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Meet the Deans on the Summer 2014 Voyage

Marti Fessenden David GiesFrom the playful way that Academic Dean David Gies and Executive Dean Marti Fessenden interact with each other, you’d think they’d been working together — or sailing together — for years. But, the pair that is ultimately overseeing the academic and co-curricular programming on board the MV Explorer this summer just met in person last year.

Still, Dean David and Dean Marti are a well-oiled machine — in part because they’ve exchanged countless emails and had dozens of phone calls in the months leading up to the ship’s departure from Southampton last week. Plus each is quite familiar with the wonders of sailing with Semester at Sea.

Dean David served as Academic Dean on the Summer 2007 and Fall 2010 voyages. He is Commonwealth Professor of Spanish and former Chairman of the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the University of Virginia. One of Dean David’s claims to fame: He was granted knighthood by S.M. Juan Carlos, King of Spain, in 2007. He is joined on the voyage by his wife Janna.
In October 2007, he was named Encomendador de Número de la Orden de Isabel la Católica, a knighthood granted by S. M. Juan Carlos, King of Spain. РSee more at:
Dean Marti sailed on three different Semester at Sea ships: as a Resident Director in 1988, and as the Assistant Executive Dean in 1996 and 2011. She held several different campus life positions at Emory University before practicing law for more 24 years, most recently in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. She has been an adjunct professor at Emory University School of Law, and has served as Chairperson for the US Lacrosse Board of Directors. The certified girls’ and women’s lacrosse umpire is sailing with her partner Suzanne and nearly 11-year-old daughter.

In a joint interview, the pair of upbeat, approachable deans shared some of their expectations for this summer voyage, as well as their advice for current and prospective students.

Can you explain what your roles are on the ship?

Dean Marti: I am the chief administrative officer on the ship. Other folks say it is akin to being the president of a university—of this pop-up university that we do. My role is to oversee all aspects of the voyage, and to support David. I see a key role of mine as to support the academic mission and support my colleague who leads the academic mission.

Dean David: I am the academic dean, so my job is to create structure and support the academic programming, and also to support Marti in the rest of it. The academic program doesn’t go anywhere if the rest of us aren‚Äôt all on the same page.

What’s your favorite part of the job?

David: My favorite part is seeing all of the incredibly complex moving parts come together as we sail off, and then the attempt to maintain that excitement, focus, and safety.

By the end of the summer, Dean Marti Fessenden will have traveled to 43 countries.

Marti: I would say it is when we have put all of this training together and the students arrive and they begin engaging. Once they are plugged in, that’s it, and we are off, here we go! That is a favorite moment. And building upon that moment for the rest of that voyage is what it’s all about for me.

What challenges do you face in your job?

Marti: The moving parts for every voyage produce new and different issues. The most challenging part, which is also kind of fun, is responding to those issues. I will say, the part that brings the biggest challenge is when we have the potential for separation of a student. If this is not a good fit for them, or the academics prove too challenging, that I will say is the biggest sadness or potential disappointment for me is if a student has to leave for any reason.

David: I think my biggest challenge is hoping that what you’ve been working on for the last two years turns out to be what you thought it was going to be. That the faculty members you’ve pulled together for this adventure are supple enough… that they are flexible, that they really get in to this. That they bond with all of the other constituents and communities. And that‚Äôs a big challenge, because it doesn’t happen organically and it doesn’t happen without a great deal of effort. Getting on a ship is like skydiving; you do your work and then you leap out of that plane, and hope the parachute opens.

Which port are you most looking forward to on this voyage?

Marti: I am looking forward to all of these ports and have not been to a majority of them. The one that perhaps holds the most intrigue for me and has been on my bucket list for a long time is St. Petersburg.

David: For me, it would probably be some of the places I have not been. Of these, probably the one I am most interested in seeing is Stockholm. Everybody says it is stunningly beautiful. I am a visual guy, I love the architecture, the art. It just looks like it is going to be extraordinarily beautiful. I think Oslo is going to be great too!

What is your vision for this voyage?

Marti: To create a community to enable a life-changing experience for our voyagers. The countries will do it naturally, the cultural interaction will do it naturally, and so to me the aspirational goal is to integrate these academic in-country experiences with the on-ship communities such that is transformative for those who are with us. It was for me, the very first time I sailed, and I hope that David and I together can create a space that is transformative.

David: I want the students to realize they’re not in Kansas anymore. There is a world that is not US-centric. There are ways of doing things that are perhaps better or more interesting or more creative, or are just different. That is the transformative part: “I am not the center of the universe, I need to work in this global society.” And [the students] get a chance to do that on these voyages.

Marti: This is why we come back!

UVA Spanish professor David Gies has authored more than 100 articles... and makes a mean paella.
UVA Spanish professor David Gies has authored more than 100 articles… and makes a mean paella.

Speaking of “coming back”… there are so many returning faculty, lifelong learners, and even a few students on this voyage. Why do they return?

David: I think they come back because these are people who are in the world and of the world, they understand, they are adventuresome, and they are probably tired of or allergic to short cruises to beaches. There’s an academic program they are engaged in. We are surrounded by an incredible number of wonderfully smart young people. The energy and intellectual focus is unique to this program, and these are the people who get that!

Marti: I would say it the same way. The faculty, staff, lifelong learners, and students in my view, who choose to do this, are intentional in their mission here. They are intentional about selecting this program, the only one like it in the world, and they remain intentional while they are here. And that intentionality produces great things.

What advice would you give to a new student sailing on his or her first voyage?

Marti: Take care of yourself first. Get your academic sea legs. And then start plugging in as space allows. That’s my definition of healthfully engaging!

David: I would say the same thing, that they need to prioritize and balance what they need to do, what they want to do, and what they can do. And that’s not easy!

How about some parting thoughts for prospective students?

David: I have never heard a student get back and say, “I wish I hadn‚Äôt done that.” They come back and say, ‚ÄúWhen can I do this again?‚Äù It‚Äôs the truth! The message to students reading this who haven‚Äôt done it is, do it! Jump. Make it happen. Semester at Sea can help them make it happen. Rather than being deterred by the cost, they should make that application, go forward, and work with the institute to come.

Marti: As we’ve said, Semester at Sea is a transformative experience. Parents are crying when we set sail, but it’s the students who are crying when we get back.

Photos by Carly Jurach.
Resident Director in 1988, and Assistant Executive Dean in 1996 and 2011 – See more at:

Commonwealth Professor of Spanish and former Chairman of the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the University of Virginia. – See more at:
Commonwealth Professor of Spanish and former Chairman of the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the University of Virginia. – See more at:
Commonwealth Professor of Spanish and former Chairman of the Department of Spanish, Italian and Portuguese at the University of Virginia. – See more at:

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