Ohio’s academic calendar. With an August departure, I would miss only Fall term. Leaving in January would take me out of teaching for both Winter and Spring terms. My department chair encouraged me to accept the invitation. She said she would use my salary to hire adjuncts and plug the hole in an operating budget that had just taken a hit. In other words, the department would benefit from my absence. It was a win-win deal for everyone.

       I selected three courses. Propaganda and Persuasion and Media Criticism were already in the Pittsburgh catalog; the third course, Communication and Development, was offered under a special topics number. My syllabi and readings had to be approved by a curriculum committee. In academe, this process can take months, but the SAS folks knew how to fast-track the paperwork, and the syllabi were soon approved. The challenge was to design the courses around the countries to be visited, rather than by themes and topics. When you’re looking forward to a trip up the Amazon, a safari in the Serengeti, or standing on the Great Wall of China, how important is it that your course has covered the whole gamut of propaganda theories? I decided that the best approach was geographical—to study how propaganda is used in Venezuela and Vietnam, to look at media consumption and culture through football in Brazil, community radio in South Africa and the Indian movie industry, to study how communication is used for development through visits to NGOs and relief agencies.  

       It wasn’t easy to prepare because the itinerary kept changing. Venezuela was the first to go, following an oil industry strike and street protests against President Hugo Chavez. SAS did not want students caught up in demonstrations where police and army units were firing rubber bullets and tear gas grenades. In late November Islamic militants attacked an Israeli-owned hotel in Mombasa, Kenya, killing 13 and injuring 80, and launched two surface-to-air missiles at an Israeli charter plane as it took off from the airport. Kenya was now off the list. A new itinerary was announced, adding Havana, Cuba, and Dar-es-Salaam, Tanzania. Stephanie and I knew things could change again. War was looming in Iraq. In North Korea, Kim Jong-il was in a bellicose mood.

Next week: Ugly duckling