Prepare to Come About: Reflections on Study Abroad Experience

Auckland Sky Tower. Photo: Josephine Ensign/2015

Was I ever that young? This question came back to me earlier this week as our group of twenty-two university students from the U.S. gathered in Auckland to start our month-long study abroad program. For many of them, this is their first trip outside our home country; their first time staying in an international youth hostel; their first time handling the confusion of foreign coins; their first time having spotty to no wi-fi access; their first time being a pedestrian along busy urban streets where cars drive on the ‘wrong’ side of the road.

I remember my own travels outside my passport zone—outside my comfort zone. I try to remember lessons I learned through my travels, lessons that can perhaps inform my teaching here.

My junior year study abroad program was with SEA Semester, out of Woods Hole National Oceanographic Institute on Cape Cod, Massachusetts. I had just turned nineteen. Sea Semester is a twelve-week intensive course on sailing, oceanography, and all things sea-related. (Not to be confused with the very different but similarly titled Semester at Sea—which is more of a giant cruise ship/party boat traveling to different port cities around the world.)

We sailed on the Westward, a 125’ Topsail Schooner research vessel, to Nova Scotia and Newfoundland. We took nautical science, marine science, and an English literature course on the lore of the sea (including reading Moby Dick). I loved night watch duty on the bowsprit, and was mesmerized by the glittering spray from the phosphorescent algae. I would lean out over the bowsprit and feel myself diving into that flowing luminescence. It was a kind of cleansing, simultaneously a deep relaxation and exhilaration with the white noise of the whooshing bow waves, the cold spray on my face, the briny sea-smell, and the shimmering lights. Obviously, from a nautical safety perspective, I was worthless on bow watch at night.

Near Newfoundland we sailed through huge displays of Northern Lights and followed the migratory paths of blue whales. I was at the helm the day our marine biology professor from Newfoundland spotted a 70’ blue whale off our port bow. “Prepare to come about! Follow that whale!” the Captain yelled. As I turned the ship’s wheel, I felt like yelling back, “Call me Ishmael!”

We spent time in small fishing villages, the houses perched on stilts on the rocky shores of Newfoundland’s deep fjords. The Newfies’ accents were so thick it was like deciphering a foreign language. We traded bottles of rum for cod and moose meat. We hiked up a mountain on the West Coast of Newfoundland to see the MOHO, the mohorovicic discontinuity, the boundary where the Earth’s crust and mantle meet—something only a geologist could get excited about, as it just looked like a thin band of grey mud to us.

Similar to what we are having students do on our New Zealand study abroad program, we were tasked with designing, conducting, and presenting results on a scholarly research project. I remember a fellow student, a psychology major, who designed a questionnaire for all of us to complete, through which he attempted to link personality traits with a propensity to develop sea-sickness. He was so incapacitated by sea-sickness throughout our voyage that we had to help him complete his project. I was fascinated by the inner ear stones–otoliths–of bony fish and spent hours collecting fish from different ocean depths, and dissecting them on our ship’s table at night after dinner.

Did I find my true name through this experience? Did I find my place in the wider world?

The experience deepened my awareness of environmental health and the health of our environment–something we are incorporating into our New Zealand study abroad program. The somewhat limited interactions we had with Newfies, and the more extensive interactions with the land and sea of Newfoundland, have given me a deeper appreciation of people living in more isolated areas of the world. The experience gave me a deeper understanding of books like Annie Proulx’s Shipping News and Wayne Johnston’s The Colony of Unrequited Dreams. The experience gave me a respect for the power of study abroad programs to broaden young people’s horizons.