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Shipboard Education: Then & Now

The SS Universe, which sailed for Semester at Sea from 1971 to 1995, sits in the harbor of Cape Town, South Africa at sunrise.

The old saying is true: “The more things change, the more they remain the same.”  It fits Semester at Sea to a tee.  As one who has sailed a bit in the 1980’s, has spent some time chronicling the history of shipboard education and who is currently on board for the last leg of the Fall 2012 voyage, I am happy to report the program at its core is exactly the same, is alive and well, and steaming full speed ahead.

The program names may have changed—from the “University of the Seven Seas” to “World Campus Afloat” to “Semester at Sea”—

The ships may have changed—from the MS Seven Seas to the Ryndam to the Universe to the Universe Explorer to the current and magnificent MV Explorer—

The academic sponsors may have changed—from Chapman College to the University of Colorado to the University of Pittsburgh to the University of Virginia—

The Deans and Faculties and Staffs and Captains and Officers and Crews may have changed—

But what has not changed and comes through loud and clear as the ship is sailing toward Dominica, the last port on the itinerary, is the 470 plus students on board have come to very similar conclusions:

–Just maybe the best way to learn about the world is from the world itself.
–Travel teaches toleration.
–We don‚Äôt get to know people when they come to us; we‚Äôve got to go to them to find out what they are like.
–The world begins to exist when a person discovers it.
–Travel makes one realize what a small place they occupy in the world.

What this means I think is the over-all philosophy/mission/purpose of Semester at Sea has remained a constant: Students getting on a ship to learn about the world and then getting off it a few months later to serve it.  And of course to understand it better with a deeper attachment to it and a deeper insight into themselves.

On the very first day at sea of the very first voyage of a floating university the Dean of the ship, Dr James Edwin Lough said this to the student body:

This shall not be a mere sightseeing tour, but a college year of educational travel and systematic study: to develop a an interest in foreign affairs, to train students to think in world terms, and to strengthen international understanding and good will.

These words could just as easily have been spoken by Dr. John Tymitz, Dean of the current Fall 2012 voyage.
Dean Lough’s words bring to mind the words of the founder of the Institute for Shipboard Education Mr. C.Y. Tung who some 50 years ago said: “Ships can carry ideas as well as cargo.”  These words have laid the cornerstone for the Semester at Sea Program.  Mr. Tung would be pleased to know that literally hundreds of new, fresh, forward looking ideas for a better world can be found on every deck of the MV Explorer as we sail toward home.


Paul Liebhardt has taught Photojournalism on numerous voyages and has written three books on the history of Semester at Sea.

His current coffee table photo book titled TWO can be found on

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