Semester at Sea Voyage Sets Sail in June

March 8, 2007 -- This summer, students in Cavaliers’ Distinguished Professor Jose D. Fuentes’ “Weather and Climate” course will study El Niño, a phenomenon whereby the warming of equatorial waters in the Pacific Ocean spawns heavy rains, blustery storms and drought in some parts of the globe. El Niño and other weather conditions are customary topics in Fuentes' environmental sciences class.

But for these students, the syllabus will include a new twist: a visit to a Peruvian ocean looking out to the waters that scientists like Fuentes consider the birthplace of El Niño. “We can actually walk to the beach, and I can say, ‘Here is the place where it is born’,” he said. Once there, the students will take measurements of the air temperature, humidity and wind speed and direction with portable instruments brought especially for the trip. It’s a beach trip that none of them is likely to forget.

A voyage of firsts

The Peruvian beach adventure is only one of many awaiting the students who sail on the summer voyage. Boarding the 24,500-ton ship in Ensenada, Mexico, on June 17, they will join the crew, 18 faculty members and staff on a 10-week journey to eight Central and South American countries. By the time the ship returns to San Diego in August, the voyage participants will have logged nearly 11,000 nautical miles. They will also cover many land miles, with “field programs” taking them to such spots as Mayan ruins in Guatemala, the Galapagos Islands and MachuPicchu in Peru.

This voyage marks a series of firsts. It is the first Semester at Sea program to focus exclusively on Latin America and the first to make stops in Guayquil, Ecuador; Valparaiso, Chile; and Corinto, Nicaragua. Another first: every student must enroll in a one-credit Spanish conversation course. According to a fall 2006 issue of Shipmates, Semester at Sea's alumni newsletter, the goal of the course is to improve the students’ Spanish enough so they can “ask for a cup of coffee or for directions to the Ministry of Culture.” The language requirement reflects the program’s effort to  ncourage students to explore widely and experience the local cultures first-hand.

For U.Va., the voyage also represents an important milestone in its relationship with Semester at Sea, as it is the first with a member of the University's faculty, David T. Gies, the Commonwealth Professor of Spanish, serving as academic dean for a voyage.

In Fall 2006, when the University announced its partnership with Semester at Sea, the decision stirred a mix of responses that ranged from concern about the safety of a “floating campus” to outright dismay and anger among some faculty members who felt shut out of the decision-making process. Fuentes counted himself among the latter group. “Faculty members, including myself, were disappointed not to be consulted about the quality of Semester at Sea’s academic program.”

What changed Fuentes’ mind so much so that he agreed to teach the summer voyage? He explained by saying that he was doing research in Africa when Gies e-mailed him. “I tried to evade him,” Fuentes recalled. But his conversations with Gies finally laid to rest his doubts about the program’s academic soundness. “We will be teaching courses that are already recognized or can easily be approved for credit.

David has been very creative in eliminating any doubts about the academic quality of the program,” Fuentes said.

Anna Brickhouse, associate professor of English, told a different story about how she became involved with Semester at Sea. “It was only my first year at U.Va. I knew vaguely the decision was controversial, but I didn’t really pay much attention to it.” When Gies approached her about participating this summer, she hesitated. She was interested in the voyage’s Latin America focus, but didn’t want to leave her children for 10 weeks. Gies explained that she could bring her family on the voyage and do so quite affordably. “The way David described his vision of how we would teach and be able to interact with the students aboard the ship,” she said, “I realized it was an incredible academic opportunity.”

Brickhouse will teach two classes, one focusing on the interconnectedness of literature and place. One of the field programs that she’s planning for students is a visit to the home of Chilean poet and Nobel Prize winner Pablo Neruda. “After the visit,” she said, “I will give the students an essay assignment that asks them to explore the connections between the public site
and Neruda’s poetry.”

For Robert Chapel, professor of drama and producing artistic director of the Heritage Repertory Theatre, the news that U.Va. had become the academic home for Semester at Sea struck him as positive. “I was in Tasmania teaching at the University when all of it happened. My initial response was, it seemed like a great idea. I thought  to myself, 'If there are concerns about the academic rigor of the program, it can be made more rigorous.’” Yet, because Chapel was committed to being in Charlottesville for the Heritage’s summer season, he gave little thought to his participating in the summer voyage. Then things changed. “It became clear that we had to cancel the summer season because the construction project around the Culbreth Theatre had left no parking at the theatre.” Soon after, Gies contacted him about joining the faculty for the voyage.

Chapel will teach two classes, one of which introduces students to contemporary Latin American drama. “There’s a great deal of theatre going on in Latin America.” To give his students first-hand experience of the drama, he is organizing field trips to venues in San Jose, Costa Rica; Panama City; and Santiago, Chile. He’s also working to arrange for the class to meet
with a Chilean playwright.

As “interport lecturer” for the Semester at Sea summer voyage, history department lecturer Mary Anne Andrei will introduce students to the peregrinations of another voyager — 19th century British naturalist Charles Darwin — and his famous study of the geological features, fossils and living organisms along the South American coastline.

After hearing about the trip, Andrei urged David Gies, U.Va.’s academic dean for Semester at Sea's summer 2007 voyage, to incorporate the history of science into the voyage curriculum. He agreed and promptly invited her to join the ship on its Chile-to-Peru leg with a side trip to the Galapagos Islands, areas where Darwin made dramatic discoveries about land formations and the development of different animal species. “It’s a subject that I know and love,” Andrei said, “and I hope to pass that along to the students.”

The inside scoop

At a recent information session for students interested in the  summer voyage, Gies joined participating faculty and staff to field questions about everything from the transfer of academic credits and shipboard Internet service to the size of cabins and seasickness treatments.

Seated cross-legged on a desk and wearing a hooded sweatshirt with “Semester at Sea” emblazoned on the front, Gies spoke about the itinerary and the once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that it affords the participants, students and faculty alike. He alluded several times to the blog that he started while on his first voyage last summer. He also talked candidly about what life can be like aboard the ship. “There were times when I froze to death. So, by all means, bring some warm clothes.”

As with all other Semester at Sea voyages, financial aid is  available for the summer trip. In addition, the first 25 U.Va. students accepted to the voyage will receive a $2,500 grant from
Semester at Sea that can be applied to the already discounted price of $8,375 for the summer program. ITC has also donated 100 previously used laptop computers for use by students who do not have their own.

In answer to the larger concerns about putting the University’s stamp on the Semester at Sea program, Gies said, “We’ve made a lot of progress and have worked hard to ensure that the faculty, courses and syllabi are of U.Va. quality. The Honor Code is another part of that. Every student signs a pledge to abide by it, anda U.Va. person does a thorough briefing to both students and faculty.”