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Q&A with Dr. Robert Vieira, Fall 2018 Executive Dean

Sailing around the world with Semester at Sea for his seventh voyage, Dr. Robert Vieira is no stranger to the open ocean and has been a part of the Semester at Sea community for over 30 years. Dr. Vieira sailed as Executive Dean in Fall 1997, Spring 2001, Fall 2006, Spring 2012, and Spring 2015, and as Dean of Students in Fall 1984. 

Bob has had an accomplished career in higher education in Oregon, which has included serving as Vice Provost for Academic and Student Affairs and Interim Provost at Oregon Health and Sciences University, and as Vice Provost and Vice President at Portland State University.

After six voyages together and four with his three children — John, Annie, and Henry — Dr. Vieira is excited to be sailing again with his wife, Abby. We spoke with him briefly about celebrating the 125th voyage of Semester at Sea as Executive Dean onboard the MV World Odyssey:

Q: How is a shipboard learning community like Semester at Sea different from other academic communities, such as a traditional college campus?

The obvious difference is that we are on a ship going around the world, which by itself is a pretty amazing thing. There are so few people in the world who get to do that, short of Ferdinand Magellan and Juan Ponce de Leon and some of the original explorers; people don’t just travel around the world on a ship. I’d like people to reflect on the extraordinary nature and context of what we’re doing and where we’re living and learning. More than that, the biggest difference is the opportunity for students and faculty and families to be living and learning together in one community. The fact that students can interact with their faculty members in class, during the day, in the evening and in social environments is a very special experience and something that doesn’t happen in traditional college campuses nowadays.

Q: This is your seventh world voyage. What motivates you to continue sailing around the world with Semester at Sea?

The opportunity to witness the learning and transformation in students during the course of the voyage. As an educator, that’s what you hope to see: students learning, changing, growing, and developing their own perspectives. In typical settings, it’s rare to see that in the way you can with SAS. You can see that transformation happening in real time as students start having those interactions with global cultures. It’s really amazing to watch and very rewarding to feel like you played a part in that.

Q: What is the most memorable experience you’ve had as Executive Dean on your previous voyages?

 On one of my voyages, there was a young man we got to know quite well that was a little cynical at the start of the program. By the end, when he was walking off the gangway and my wife and I were saying goodbye to all the students, we asked him what he was going to be doing next and he said “you know, I got onboard the ship and I thought I knew what I was going to do for the rest of my life, and now I don’t have any idea.”

And he meant that in a good way, because now he had a world of possibilities that he never examined before or had the opportunity to think about prior to traveling the world. He was both challenged and excited by that (and wasn’t quite sure how his parents were going to feel), but that was an interesting moment and a good example of the impact of Semester at Sea on students. This feeling will vary with each individual, but I think it happens to some degree for every student. 

Dr. Vieira greets students during Fall 2018 Voyage embarkation in Hamburg.

Q: If you were to describe Semester at Sea in one word, what would it be and why?

Community. I think that’s the key to the success of the program: the bond that’s formed with all participants of the voyage. We’re a community that takes care of one another, is concerned for one another, and makes sure we all get back to our families and friends. Community is also key to the academic programs. I think people learn better that way and I think in some ways it’s the secret ingredient for what people experience on SAS and why they have such a lasting impression of the program.

Q: What is it like having your family sail with you for so many years?

It’s such a special opportunity and one I never thought I would have in higher education: involving my family in my work in this kind of way. My wife and I sailed together in 1984 before we had children, and after that, Semester at Sea asked me to come back as the Executive Dean. The first time we sailed with our children, they were 6, 9, and 11. Our two oldest children sailed three times and our youngest sailed four times—all three sailed as college students during their last voyages. We have spent over two years of our family’s life together on SAS. My wife has been my secret weapon in providing help to students and other participants and is always very involved in the community. To have my children witness my career during the voyages is also unique; most people don’t get to have as great of a ‘take your children to work’ day as I have. It’s really been the opportunity of a lifetime to have them experience my work in this way.

Q: When people ask you how your trips with Semester at Sea went, what do you tell them?

It’s a lot of fun, but it’s also some of the most challenging work I’ve done. Because of the nature of the voyage, serving as Executive Dean or other faculty or staff member is a 24/7 experience. It’s challenging in that regard, but also the most rewarding work that I have done in my almost 40-year career in higher education. The people who come on board: the students, the faculty, the staff, the children and spouses and partners are always a fascinating group of people. Another critical part of the community is the officers and crew of the ship. They provide support for the program and many of them have served SAS for over 20 years. The crew works incredibly hard to make each voyage of Semester at Sea successful, and are an essential part of the community formed aboard the ship.

Q: What is your advice for students sailing on this year’s voyage?

Just be very open to new experiences. Everyone who comes up that gangway is brand new to SAS, and everybody is (literally) in the same boat. It’s a cliché thing to say, but you don’t have to be the same person you are at your university. You have the opportunity to challenge yourself and to embrace new learning and understanding. You will feel naked without your cell phones the first day, but after that, you’re going to relish the fact that you don’t need it so much, and are enjoying conversation with other students, faculty, and staff.  Be open to the wonderful new opportunities that are going to be available within the SAS community. It is an incomparable experience and one that you will want to try and enjoy and appreciate every moment we are sailing.


  • Life at Sea

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