The Academic Love Boat
Harvard has become a synonym for hypocrisy--at least when it comes to accepting credits for study abroad programs. Harvard's idea of international education is bringing students from around the world to Cambridge, not sending its students out to the world. Harvard accepts credit from very particular (and usually Eurocentric) study abroad programs that focus on immersion in one particular country, rather than on programs that offer a holistic introduction to the world, like the University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea.
Semester at Sea was founded in 1926 by the Seawise Foundation. Seawise was founded by C.Y. Tung, an idealistic businessperson in the shipping industry in post-World War II China who had a vision of global education through global experience. Semester at Sea was first called "University Afloat." It has since been "University of the Seven Seas (1963-1967), "World Campus Afloat (1967-1970) and finally Semester at Sea (1970-present). It has been sponsored by Chapman College, University of Southern California and University of Colorado, respectively.
Its spring semester voyages usually travel the southern hemisphere through Latin America, South Africa, Kenya, India, Southeast Asia and Japan. It's fall voyages usually travel the northern hemisphere through Japan, Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Russia and Western Europe. Since 1963, Semester at Sea has taken more than 20,000 students around the world. Its instructional objectives have consistently been to enhance education through classroom knowledge combined with field experience by traveling the world.
According to Harvard's Courses of Instruction, Harvard's primary Core philosophy is to introduce students to "major approaches to knowledge in areas that the faculty considers indispensable to undergraduate education." Harvard's Foreign Cultures common aim is to "expand the range of one's cultural experience and to provide fresh perspectives on one's own cultural assumptions and traditions."
This year's Harvard/Radcliffe undergraduate admissions information magazine's front cover states that Harvard is "a place for energetic young men and women who are alive to ideas and excited by challenges, who will share their talents, and educate one another, and stretch and grow--in college and beyond."
Given how much many of Harvard's faculty members have traveled abroad and how it has contributed to their knowledge and understanding of the world--on Harvard's tab--Harvard couldn't be more hypocritical than to deny its students the same opportunities.
Of course some anal credit board member can argue that the opportunity does exist to travel the world through the Semester at Sea. But who wants to pay another university over $15,000 for one semester without getting academic credit for it, and then have to take summer classes here to make up for the summer classes to make up for the semester? About .01 percent of the population, maybe.
In an era when education abroad has become a national mandate rather than merely interesting supplement to undergraduate experience, expanding international educational opportunities is as important to universities as gaining market share is to corporations. Semester at Sea is one of the best international study abroad programs, Harvard is one of the best domestic study programs--there is no reason why Harvard should not accept credits from Semester at Sea.
If Harvard is to remain one of the greatest universities, it must accept the experiences, wisdom and knowledge the world has to offer. Semester at Sea provides that offer to over eight hundred students a year.
Semester at Sea was my introduction to the world. This past spring voyage, we traveled from the Bahamas to Venezuela, Brazil, South Africa, Kenya, India, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan.
I did everything from see the start of a coup to hike through the Rancho Grande rainforest in Venezuela; learn the lambada and other Carnival dances in Rio; party with Desmond Tutu, the mayor of Cape Town, South African students and several ANC representatives at the Bishopscourt (Tutu's residence) in Cape Town; witness and anti-Moi riot in Nairobi, Kenya; learn mantras at the Madurai Temple in India; visit biotechnology production plants, rubber plantations and the beach in Malaysia; visit the Hsin-Chu Science Park in Taiwan; tour Guangzhou (Canton) in Southern China with the mayor to several of Southern China's special economic zones and factories and stay with a Japanese history professor and his family in Kyoto, Japan.
There is no better approach to knowledge than to feel it, cognitive and emotionally. There is no better way to expand one's range of cultural experience and gain "fresh perspectives on one's own cultural assumptions" than to leave your own culture and country, and not just see one or two others, but as many as possible.
Would a professor assign only one or two books to teach an entire subject? There is not better way to be alive to ideas than to live them. Nor is there a better way to educate and challenge one another than to share one's self and ideas than to challenge one's self. Semester at Sea did all of this and enough more to take me a lifetime to fully unpack.
Semester at Sea has become a synonym for challenge. Every second was part of a once-in-a-lifetime experience. As a result, I got no more than four hours of sleep a night on the ship and no more than a total of six hours of sleep per port. When I did sleep in port, it was usually during airplane, train or, in certain instances, rickshaw rides--and this time was often used to complete course readings, which averaged over 85 pages per day.
In addition to trying to complete course readings, write country reports and postcards, organize in-port travel and financial arrangements for the next port, attend diplomatic briefings, factory, orphanage and prison visits, welcome receptions and other course-required field work, student were trying to control their culture shock. Every aspect of our lives was challenged in each country, from our sleep habits to our cultural and historical assumptions to language, religion and social manners.
Although the voyage and our visits were all too transient, the resulting knowledge, experiences, friends and wisdom were not; far too many students are unable to say that about their undergraduate years and courses. On the Semester at Sea, every second was a minute. When we returned to the U.S., it was like we had experienced another life and been reborn--culturally, spiritually and educationally. The U.S. seemed so different: when we returned, it felt just like another port.
My courses on the ship complimented my experiences in the countries. I read books by Ngugi, Rushdi, Malan and Gordimer, among other authors from the countries we visited for my "Ethnic Literature" course. I learned of England's agreement with Hong Kong, problems of international commercial arbitration between multinational corporations and international human rights enforcement against Chinese labor in my "International Law and Problems of World Order" course.
I learned of the inhumane disparities of world development and standards of living, the problems of World Bank and IMF programs in Africa and the Green Revolution in India in my "Development Economics" course. I also listened to and learned from professors teaching other courses on the ship, ranging from "Saints East and West," "The Columbus Voyage," "International Marketing," "Women's Rights Around the World," and many others in the required course on comparative international studies. Not only did I read about the above topics in books or see them on a screen, I was there. I saw the statistics, I felt the facts, I met with international "player-actors." I experienced harmony in India.
In addition to having professors from Harvard, Yale, Columbia, Stanford, Syracuse, Princeton, the London School of Economics, Oxford, Georgetown and the University of Pittsburgh, among other well-respected universities, Semester at Sea hosts several interport lectures. On my voyage last spring, our lectures were Bishop Tutu (Brazil to South Africa); Liberty Mhlanga (Cape Town to Kenya); Margaret Pusch (Nassau to Brazil) and Maria Ruiz-Merroth (Nassau to Venezuala). They spoke on everything from the farming practices of the Massai in Kenya to third world debt problems, the Gulf of Columbia-Venezuela conflict, apartheid (or Apart-Hate as Desmond Tutu prefers to call it) in South Africa and Los Angeles and world population growth. In a way, they were the equivalent of visiting professors, though they would be embarrassed to be called such a thing.
Although there were days when even Desmond Tutu was caught sleeping in class, the courses provided students with valuable pre-and post-port medical, travel, historical and cultural information on each country. There were times when the only studying done on ship was on who scored the most points in the volleyball game, but everything we did was balanced (no, there was no shuffleboard).
Whether we were hang-gliding in Rio, skydiving in South Africa, shopping in Hong Kong or singing karaoke in Japan, we were all caught crying and laughing with our new friends on the ship and the countries we visited. We learned to greet people in many different languages and we learned the responsibility we, as citizens of developed countries, have to lesser developed countries.
We also learned how to challenge our own concepts of development and accept alternative ideas of development, culture, life, death, the world, and even education.
And that is something that Harvard should recognize--not only for its worth, but for its credit.
Raymond J. Blanchard Jr. '94 spent last spring on the University of Pittsburgh's Semester at Sea Program.