Michelle M. Camacho, Fellow, American Council on Education
In January of 2015, I boarded the MV Explorer ship as a faculty member of the Institute for Shipboard Education and Semester at Sea (SAS) program, then operating under the academic sponsorship of the University of Virginia (UVA). From the port of San Diego we crossed the Pacific with 700 students, 35 faculty, 50 administrative staff and 150 crew members on board. In 112 days, we circumnavigated the globe visiting Japan, China, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), India, South Africa, Namibia, Morocco (for about 5-6 days each), and disembarked in England. True to the mission of the program, the experience reshaped my understanding of the world and my own sense of self within it; however, not in ways I had predicted. I am often asked, “Would you do it again?”
Though hired 18 months in advance, I did not grasp the significant time required to design my three Sociology courses so they would align with our ports of call. This was particularly difficult as the risk of Ebola kept changing our itinerary (when Ghana was eliminated and Morocco added, I scrapped our analysis of cash crops and added sociological examination of the tourism industry.) Preparing each course required immersion in the socio-political and historical narratives of each country we would visit. In researching materials for the Sociology of Food class, for example, I learned about the Rohingya Muslim minority population and the difficulties of accessing a Halal diet in Myanmar. In Capetown, South Africa, I designed a practicum to investigate contemporary urban food insecurities. For that field lab, an NGO leader walked us through his township, demonstrating the scarcity of fresh produce, as we had read about. He surprised us by inviting us to an informal home-brewing and offered us tastes from the shared bucket of sorghum beer crafted by women entrepreneurs. We asked questions about, and optionally tasted, the “smiley” (smoked sheep’s head) sold for $5 USD, open-air on a street corner.
In the Methods of Social Inquiry course, we practiced participant observation at a Zen meditation temple in Kamakura, Japan, and at the end of the course, students were required to develop a proposal for the Fulbright Scholar program. My greatest challenge was teaching Social Inequalities in a context where students hoped to arrive at a destination and “make a difference.” They were disappointed with my anti-climactic response that the best we can do is listen and learn from resilient communities, and take our activist efforts home to analogous social problems.
I had long been a skeptic about the merits of visiting ports for short jaunts, contrasted with a full semester abroad in a single country. How can one fully experience the high impact of cross-cultural understanding that comes with international exchange in a timeframe that feels more like a vacation? Yet, there is value in the comparative scope, even for a short interval. It is a great privilege to have access to a wide-range of spaces, to begin to develop more informed questions after spending time reading about and studying each, and to be able to sociologically consider the historical conditions that construct current issues.
What I did not realize was that the SAS experience is more than the sum of its ports; it is like living on another campus for a semester. UVA leaders on the ship referred to our voyage on an “academical village”—a term coined by Thomas Jefferson to capture the holistic learning experience as it transcends the classroom. With such a large shipboard community, activated by the pulsating enthusiasm to learn, one might think that a healthy campus climate would be ensured. Not exactly. At one point, two other professors and I were asked by the resident hall leaders to offer evening programming to address the toxicity of racism and bias-incidents on the ship itself, and to offer a framework for reflecting on our relative privileges as outsiders in each port. Reflecting on academic leadership, as is true in all institutions of higher education, it is clear that a transformational leader sets the tone through programming, anticipating challenges, empowering faculty to follow the lead, and producing a climate that breeds mutual respect and belonging.
Ship Life Challenges
On the ship privacy is an imagined space unless one can tolerate the isolation of a small cabin. As a woman professor I’m used to keeping my work/life balance in check by maintaining silos around each. Choosing to bring my family on the voyage was an odd, but a life-changing, challenge. My eldest daughter took courses on the ship, and my spouse homeschooled our other children. I gave public lectures for the evening academic programming, and for the first time in their lives my family attended my talks. Not many know that I’m a certified fitness instructor as a hobby, and it was a pleasure to offer group exercise courses for the shipboard community, even when the waves rocked us wildly. Many excellent faculty, staff, and crew members became close friends (it’s a rare gift to develop new deep friendships mid-life). And I would be remiss not to mention the hundreds of bright and curious students that also inspired me, and from whom I learned new skills. It’s taken me almost a year to fully process the immersive experience. But the answer is, “yes!” In a heartbeat, I would do it again.
From the March-April 2016 Footnotes