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HPU student learns valuable lessons at sea

by Loren Moreno, editor


Sophie Palange couldn’t sleep as gale force winds and rain shook her dorm. A storm was brewing and it kept her awake all night. She knew it wasn’t just any old storm when she was tossed from one end of the bed to the other when the floor beneath her shifted. The drawers of her dresser were opening and closing with the rocking of the ground—announcing the presence of a tempest.


It was late night of Jan. 26 on board the MV Explorer—a floating university dubbed Semester at Sea. Sophie, a sophomore psychology major from HPU, and 650 other students were aboard the ship as it sailed the Pacific en-route to South Korea.

The storm harassed the ship for the better part of the night, and it wasn’t about to let up now. Waves crashed against the side of the ship knocking furniture on its side and students from their beds. “I remember some people had televisions unbolt from the ceiling,” Sophie said.

“ The captain decided to turn the ship back south into calmer waters so we could get some sleep,” she said. The captain waited out the storm for a few hours and later turned the ship back on course towards Korea. The storm was waiting for the MV Explorer’s return.

At about 4 a.m. Jan. 27, a 50-foot wave crashed into the bridge of the ship. It was too much for the ship to handle. Bridge windows broke and the bridge flooded, short circuiting power to the navigation system. The captain radioed the Coast Guard while faculty and staff braced for the worst.

“ The captain came on the loud speaker and instructed the entire ship community to put on life vests,” Sophie recalls. “Some people were freaking out,” she said, “most were fine.” As a matter of fact, Sophie recalls that the mood on the ship was quite jovial—the calm out numbered the frightened.

All 650 students were instructed to wait on the fifth floor of the ship as the storm continued to hammer away. “We didn’t really have a formal student orientation. This disaster became kind of an orientation,” Sophie said.

Disaster it turned out not to be. The MV Explorer turned towards Hawai‘i, where it came to port in Honolulu on Feb. 1. The ship remained docked for repairs as students used the time in Hawai‘i as a cultural learning experience.

Dr. James Whitfield, communication professor at HPU, was faculty aboard the ship in the fall 2002 semester. He said these things are quite rare. “I believe this is the first time something like this happened aboard Semester at Sea.” Whitfield added that every possible precaution is taken for the safety of the faculty and staff aboard the ship. “This is a world-class ship. The ship exceeds international safety standards,” he said.

Sophie said this experience won’t keep her from enjoying the rest of the semester, which she was only two weeks into. Whitfield believes it was a minor snafu and shouldn’t deter Sophie or anyone from embarking to Semester at Sea in the future.

The Semester at Sea program began in the late ‘60s, Whitfield recalls. Students embark every semester from Vancouver, Canada and sail round the world in a 100-day semester. Students experience 10 ports of call, disembarking from the ship in countries around the world. Sophie’s voyage was to visit Japan and Korea, but these destinations were preempted by the storm.

Students visit other places such as Shanghai, Hong Kong, Vietnam, India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, and Venezuela.

Whitfield said, “You really get out and you see other cultures. You don’t just hear lectures about them. You live other cultures.”

Whitfield stressed that Semester at Sea is not what some people may initially think. Most of us became familiar with Semester at Sea in 1999 when it was featured on MTV’s Road Rules. It is not the party MTV makes it out to be, Whitfield said. “Don’t believe anything you see on MTV. Some students did treat it as a party, and some students got Fs,” he added.

Most students who embark on Semester at Sea take it seriously—the approximately $19,000 price tag is enough to make anyone serious about school. Students meet the same number of class hours, if not more, on Semester at Sea. In addition to formal classes, students participate in mandatory field trips and faculty-led practica while in port. “It’s intensive and an extremely valuable learning experience. I didn’t know any students who really worked at it that were disappointed,” said Whitfield.

Sophie and the rest of the Semester at Sea students left Honolulu on Feb. 11 aboard charter flights to Shanghai. The MV Explorer will catch up with the students in Vietnam, said Whitfield. He wishes he could be with Sophie to experience it all over again: “It was one of the best experiences of my life.”


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