Cut short by coronavirus fears, Semester at Sea program a study in resilience

Students left their marks on the world, in the form of an inflatable globe held by Professor Scott Denning on the Spring 2020 Semester at Sea voyage.
Students left their marks on the world, in the form of an inflatable globe held by Professor Scott Denning on the Spring 2020 Semester at Sea voyage.

The 557 students and 32 faculty members who set sail Jan. 4 on the CSU Semester at Sea program were filled with expectations for an adventure across 11 countries. When the program ended abruptly March 14 due to the global pandemic, they disembarked with some unexpected lessons learned, meaningful bonds, and a unique perspective on the crisis overtaking the world.

“We learned to be flexible in the face of repeated setbacks and to make the most of constantly changing circumstances far beyond our control,” said Atmospheric Science Professor Scott Denning, who taught oceanography and global studies as part of the program. “We were bound together into a deeply connected community by our shared experience of loss and learning and resilience.” Watch Denning’s inspirational message to disappointed students.

After leaving Japan Jan. 28, the ship skipped its scheduled stop in China because of the coronavirus outbreak and resulting travel lockdown. Instead, it sailed straight to Vietnam for an extended stay, from Feb. 4-16. Before departing Vietnam, participants completed the first of several health screenings, including a detailed questionnaire, face-to-face evaluation by physicians, and temperature check. The ship then rerouted again to avoid stops in Malaysia and India, for fear a later outbreak in either location would make them a “pariah ship,” denying them port elsewhere. They docked in Kuala Lampur, Malaysia, for fuel and supplies, but no one was allowed off the ship.

Stuck at sea

After eight days crossing the Indian Ocean, within eight hours of docking in Seychelles, the country denied the travelers entry because of coronavirus fear. The ship sailed to Mauritius, where another fuel stop was planned before pressing on to Mozambique, an improvised addition to the itinerary.

Much to the group’s delight – after 11 days on the open sea – Mauritius permitted them on shore, following another health screening. Mozambique was off the schedule again.

The Semester at Sea program’s itinerary changed abruptly and repeatedly in response to the rapidly developing coronavirus outbreak.
The Semester at Sea program’s itinerary changed abruptly and repeatedly in response to the rapidly developing coronavirus outbreak.

With every itinerary change, course plans were scrapped and reconfigured overnight – all while aboard a ship with severely limited Internet access. Extra days at sea also meant more class time to fill.

“We had planned for almost two years, with course content targeted to the itinerary, and every faculty member completely replaced these careful plans at least half a dozen times,” Denning said.

To navigate this logistical nightmare, Semester at Sea staff held teleconferences in the middle of the night to compensate for the 12-hour time difference between the ship and home office in Colorado. Program leaders communicated daily with the university, health and safety experts around the world, and port authorities along the route.

Shortly after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a global pandemic and the U.S. State Department issued a worldwide travel advisory, program leaders decided to terminate the trip more than a month early at the next stop in Cape Town, South Africa.

Semester at Sea participants wave farewell before disembarking March 14 in Cape Town, South Africa.
Semester at Sea participants wave farewell before disembarking March 14 in Cape Town,
South Africa.

Important lesson in resilience

Students received notification their voyage would be cut short during Denning’s global studies lecture March 11. Shock and dismay rippled through the auditorium. Someone shared the email with Denning, and he tried to help his devastated students process the news.

“We are caught up in something much bigger than us. We are swept up in a global historic phenomenon,” he said. “You’re going to remember what you were doing out at sea in the great coronavirus scare of 2020, and I want you to remember how you came through it, and you’re going to go out into the world, and you’re going to make the world a better place.”

Faculty, program coordinators and CSU administrators worked hard in the final days of the journey to develop plans to complete contact hours and assessments online. Every student in every class will be eligible to receive full credit for the semester.

Originally scheduled to disembark in Amsterdam on April 20, program participants went their separate ways in Cape Town on March 14, following another health screening. None of the participants exhibited any coronavirus symptoms. They had weathered both literal and metaphorical rough seas on their 10-week, 15,000-mile excursion.

“We aspired to having this course be much, much more than a travel log,” Denning reflected on the adventure’s untimely end, during the fateful global studies lecture. “We aspired to lay out global issues of culture, sustainability, science, and our common humanity that help us understand the problems, the solutions and our roles in the future.”