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Academics on the open ocean

Heather Buchanan

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The idea of going to school on a massive cruise liner while visiting foreign nations around the world was the fantastical premise of Disney’s “The Suite Life on Deck.” But exactly such an experience is a reality for students participating in the University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea program.

This fall, seven University of Alabama students set sail on a study abroad experience that will take them to 16 countries around the world in 108 days. Mallory McCarty, a communications intern for Semester at Sea, said the students left Saturday for their academic adventure. Students will be earning course credit while exploring the Atlantic Ocean on their floating campus, the MV Explorer.

“This fall, UA students will make up one of the top most represented universities aboard the MV Explorer and will be joining a shipboard community of 627 students from different universities around the world,” McCarty said.

Semester at Sea’s website describes the MV Explorer as a “modern and safe passenger ship that circumnavigates the globe twice a year and explores a world region each summer.” It boasts a 9,000 volume library, wireless internet and a student union, among other common land-based amenities.

Jonathan Schmitt, a senior majoring in restaurant, hotel and meetings management, is one of seven UA students onboard the MV Explorer this fall. He said he values the eye-opening aspect of the program.

“What I am looking forward to most is getting a glimpse of all the various cultures around the world,” he said. “We’re traveling to 16 unique countries and I will have first-hand view of all of them while traveling to four different continents.”

The program takes advantage of interchangeable classrooms, with field programs in each of the port cities. These outings supplement the classroom material with hands-on experience.

“In my 8 a.m. intro to environmental studies [class], we were told by the professor we had a field excursion together as a class in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, where we will be hiking to a secluded beach and keeping detailed field notes of the environment where we will be turning in a portfolio of our findings and notes,” Schmitt said.

While trekking around the world, communication will be limited for students in the program. As part of their fees, students are allotted just 125 minutes of free internet time during their 108 days of travel, with additional minutes costing 30 cents each. Internet data plans are also available for purchase. Schmitt said he was worried about the lack of connection but is beginning to appreciate unplugging from technology.

“It was something I thought I was going to struggle with, but it’s actually nice not having social media or technology to distract myself with and having real conversations with my fellow students,” he said.

According to the Semester at Sea website, applicants to the program are required to complete an application and pay an application fee. Under most conditions, applicants must be full-time students with at least one full term under their belts and a minimum 2.75 GPA. They must also submit a short essay with their application. Students participating in Semester at Sea are enrolled as “visiting students” of The University of Virginia. Credits earned are transferred from UVA to the student’s university.

Carson Seeley graduated in May 2014 and is representing the University on the MV Explorer. As a post-graduate program participant, she praised the integrated community aboard the ship.

“The atmosphere is amazing,” Seeley said. “It is definitely different than a typical school where you walk into a room and go sit with your ‘clique.’ During meals people will go sit at a random table and introduce themselves. … It is like that all day, everywhere you go.”

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Academics on the open ocean