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Finding an anchor during Semester at Sea

China's mini-Venice, called Suzhou Street in Beijing, was one of the stops made by Lauren Hobbs of Williams Bay during her 112 days at sea on the MV Explorer.

On the MV Explorer, Lauren Hobbs poses at the Panama Canal. (click for larger version)

SEA-BORNE CLASSES BRING THE WORLD CLOSE-UP Semester at Sea (SAS) is a study abroad program founded in 1963. The program is now managed by the University of Virginia. Semester at Sea is run on the MV Explorer, a 24,300-ton former cruise ship with a length of 590 feet. Constructed in 2002 by Blohm & Voss shipbuilders in Germany, the ship was operated by Royal Olympia Cruises until the Semester at Sea program acquired it in 2004. During the spring and fall semesters, the 100-day program circumnavigates the globe from North America heading either across the Atlantic or the Pacific, visiting from eight to 11 countries in Asia, Africa, Europe and South America, before ending the voyage in another North American port. Students attend classes in a variety of subjects and disciplines. All students are required to take global studies, an interdisciplinary core course. When the ship is in a port, no classes are held. Students are able to travel on Semester at Sea sponsored trips or independently within the country. However, travel outside the country of port is strictly prohibited. Although the University of Virginia is the academic sponsor for the program, Semester at Sea is open to students from any university. Faculty members are drawn from colleges and universities throughout the United States. Prior to arriving at a port, students receive a pre-port briefing on the country they are visiting. Upon arriving at the port of call, special guest speakers, ranging from community leaders from the country to American ambassadors, give lectures.
January 25, 2012 | 08:10 AM
WILLIAMS BAY — When looking for an anchor in life, sometimes it pays to find a big boat.

Lauren Hobbs, daughter of Michael and Laura Hobbs, spent a 112-day semester on a floating classroom, a former cruise ship called the MV Explorer, which took her to ports of call in Africa, Asia and South America.

"I wanted to do something, to see many different places," said Hobbs, a 2008 graduate of Williams Bay High School. "Now that I've been to those places, it's an anchor," she said. "It made everything (in the world) more personal in my life."

In an interview last week at the family's Williams Bay home, Hobbs said she always wanted to study overseas. But, she said, she was way too busy, and very few classes taken overseas are accepted for credit by American medical schools.

Hobbs said her organic chemistry professor, who had taught on one of the voyages, told her about the Semester at Sea program.

The University of Virginia is also a sponsor of the program.

Hobbs said the ship is like a floating college.

Classes on board depend on the professors who are signed up to teach, she said.

Students are required to take at least two port-of call trips with professors. And there are classes on the different religious beliefs of the countries they visited.

Other required classes include a travel literature class and global studies. She said she also took a course on infectious diseases.

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There are no weekends. Classes are every other day. Hobbs said it's easy to lose track of time on the cruise.

The ship has a capacity of 750 passengers and crew, although students and staff numbered about 450 when she was onboard, Hobbs said. It also requires a big commitment. Hobbs said the voyage cost $22,000 for economy class.

"The trip does draw a certain type of person," Hobbs said. "Most are passionate and committed, although there are a few partiers."

Hobbs credited her studies at Williams Bay High School as a source of her curiosity in the world. She cited Phil Sanborn, who taught international relations, as someone who sparked her interest in the world beyond Williams Bay.

Hobbs said the MV Explorer took its classrooms and students on a trip around the world from Aug. 26 through Dec. 13.

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The ship left harbor in Montreal and headed east to Africa. Hobbs said. On the way, she saw flying fish and whales.

The ship made port in Morocco, Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius, India, Malaysia, Vietnam, China and Japan. The ship returned to the Western Hemisphere by Hawaii, then through the Panama Canal before making stops in Costa Rica and Honduras, before returning to Montreal.

Going overseas brought students face to face with the uncomfortable disparities between life in the First and Third worlds.

The ship itself is a slice of First World comfort, with a swimming pool, gym, dining room and plenty of food and fresh water.

She said students visit countries where the average person has difficulty finding clean drinking water. Then they return to their floating cocoon.

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"It's challenging to see the inequalities," she said. "Feeling guilty doesn't do anything. So what do you want to do about it?"

Hobbs said she had three roommates in a suite that was essentially two conjoined rooms with a bathroom.

She said her living quarters were on the third floor in the very front of the ship. That was close enough to have water come through the living quarters' single window when the sea was rough.

It was rough often enough that she became familiar with the symptoms of sea sickness. Fortunately, the ship offered free seasickness medicine, she said.

Time spent at each port was different. Hobbs said students could go on tours arranged by Semester at Sea, or they could set out on their own. She said she and a friend, Miki Goetsch, planned their own excursions.

Hobbs said Vietnam and South Africa were beautiful countries. China, not so much.

In South Africa, Capetown is very European, with tree-lined streets and backyard gardens, said Hobbs. However, further into the country, visitors run into the poverty of the townships, the remnants of the apartheid system that kept African blacks in poverty on their own land.

Hobbs said she was "a little worried" about visiting Vietnam, because memories of the Vietnam War might still linger.

"But people there were really friendly," Hobbs said.

Hobbs had a one-word description of China: "Polluted."

She said they docked in Hong Kong and visited a small city called Guilin. However, she was able to take trips to Shanghai and Beijing.

"I wasn't a big fan," Hobbs said of China. "It was really cold."

And it wasn't nearly as friendly a country as Vietnam.

However, she did get to see the Great Wall, which is much more impressive when seen in person than in pictures, she said.

Likewise, in India, Hobbs made a point to visit the Taj Mahal.

"You heard so much about it, you think it's going to be a let down," she said. "But no, it was incredible."

Hobbs said she wants to practice medicine overseas, particularly in Third World countries.

Hobbs' interest in medicine runs in the family, she said. Her father is in family practice with Aurora in Elkhorn; mother is a physician's assistant there.

Hobbs graduated a semester early from University of Virginia with a BA in psychology.

She is now interviewing to get into medical school.

Hobbs said her semester on the MV Explorer has piqued her interest in the problems of public health. Her plans include a trip this February to Bangladesh to continue her study of infectious diseases.


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