My life changed forever during the summer of 2012 when I sailed as a Resident Director with Semester at Sea. Semester at Sea is a unique study abroad program that allows faculty, staff, students, and lifelong learners the opportunity to learn about the world, not just by reading about it, but while interacting with all it has to offer. Participants were not just taking finance classes, they were seeing how micro-finance loans worked for small businesses in Central America. Students climbed Machu Picchu, passed through the Panama Canal, and stood in two hemispheres at once. Semester at Sea is truly a global experience. But, simply removing (temporarily) a United States program from the US does not mean that its power, privilege, and oppression issues will disappear.
As a graduate student sailing among SSAOs, faculty, and seasoned professionals, I was out of my league. I did not get to experience Semester at Sea the same way that my colleagues did. My colleagues stayed at the Hard Rock Hotel, climbed Machu Picchu, saw the Galapagos Islands, and ate incredible food in restaurants off the ship. What I did not expect was to have an experience that somewhat mirrored that of students on the voyage.
I bonded with the low-income students; they watched their peers leave the ship for the days we were at port, just as I watched my colleagues do the same. The students and I ate together in the dining center. I was lucky enough to have my program costs covered. The students had already paid for the dining center in their program fees. So, it was not an added cost for us. We also went on the cheaper excursions together. Therefore, I really got to bond with these students through these experiences. We were close in age, students, and going through similar struggles. It allowed for us to have rich and meaningful conversations about power and privilege. It was clear that there were definite divides among us on a journey that was supposed to give students a global perspective. However, not everyone had the same awareness level.
One of the students I grew close to wrote a powerful spoken word piece to describe her experiences. An excerpt is below:
Lost in this journey at sea to find what knowledge really means
And instead, it’s ignorance that enlightens me
I participated in intellectual conversations to discover that
globalization is really just generalizations
where fat means flat
and this obese world market
keeps flattening underdeveloped countries
with U.S. traditions,
darkening their systems and
fattening the minds of poor citizens
with ugly images of American citizens
and made me question this:
Are we tourists or are we students?
We’re apparently here to study the injustifications of foreign nations
But remember that the same disparities are paralleled in our own populations
I chose to share this particular section, because you can feel the pain of the author. This student watched her peers take pictures of poor women and families and their living conditions, being voyeurs on black and brown lives. Many of the students that I was interacting with were also black and brown. That caused anger, hurt, pain, outrage, sadness, and many other emotions. The low-income students became teachers to their peers, correcting some of the vocabulary choices and calling them on their privilege. How was I, a white, working-class Resident Director just one year removed from several of these students, supposed to help them navigate this power dynamic, when I had so much to learn myself?
And so the Students of Color Association (SOCA) was formed. As a group, we started meeting regularly to document experiences. We also had conversations to provide knowledge to those who did not know the impact of their actions. The students also created a list of changes they would like to see for future low-income students and students of color, which included more need-based scholarships and the recruitment of more faculty of color. This list was then presented to the president of the Institute of Shipboard Education, which was an amazing opportunity for the students. During that moment, I was a proud mentor, friend, advocate, and staff member.
Looking back on my Semester at Sea experience, I was lucky enough to witness several ah-ha moments for students coming from privileged backgrounds.
I was fortunate to interact with “woke” students who were passionate about leaving their experience with an authentic and organic call for change.They were hoping to make the experience better for those who followed them. I was lucky enough to visit Central and South America. I got to experience cultures and people I could only have dreamed of meeting growing up in an all-white village of 250 people in nowhere Illinois.
But mostly, I was lucky enough to have one of the most meaningful and powerful Student Affairs experiences of my life on this voyage. It is something that will remain near and dear to my heart forever. It’s not every day that we travel the world hoping to learn about others and end up learning more about ourselves than we had ever dreamed.
Thank you Semester at Sea, for one heck of a summer and a once in a lifetime opportunity. Until we meet again, I hope the seas are calm and the possibilities are endless.
This post is part of our #SAinternational series. We will hear from #SApros who work in international student related services. We’ll also hear from those those who have had the fortunate opportunity to work overseas or have a global perspective to higher education. For more info, please see Kim Irland’s intro post. Be sure to check out other posts in this series.
> BONUS <
Podcast With Maryann Krieglstein on Social Justice & White Privilege