Source: Lake Geneva Regional News

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Finding an anchor during Semester at Sea

by Chris Schultz

January 26, 2012

On the MV Explorer, Lauren Hobbs poses at the Panama Canal.
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.

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.

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.

"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.