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Extended Families Make a Ship Feel More Like Home

Prof. George “Pinky” Nelson¬†chats with one of his shipboard daughters during an extended family dinner aboard the MV Explorer. (Photo: Erin Walsh)

With nearly 800 students, lifelong learners (LLLs), faculty and staff on the Fall 2013 voyage it may surprise some to know that many students (and even some faculty, staff and LLLs) get a little homesick.

But every now and then, we all feel that pang for a talk with a mom or dad figure, or to be part of a “family”. So, we students turn to our shipboard moms and dads. They are part of what’s become our “extended family”.

The extended family of Prof. John Mueller and his wife, Theresa, includes (l-r): Cody Varela of Pace University, Fang-Jueh (Kelly) Ni of De Anza College, Prof. Mueller, Theresa Mueller, Abbey Pellino of Arizona State Univ. and Allei Holway of Bentley College. (Photo: Cody Varela)

Semester at Sea’s Extended Family program has been connecting students with lifelong learners, faculty and staff members for more than a decade. It started with the simple intention of providing a way for lifelong learners to make connections with students. It has since grown into a highly anticipated part of the voyage experience.

“I think the program is great,” said Corinne Austen, a senior at Temple University. “Students can learn a lot from the lifelong learners and professors.”

Ruth Mason and Leigh Berry organize the Extended Family program, as co-coordinators of the Lifelong Learners program. Out of the 575 students aboard the MV Explorer, 343 signed up for an extended family during the activities fair at the start of the voyage. But Mason says that the number kept growing.

“We thought we were done and had all the families sorted out, but more students realized they wanted to be with families too,” she said. “We’ve been trying to get families to take seven or eight children in their group.”

Extended Families is a major part of the lifelong learners experience on the ship and one that many repeat and first-time LLLs look forward to when they sail.

“I try to do the things in my extended family that I do with my kids at home, like make a big deal about a birthday or celebrating holidays. This time, I brought Halloween stuff on board,” said Marjorie Seawell, a lifelong learner who’s sailed on seven voyages. Some students have been known to seek Seawell out to be their shipboard mother, hearing stories about her from their friends or siblings who’ve sailed before.

On this voyage, nearly 400 students were split into groups of about seven or eight and matched with about 50 “moms” or “dads”. It’s up to the families to set aside times to meet and get to know each other. That usually involves grabbing dinner once or twice when the ship is sailing between ports. At any one of these family dinners, sometimes twice the amount of students show up when “unofficial kids” are looking to be “adopted” by one family or another.

“I am always tickled when students call their extended family members “mom” and “dad”, but there is something about that that appeals to me. I want a mom and dad,” said Corinne of Temple University.

Corinne said her new on-ship family was very welcoming and included her in their conversations, making sure to ask questions about her and what she liked.

Some extended families have even come up with fun ways to stay connected while off on different adventures in port. Professor Charlene Dykman, who teaches international management and organizational behavior, created a photo scavenger hunt with her extended family members.

Leigh Berry, co-coordinator of the Lifelong Learner program, helps a student with her knitting project. The knitting group is one of the spin-offs of the Extended Families program on the Fall 2013 voyage.

“Ourfirst quest was for pictures of silly street signs,” Prof. Dykman explains. “We had a tie for the winners—they were very funny signs. Our next quest is to get pictures of the craziest dressed person. I think it keeps the idea of family in their minds while they are out and about.”

The warmth of extended families has led to the creation of other groups on the voyage. Berry created a knitting group after noticing the large number of students who identified knitting as an interest. Now, everyday at sea for one hour the group gathers in a classroom to work on knitting projects and learn new stitches.

Semester at Sea is unique in the fact that there are people with so many varying backgrounds, age groups and interests. Imagine all the untapped resources of people who could be sitting right next to you in the dining hall!
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