University may make waves with Semester at Sea program

Call it the Somewhere-in-the-Middle-of-the-Ocean Campus. GW is among a handful of universities vying to affiliate with the Semester at Sea program, after the University of Pittsburgh announced it will cut its ties with the program next spring.

University administrators said they are researching the study abroad program to see how it would fit into the mission and culture of GW. Peter Konwerski, executive director of administrative partnerships, said GW is one of several schools looking to work with Semester at Sea and hopes it will be chosen when the directors of the program pick a new academic sponsor by the end of the semester.

More than 600 students board the MV Express cruise ship each semester to travel the globe and take classes with Semester at Sea. The 100-day program brings students to countries in Africa, Asia, South America and Europe, and makes extended port stops in different nations to give students an authentic view of foreign cultures.

Konwerski said that in the next few weeks, officials will talk to students and faculty members to gauge their interest in the potential partnership. He added that Semester at Sea’s worldwide itinerary might especially appeal to the GW community.

“Obviously our students are very interested in international affairs and global issues, and (Semester at Sea) is a more unique type of international opportunity,” he said.

GW graduate Joseph Callahan, who went on the program in spring 2003, said Semester at Sea was the best experience of his life because it allowed him to get a firsthand account of the different countries he studied at GW.

“I majored in international affairs, with a concentration in contemporary society and culture, (and Semester at Sea) was the perfect fit,” Callahan said. “I received a comparative view of cultures throughout the world, and it was this type of experience that supplemented my education to the fullest extent.”

Paul Watson, senior director of enrollment management for the Institution for Shipboard Education, which runs Semester at Sea with the University of Pittsburgh, said the program is looking for a school with a “compatible mission.”

“Semester at Sea takes the name of its (affiliated) institution around the world,” Watson said. “Both the school and program must work together to make the academic program and experience for students the best it can be.”

The University of Pittsburgh has sponsored Semester at Sea since 1981 and will sponsor two more voyages this fall and next spring before the program moves to a different university. Watson wouldn’t elaborate on why the school’s senior administration decided not to renew the university’s contract with Semester at Sea. He also declined to name other schools looking to affiliate with the program.

Semester at Sea boasts more than 40,000 alumni and draws students from 265 colleges and universities. More than 300 GW students have taken to the seas to study in the program’s traveling classrooms, and some former Semester at Sea participants said they were surprised to hear about the University’s interest in the program. In the past, it has been difficult for GW students to get credit for their Semester at Sea classes.

“Because GW does not currently have Semester at Sea listed as an approved study abroad program, there is a petition process that is necessary to go through in order to participate and receive credit for the classes taken,” said senior Lauren Butner, who was on the program last spring. “It is my understanding that students who aren’t granted the approval and still want to participate have to take a leave of absence in order to continue with it.”

Despite some complaints about bureaucratic hurdles, some of GW’s Semester at Sea alumni raved about their study abroad experience.

“Once I looked into the program, I knew right away it’s what I wanted to do,” said senior Sylvia Pociask, who was on the spring 2005 voyage. “I’ve been traveling since I was one, and I just think the program gave me so many opportunities I never would have had otherwise.”

“What made Semester at Sea such a good experience was the unique environment that we were all in,” Butner said. “Not only were we able to witness almost every sunset from the middle of the ocean, but we were able to wake up with the knowledge that just outside our school walls was a new country with a whole new culture to explore and learn from.”

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