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Embracing the Unexpected: A Hard Right Turn (or Three) for the Fall 2023 Voyage

As alumni, you know that when you first sign up for a voyage with Semester at Sea, it’s common to feel immeasurable excitement and then, perhaps, begin to have a few questions about the unknown. You certainly feel the thrill of the upcoming global journey, the anticipation of seeing new places and making lifelong friends, and the joy of knowing your life will never be the same after you complete your voyage—all mixed in, of course, with a few questions as you dive into uncharted waters. Did I pack the right shoes? Will I run into stormy weather? What happens if I get lost in-port? Could things happen along the way that might impact the voyage itinerary?

Dean Rameen announces itinerary

Voyagers on the Fall 2023 Voyage—SAS’s 132nd—were true models of embracing the challenges that can sometimes come up along a voyage, not only enduring but persevering through adversity and change together many times over. Due to many global matters occurring in line with the ship’s planned itinerary, the Fall 2023 Voyage made several diversions over the semester, as natural disasters and global conflicts flared around the globe.

The ship and its voyagers set sail on Sept. 9 from Antwerp, Belgium, only to immediately divert. On Sept. 8, a 6.8 magnitude earthquake devastated Morocco’s Marrakesh-Safi region. With a humanitarian crisis growing, and with the well-being and safety of SAS voyagers in mind, it became apparent to ISE that it would be best to divert to Málaga, Spain. Fall 2023 Executive Dean Rameen Talesh shared this news with World Odyssey’s voyagers, emphasizing SAS’s well-documented history of malleability and grit through challenges. “Throughout Semester at Sea’s 60-year history, ‘flexibility’ has been a key mindset. This voyage, as you’re already seeing, will not only introduce you to new people, ideas, and ways of being. It will also reveal your unknown or untapped capabilities,” Dean Rameen shared. “If you’re feeling any discomfort about this change, I encourage you to stretch. Be flexible. And, when necessary, remember that we’re in this together.”

Ryan Cody in port during FA23 Voyage

Once learning of this shift, the Semester at Sea spirit of embracing the unexpected came to life. Ryan Cody, a student and the Fall 2023 Global Journalism Fellow, wrote in a SAS blog: “Amidst the chaos, the new port injected a thrilling energy into our lives. For five days in port [in Spain], I explored a foreign country with newfound friends, reveling in the spontaneity of travel.”

As it turned out, the Morocco to Spain diversion was just the first of many eventual itinerary changes for this voyage. In October, while the voyage made its way through the central Mediterranean bound for Piraeus, Greece, the devastating ongoing armed conflict between Israel and Hamas began in and around Gaza, prompting ISE to begin preparations for additional possible changes. After Greece, the ship planned to transit the Suez Canal on Oct. 23 and move on to Aqaba, Jordan by Oct. 25. The MV World Odyssey was initially scheduled to arrive in Aqaba, Jordan, on Oct. 25. Meanwhile, the conflict in Israel only grew. After consulting with the U.S. Department of State, embassy officials, international relations experts, and the ship management company, the port to Jordan was canceled and the ship was slated to divert to Muscat, Oman. Within days, as global tensions intensified, Oman’s port was also canceled. With safety at the forefront of everyone’s mind, the MV World Odyssey eventually changed course entirely, diverting from a planned Suez Canal-Red Sea-Gulf of Aden transit and heading due west. Voyagers began to sail around the continent of Africa and then on to Asia, with the ISE team working nonstop on new planned ports.

Phil and Bonnie on FA23 Voyage

Bonnie and Phil Duyff, Lifelong Learners on the Fall 2023 Voyage, met when they sailed as students on the Spring 1971 voyage of Semester at Sea and already knew how to embrace the changes that can occur along the journey. Phil encouraged students to remember that adversity can sometimes be part of the process: “Don’t think of it just as a trip that will be fun,” he said in an onboard interview. “It is an investment. It’s an investment in your future.”

As the new, final itinerary was made concrete, in a message to SAS voyagers, ISE CEO Scott Marshall wrote, “If we’ve learned anything over our 60-year history, and these last three weeks, it’s that plans may change. And certainly, should your safety and security require it, we will not hesitate to make additional adjustments. However, with these final ports secured I encourage you to lean into your preparations—and get excited about all that lies ahead.”

Meanwhile, voyagers on the ship continued to adapt and learn from the process. “Navigating this, especially uncertain Semester at Sea journey required adaptability from the voyagers of the MV World Odyssey, reminding us of the important lesson that in life, opportunities often conceal themselves as challenges,” Ryan wrote. He wrote of the turn to Spain, which led to a last-minute trip to Portugal. “Without this diversion, my entire Semester at Sea experience would have taken a radically different turn, altering the relationships and adventures that defined this leg of my academic journey.”

Crew aboard the MV World Odyssey on FA23 Voyage

With the help of ISE Staff, the crew, and the ship management team, the ship eventually turned its helm toward Gibraltar for a one-day port. Then, the ship made its way to Las Palmas, Grand Canary Island for a two-day stay from Oct. 30 to 31. Finally, the voyagers headed to Cape Town, South Africa, arriving Nov. 13 and leaving on the evening of Nov. 18. The MV World Odyssey then finished out the voyage, stopping at Port Louis, Mauritius, Penang, Malaysia, and Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam along the way. As planned, the voyagers disembarked in Bangkok, Thailand, on Dec. 22.

In the end, the diversions cost SAS/ISE roughly $800,000 in total unbudgeted expenses. “While the costs incurred by SAS/ISE were high, we made every decision with the safety of our voyagers first and foremost,” said Heather Wisniewski, Vice President for Advancement at ISE. With these additional costs in mind, it’s easy to see why philanthropy is so vitally important for ISE and its programs. “Philanthropy not only allows us to offer a unique educational experience to a diverse range of students and improve the programs’ quality, but it also provides us the flexibility to address unexpected challenges, such as what we encountered with this voyage and throughout our 60-year history,” Heather said. (If you’re interested in learning about how you can give to SAS, read more about giving here). 

FA23 Voyage staculty

In the end, as alumni thinking back on our own preparations for our Semester at Sea voyages, there will always be situations you can’t anticipate or fully prepare for– rough seas during exam time, a lost wallet, or inclement weather while in port. Then, there are those bigger, even more unexpected things that can happen on a global scale that might impact the entire voyage, as Fall 2023 experienced firsthand.

But the good news is, as we all eventually realized: it’s okay to not be fully prepared, because you’ll figure things out together, with your SAS community, as you go. You’ll find new resources, make new friends, travel to new places, and get through all of the trials together, coming out of the process stronger on the other side. Semester at Sea voyage communities have always found a way to band together and make the best of any changes—persevering and eventually even welcoming the changes that are sometimes thrown in the way of each voyage’s path. In hindsight, this is all part of the process—something we now understand as a significant part of the Semester at Sea journey. We learn to not only expect challenges or changes—but also to adapt even more, lean into the process, and, in the end, fully embrace the unexpected.

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