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A Lifetime of Memories with Semester at Sea

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Alexa O'Connell
Jul 16, 2014


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A Lifetime of Memories with Semester at Sea

Cliff and Jill Roberts first met while sailing on the Spring 1968 voyage. Married for nearly 46 years, the upbeat couple embodies the spirit of Semester at Sea.
Cliff and Jill Roberts first met while sailing on the Spring 1968 voyage. Married for nearly 46 years, the upbeat couple embodies the spirit of Semester at Sea.

With a history spanning five decades, the vast Semester at Sea network comprises more than 60,000 alumni: students, parents, adult learners, faculty and staff. Since the beginning, voyages have led to lifelong friendships, as well as romantic relationships and even several marriages. But current Summer 2014 voyagers Cliff and Jill Roberts of Corona del Mar, California, likely win the prize for the longest-married couple who met on Semester at Sea: The energetic and outgoing couple will celebrate their 46th wedding anniversary later this year.

Cliff and Jill have been intimately involved with Semester at Sea nearly from the program’s inception. They not only exemplify the spirit of the program, but they have a beautiful love story to boot.

Jill first heard about Semester at Sea in Seventeen magazine, when the program was in its infancy. She set sail aboard the SS Ryndam from Long Island, New York, in the fall of 1966 on an around-the-world voyage. By the end of their three-and-a-half months at sea, Jill and her closest friends made a pact to return for another voyage to see more of the world through a fresh itinerary.

That's Jill in the center, about age 20.
That’s Jill in the center, about age 20.

Upon arrival to the SS Ryndam in spring 1968, Cliff met Jill within the first 30 minutes of boarding the ship. As she was lying outside on the deck, Cliff approached her and asked her if she was traveling on the current voyage—a seemingly obvious question. “I didn’t know what to say,” he explained.

As it happens on Semester at Sea, the pair quickly became close friends. The voyage itinerary began in Los Angeles and traveled down the west coast of South America; while in Peru, the couple had their “first date.”

Cliff did buy Jill flowers when they were in Lima, but the pair wasn’t committed to one another (since Jill had a fellow waiting for her at home) when they debarked the ship in May. However, this is where the story gets good.

Jill went back to her home in Arkansas and Cliff returned to California. Jill’s first item of business was to break up with her boyfriend. She asked him over, cut the cord, and he left her home at 1 p.m. At 3 p.m. that same day, there was a knock at the door. Jill opened it to find no other than… Cliff!

Cliff had hitchhiked from California to Arkansas with $50 in his pocket and a navy blue blazer from his father. Jill recalled, “When I opened my door, I almost fainted.”

Cliff didn’t waste any time, and proposed to Jill that day. “You would have wanted the same thing if you had been traveling for two-and-a-half days straight to see the love of your life,” Cliff joked.

Of course Jill said yes.

At their Christmas wedding on December 22, 1968, nearly everyone in attendance had been traveled with Semester at Sea at one point or another. The pastor who married them was also a Spring 1968 voyager. He didn’t like to fly, so he took a bus from New Jersey to Arkansas for the ceremony – clearly the couple had made a lasting impression on many they’d encountered during their voyage.

Life as a newly married couple

Following her marriage and graduation from college, Jill began her professional involvement with Semester at Sea. The couple moved to California with $75 in their wallets and found an apartment down the street from Chapman College. At that time, Semester at Sea was called World Campus Afloat and was under the academic umbrella of Chapman College. While Cliff was finishing his last two years of college, Jill worked at Chapman to recruit students for the program. “I was working for minimum wage, but I was doing what I loved and that was talking about this ship,” Jill explained.

Over the next two years, Cliff got his undergraduate degree and Jill got her master’s degree but they couldn’t stop thinking about how they could continue to be involved with Semester at Sea. Ultimately they both landed jobs as the registrar and financial officer on the Fall 1971 voyage—the inaugural voyage of the SS Universe.

Cliff Roberts competing on the game show "High Rollers" in the 1970s.
Cliff Roberts competing on the game show “High Rollers” in the 1970s.

Upon their return to the United States, the couple experienced two life-changing events. Jill immediately got pregnant with their first child, and Cliff decided  he was going to law school. To keep things interesting, Jill decided to join Cliff in law school, and together they began to max out on student loans.

The couple decided to take a creative approach to earning the funds for tuition: competing on televised game shows. Together they won a total of $80,000 in cash and other prizes. Upon graduation, Cliff went on to start his own firm—Roberts & Associates—while Jill went to work for the D.A.’s office as a Deputy District Attorney.

“To make a very long period of time in our lives short, we ended up with two more children, another boy and a girl. But we always stayed in touch with our friends on the ship,” Cliff explained. “Semester at Sea has always been there for us in so many different ways,” Jill added.

All in the family with Semester at Sea

Among the three Roberts children, each has participated a voyage—or two. In the spring of 1993 the Roberts’ oldest son Cliff attended his first voyage as a student, and a year ago he came back on the ship as an Interport Lecturer.

Upon dropping off their youngest child, Caitlin, at Willamette University in the fall of 2008, Jill and Cliff immediately left to board the ship on their first voyage as Lifelong Learners.  “We got over being empty-nesters because Semester at Sea was there,” Cliff said.

The Roberts retell the story of how Cliff hitchiked from California to Arkansas to propose just a few months after meeting Jill on Semester at Sea.
The Roberts retell the story of how Cliff hitchiked from California to Arkansas to propose just a few months after meeting Jill on Semester at Sea.

In 2009, the couple sailed on their first Enrichment Voyage, accompanied by their daughter Caitlin and second son John, who has been working and doing charitable work in Africa for many years, including co-founding the Open University of West Africa. John is also a board member of the university’s partner organization Hub Accra, an entrepreneurial incubator that serves as informal office space for aspiring business owners. Some Semester at Sea students worked with Hub Accra this spring.
entrepreneurial incubator that serves as an informal office space for aspiring business owners – See more at: http://www.semesteratsea.org/2014/05/14/learning-by-doing-design-thinking-in-ghana/#sthash.rD0SbLil.dpuf

And what brought the couple back to Semester at Sea this summer? Cliff and Jill loved the European itinerary, saw a window of time they could travel, and thought that it was the perfect time to come back on the ship. They’ve fully integrated themselves into the shipboard community once again—sitting in on classes, eating many meals with students, attending Lifelong Learner programs.

“Semester at Sea has always been there for us in so many different ways.” — Jill Roberts

Together the Roberts’ have circumnavigated the globe multiple times while simultaneously becoming an integral part of the Semester at Sea program over several decades.

“I have been trying to connect all of these things that we have been talking about, and it wasn’t what we did, it was what Semester at Sea has done for us,” Cliff said. “We think about all the people we know and all of the places we have gone with Semester at Sea. There is a bond that forms and it is a lifelong bond.”

Added Jill, “You can never measure how much Semester at Sea has meant to us.”

Top photo by Carly Jurach.

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One Comment

  1. Ruth Barker
    June 5, 2015 at 12:01 am

    My brother, Henry Meyer, and I had the pleasure of meeting Cliff and Jill Roberts over lunch in a deli at UCLA in early May (2015). What an exciting story!

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