While most Mills students complete their studies on campus, some have explored the world by ship, encountering everything from Castro’s politics in Cuba, flying fish in the Red Sea, and pirates off the coast of Indonesia in an unforgettable experience called Semester at Sea.
Designed to incorporate the most comprehensive study abroad experience into college education, Semester at Sea is sponsored by the University of Pittsburgh. Students receive academic credit while traveling the world and studying different cultures.
As part of the Fall 2001 program, Mills students Shaye Troha and Jordan Huizing joined 650 others from all over the U.S. for an itinerary that included China, Japan, Vietnam, India, South Africa, Brazil, and Cuba.
“We explored to the fullest,” said Troha of the 100 day voyage that took her and Huizing to ten countries and three continents. “Every time we came into a port we had a mission to really get into the nitty-gritty of what that country was-to find its essence.”
The voyage got off to a rough start amidst the events of Sept. 11. According to Troha, the vessel was 2 days away from Japan in the Pacific Ocean when news of the terrorism reached them. “Everything was thrown up into the air because we didn’t know what was going on or if we were going to war,” Troha said. “The entire course of the trip was shaped by the events that occurred on Sept. 11 and the repercussions.”
An immediate change of itinerary went into effect. A visit to Malaysia was canceled due to its predominately Muslim population, as was sailing through the Suez Canal past Egypt into the Mediterranean.
Rather than receiving hostility for being an American, however, Huizing encountered sympathy. “Everywhere we went the first thing people would say was ‘I’m sorry, I’m sorry for what happened;’ it was amazing,” Huizing said.
“Meanwhile, we all felt so disconnected because we were on the other side of the world, we were so far away. It was very surreal,” said Huizing.
For Huizing, a highlight of the voyage was seeing Fidel Castro speak in Cuba about Cuban-American relations and the U.S. embargo. “Castro was amazing, it was like history come to life,” she said.
According to Huizing, Semester at Sea students weren’t allowed to know the location of Castro’s speech in advance for security reasons. “We were just put on a bus and drove there,” she said.
They arrived at a conference center just outside Havana and had to wear earpieces for an immediate translation of Castro’s words because he only speaks publicly in Spanish.
“He spoke for four hours straight, and he was funny! I never thought he’d be funny!” said Huizing. “I always thought of him as Fidel Castro the evil communist, but he’s very magnetic and I can see why people are drawn to him.”
As a senior English major, Huizing is incorporating her experiences during Semester at Sea into her creative nonfiction thesis. “It was the best thing I’ve ever done in my life. I’m sure I’ll still be figuring out for years how much it has changed me,” Huizing said. “It sounds cheesy, but I’ve got a much better global perspective.”
Troha found that she broadened her worldview during the voyage as well. Among her most poignant experiences was a visit to Mother Teresa’s orphanage in India.
After feeding and singing to one boy, Troha said, “I felt like nothing that I did was enough. His body was so rigid because he hadn’t been held when he was younger that I could barely pick him up. Their world is so different from ours, I felt like I had landed on a different planet.”
In South Africa, Troha encountered similarly intense contrasts. “You could go into downtown Cape Town and choose not to see any of the racial tension as a tourist,” she said, “but it was there, especially out in the country.”
In addition to the profound experiences on shore, Troha also encountered some drama of the high seas when the vessel had to patrol for pirates off the coast of Indonesia. “You never knew what you were going to get,” said Troha. “You always had to go in with a clear mind and an adventurous soul.”
Senior Kate McDonald embarked on Semester at Sea in the fall of 1999. Unlike Huizing and Troha’s itinerary, McDonald’s included Egypt and the Mediterranean. “Seeing the pyramids was just incredible,” McDonald said. “Going up and touching them, and trying to understand how old they were and how people built them, was really amazing.”
Two years after her voyage, McDonald can see how Semester at Sea enhanced her life. “It opened my world up,” she said, “for me it connected things. I’m an International Relations major, so, when we’re talking about places, I remember the faces, smells, and sounds of those countries. I will absolutely never forget it-those 100 days we were gone will never leave me. I’ll never forget the sunsets from the ship; being in the middle of the ocean, and the flying fish in the Red Sea and the dolphins that came to meet the ship when it came into port.”