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Around the world aboard a study ship

By Hallie and Howard YoungSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / September 12, 1986



Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

`DO not do chin-ups on shower curtain rod'' was one of the many special rules for our 100-day, around-the-world sea voyage. Another admonished not to use the netting over the swimming pool for a trampoline. This was Semester at Sea, an educational experience during which 67 oldsters (``seasoned travelers,'' they liked to call us) lived in close quarters with 365 college undergraduates, 74 faculty, staff, and families, and a couple of hundred Taiwanese crew. Half the time we were at sea taking classes and the other half ashore visiting the places we had studied. And though some found the courses a little easier than those on their home campuses, most applied themselves with some diligence, despite a general lack of privacy on board.

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Between departure from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in late January and arrival in Seattle in early May, the sparkling white SS Universe, an 18,100-ton passenger vessel owned by the C. Y. Tung Corporation of Taiwan, would come to be ``the great white mother'' to us, as one of the deans, Richard Stevens of the University of Colorado, put it.

``There is no other program in the world like this,'' he told a general meeting of students the second day at sea. ``This should be the best semester of your entire life,'' said Mr. Stevens, who was taking the trip for the fourth time.

When the late Mr. Tung initiated the idea of Semester at Sea, he had wanted to sponsor an international study ship that would attract students from many countries. He had originally acquired the huge HMS Queen Elizabeth for a floating campus, but when she burned and sank on the day of her rededication in 1971, the SS Universe was substituted. Originally sponsored by Chapman College in Orange, Calif., and later by the University of Colorado, the twice-a-year program is now run by the University of Pittsburgh.

Each voyage is individual, depending on the itinerary, the faculty, and the courses offered. For our trip, students could choose from 58 subjects ranging from anthropology to theater, with history, political science, and sociology linked to the areas visited. The mandatory core course, meeting every day, featured guest experts who explained the culture and customs of the people we were to meet.

The faculty came from large institutions like the University of Washington and smaller ones, such as Allegheny College in Meadville, Pa. It included what some called ``the gang of four'' -- a group of former Foreign Service officers. Judging from student comments, as well as our personal auditing, the instruction was generally of high caliber.

On arrival, students struggled up the gangplank with skis, surfboards, stereos, beach chairs, and sleeping bags. On departure, they carried souvenirs from around the world. They also carried memories of 10 foreign ports and myriad experiences. Some climbed mountains, some met gurus, some traveled in packs, and some went off to be alone.

On board ship, we ``ancient mariners,'' as we dubbed ourselves, had one lounge set aside for special lectures where we could also watch the nightly in-house news on closed-circuit TV. But most of the time we were with the students -- in classes, on the promenade deck (used largely for jogging), and in the cafeteria, where we could enjoy a variety of dining partners.

At our first port, Cadiz, Spain, we had a chance to book, through the ship's field office, excursions to Granada and Seville. From Piraeus in Greece we went to Athens and several Greek islands, and then to Istanbul. A large group flew from there to Israel, planning to rejoin the ship in Egypt. But when riots broke out in Cairo, the ship headed for Haifa, Israel, instead, on the recommendation of the US State Department. There we anchored outside the harbor while Israeli frogmen inspected the hull for explosives.