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Student Stories: First Impressions, Self Reflections

Student Kevin Connaughton standing in front of a mural on the ship.

Semester at Sea has begun, and the energy has been frenetic and exhilarating. We have now spent a few days aboard the MV World Odyssey, which has become a microcosm of sorts. All one can see looking out the window is blue and white. The sun is shimmering like pixels on the sea, and the slow ebbs and flows of the waves and the ship are almost breath-like. As we peruse the ship and figure out where our various classes, lectures, and hangout spots are, we slowly come to terms with this fascinating new reality.

Our new home is opulent. Walking into the World Odyssey’s central reception hall on the fifth deck, one sees the stained glass perched above and a magnificent impressionist painting. Greens and golds glide along every banister. The central hall, Anderson Union, looks something like a 1950’s opera house. There are busts of historical figures (Gorbachov included) and Hellenic-looking blue statues of nude women. The inside of my shower is outfitted with a beautiful painting of what looks like a harvest goddess. Aside from a few outliers, like the occasional forgotten hallway with deviant lighting or the odd closet cabin draped in dark brown, the ship drips wealth, beauty, and romance. This wealth isn’t a point of discussion but rather serves as a subtle undertone for many of our lectures and conversations. One peculiarity I’ve come to notice about the ship is the staggering amount of mirrors. One only has to glance around the room before catching a glimpse of their own reflection. My cabin alone has four (one of which is the entire bathroom door), and this is not even including the golden trim scattered throughout the ship, polished to perfection to serve as a makeshift sepia-tone mirror. Perhaps this is meant to encourage the self-reflection that the Staculty (this is how we identify our faculty and staff team on board the ship) constantly encourages. Perhaps it makes the compact rooms seem larger. Perhaps it’s just questionable décor. Who knows.

Like the rising and falling of the waves, getting acclimated to life on the ship has been tricky and tumultuous. There are immense highs, of course. The Staculty’s energy is invigorating and infectious, as they stand on the stage at Anderson Union and inspire us to engage wholly and thoughtfully with the program. A great deal of us really do feel that we are becoming global citizens, thoughtful travelers, and overall more nuanced and understanding humanitarians. The students share this energy as well. I think this was encapsulated best at the activity fair a few nights ago, where Lifelong Learners, ship kids and traditional students alike took to the stage to share their passions, which was met with roars of applause and support.

As initial friend groups form, through attending classes, lectures and playing UNO or poker in the golden light of Lido Terrace, one is seeing the simultaneous creation of different kinds of families. Or maybe just an expansion of the existing Semester at Sea family. The fact that students began waiting in line for the school store (which finally opened today) at 3 AM, just to showcase their pride through buying some merch, speaks volumes. The emphasis on understanding and diversity, exemplified through the central Global Studies class, gives students the thesis that despite our differences, our hearts are all alike as we travel through this blue world.

Student Eva Govaerts sitting on Deck 6

Eva Govaerts, a gap year student from Brussels, considers travel to be central to her choosing Semester at Sea over other programs. “I wanted something to really push-start my gap year,” she says. “And, SAS was a great opportunity to combine studying and traveling while doing a gap year. I get to go from Europe to Dubai, to go backpacking, and do further travel.” One particular aspect of the ship that Eva enjoys is Deck 9, which includes the Lido Deck, Terrace, and Restaurant. “I love that you can go to the terrace, have some food, go to the pool, and chill. You can stargaze at night, do yoga, or lie down on the deck.”

With the exciting highs, there are also natural lows. All of the energy and sheer newness of each day leaves many students entirely spent, already worried about sleep and keeping up with the hectic pace of the program. The blank-slate nature of the ship also provokes a good deal of anxiety in a lot of voyagers. People are worried that they aren’t going to make any friends, that they’ve made a mistake or that they should reconsider the program entirely. They look in one of the mirrors, and they might see how they’re failing to achieve what the program advertises. Many are homesick, which makes for an unpleasant combination (especially when compounded with seasickness). Many have no plans for our first port visit in Lisbon and are worried that they are destined to squander their time on land. This trip is hard and filled with unknowns. It takes immense courage to immerse yourself in an isolation like this, and yet that fear is often not quickly eased, especially not without struggle and support.

Student Alejandra Cano

This support has been essential to Alejandra Cano, a business student from California. “The first two days, I cried because I felt not only homesick but out of place, out of touch, like I didn’t belong,” she says. “Even prior to embarking, I was second-guessing whether or not I should even embark.” This fear is imposing, especially in the face of all the other students who seem like they click instantly with their found groups. However, Alejandra has discovered that these feelings are more pervasive. “These past few days I’ve talked to people and found that there’s a lot more people who are anxious, who are crying. The feelings that I’m having are normal, and things ought to get better.” While excited and appreciative of her new friends, she is particularly grateful to her Semester at Sea advisor Carlos, and her mom who encourages her to stick it out.

Central to everything on the ship is the concept of movement, of change. Like the sway of the ship or the drifting of the clouds past the autumn sun, the highs and lows that we are each experiencing are bound to drift into something entirely new. Both terrifying and comforting, gloomy and hopeful, change is inherent to a floating campus, to a world classroom. But hopefully through this movement and change, we will experience something entirely positive, growth. Through this immersion, we all hope to come out on the other side as kinder, wiser, less judgmental, more empathetic, less fearful, more motivated. To look in the mirror and to see a more complete person than before.

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