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'Powerful, Exhausting, Fun': Semester at Sea Voyagers Experiencing Latin America

Aug. 3, 2007 -- You can study Latin America in Charlottesville. You can read books, attend lectures, watch video, learn Spanish.

But how much better is it to do all of that aboard a ship, while stopping every couple of days at a different port to actually experience Latin America?

 So it has been this summer for 302 undergraduate students, 45 "lifelong learners" and more than two dozen faculty and graduate students aboard the MV Explorer, the floating classroom home of the Semester at Sea program. The Latin American voyage is the fourth under the auspices of the University of Virginia, which agreed to take over the sponsorship of Semester at Sea in December 2005. But it is also the first voyage on which U.Va. has a member of its faculty serving as the academic dean.

The University has 16 students on the voyage, third-most behind Semester at Sea's previous sponsor, the University of Pittsburgh (29), and the University of Colorado-Boulder (23). In all, students come from 140 different colleges and universities.

The Explorer departed June 17 from Ensenada, Mexico with an 11,000-nautical-mile itinerary that includes stops in Panama, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Guatemala before concluding Aug. 21 in San Diego.

"This has been a powerful, exhausting, fun, enriching and extremely worthwhile experiment," wrote Commonwealth Professor of Spanish David Gies, the voyage's academic dean, as the Explorer neared port in Costa Rica in late July.

"Instead of thinking about it as a study-abroad experience," Gies wrote, "we should think about it as a residential college — students and faculty in close quarters, eating, talking and traveling together. A kind of Brown College with waves."

Gies has kept an online blog of his experiences, illustrated with dozens of photos. His enthusiasm for the voyage leaps from the computer screen.

On visiting the ancient city of Teotihuacán in Mexico: "It's a long climb up to the top of the Pyramid of the Sun (and at 6000+ feet above sea level!), but well worth the gasping. A fun native dance performance over lunch led us into the afternoon at what is by any standard the world's most spectacular anthropology museum, chocablock with treasures from all of the many indigenous civilizations of Mesoamerica."

On visiting Chile: "We spent a long day in Santiago yesterday, first to do some tourist stuff — La Moneda (where Salvador Allende was murdered in 1973; it's their equivalent of the White House), then to meet with the playwright Alejandro Sievking and his wife, Bélgica Castro, two artists whose careers have spanned more than fifty years in theater and film, and then to attend an electronic music concert by [U.Va. music professor] Judith Shatin at ARCIS University. The panel discussion with Sievking and Castro (she won Chile's National Arts Prize a couple of years ago) was thrilling, and the students were particularly moved when they recounted the difficulties of their years in exile during the Pinochet dictatorship. Judith's performance was stunning, with a range and depth of music that you had to hear to believe."

On revisiting Machu Picchu: "When I first saw Machu Picchu in 1962, I thought, 'This is another planet.' It still is. ... Many of the students are taking 'The Engineering Wonders of the Incas, Aztecs, and Mayas,' so seeing Machu Picchu is one of the highlights of the whole trip for them; this was the perfect convergence of in- and out-of-class work. The images continue to dazzle, and it is impossible to convey the wonder of that sacred space in words; it's clear why the Incas built their city where they did."

Students are each taking at least 10 hours of coursework, including a mandatory "Latin America Today" course and a one-hour Spanish conversation class. The faculty includes eight U.Va. professors, plus seven graduate-student teaching assistants who help lead the language class and the small-discussion sections of "Latin America Today."

It hasn't been completely smooth sailing. A plan to have most of the assigned readings available online on the Explorer's intranet foundered when students complained that it was difficult to read long assignments on computer screens, especially on a gently rocking ship. (Course packets were hastily printed in Chile.)

According to Gies, a few students have chafed under the heavy academic load, but he added in one dispatch: "The students love their individual classes and have raved about the care, preparation, and knowledge of their profs."

And there has been a good bit of fun, too.

On July 4, the voyagers celebrated "Neptune Day" to mark the passage over the equator. During the observance —  "based (supposedly) on festivities that Darwin encountered on his Voyage of the Beagle" — "neophytes are doused with spurious fish guts and gunk, dipped in the pool for a ritual cleansing, forced to kiss a fish and Neptune's ring, then are initiated into the company of Shellbacks (ie, people who have crossed the Equator on a ship). The final 'act' is having your head shaved."

This fall William A. Soffa, professor of materials science and engineering, will become the second academic dean from U.Va. The around-the-world voyage departs Aug. 27 and finishes Dec. 7 in Miami with port calls in Japan, China, Vietnam, and Turkey, among others.

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