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Around the world in 113 days· Halifax, Nova Scotia, Canada· Cadiz, Spain· Casablanca, Morocco· Takoradi, Ghana· Cape Town, South Africa· Port Louis, Mauritius· Chennai, India· Singapore· Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam· Hong Kong / Shanghai, China· Yokohama / Kobe, Japan· Honolulu / Hilo, Hawaii, USA· San Diego, California, USADr. Jeremy Stringer, Professor and Program Director for the Student Development Administration, was selected to be Dean of Students onboard the MV Explorer, a floating campus for more than 670 students, faculty and staff that would circumnavigate the globe for 113 days in the fall of 2010. While he witnessed a bull fight, walked along the Great Wall, broke fast with locals on the final eve of Ramadan, kissed a fish while crossing the Equator, and went on a hunt for the “Big 5” in South Africa, it was the compassion of the students, the humbleness of Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and the expressions of humanity that made this journey of a lifetime one of discovery and hope.
Most of my friends have a list of things we would like to do sometime in our lifetime. Sometimes called a “bucket list,” I call mine My Lifetime Goals. Near the top of my list for over a decade has been to sail around the world.
Last fall I had the opportunity to sail as the Dean of Students on the Semester at Sea. I jumped at it! The Semester at Sea is a non-profit educational enterprise that has conducted around-the-world educational endeavors since 1963. The voyage I was on was the 103rd. Our itinerary was mind-boggling. We sailed from the Atlantic coast of North America across to Spain, then down the west coast of Africa, stopping in Morocco, Ghana and South Africa. We then continued on to the island nation of Mauritius (home of the extinct Dodo), and from there we went to India, Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, Shanghai, Japan, and Hawaii, before returning to North America. In my case, I travelled 31,000 miles in 113 days, and visited a total of 15 ports in 12 different countries while sailing across three oceans.
On our voyage, in addition to the crew of the ship, were 602 students from several different countries (but most from the U.S.), 72 faculty and staff, three dozen “lifelong learners,” and one Nobel Peace Prize Winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.
Random Acts of KindnessThis was a voyage of discovery for me. I learned an incredible amount about the world, about my fellow voyagers, and about myself. Sometimes what I learned was troubling, often deeply so. The problems of the world are manifold, and seeing many of them first-hand is a sobering experience. But the voyage was also a voyage of hope. I have many examples of both large and small things that have given me consolation, not desolation, about the future of what Thomas Friedman has called our hot, flat and crowded planet.
First, let me share a small vignette that illustrates the transformative power of engaging our students with the larger world. My wife, Susan, joined us in Cape Town, South Africa. On our first night there, we participated with about 25 others from our voyage in a “jazz safari.” What we expected was an opportunity to have dinner in a jazz club and listen to various professional musicians. That’s not what we got. Instead we got one of the most indelible memories of the entire voyage.
First of all, we did not go to any Cape Town jazz clubs. Instead, we went to the Gugulethu Township outside of Cape Town. During the apartheid era, Blacks were not permitted to live in Cape Town. But because there was a need to house large numbers of migrant workers, several townships were created. Gugulethu is one of the oldest. In bygone days, several men would share a small room, and poverty, disease and violence characterized their daily lives. Today, conditions are still troubling in the townships. According to data collected by the South African Institute of Race Relations over 700 people were murdered in Gugulethu between 2005 and 2010. So this is not a resort, by any means
The residents of the first house greeted us warmly, and they provided us a wonderful home-cooked meal. Before, during, and after dinner, we talked with them about the township and several musicians from the township played for us. It was a wonderful human connection. After some coaxing, three students got up the courage to jam with the musicians. We were enjoying ourselves, but were unprepared for what was in store for us at our next stop on the “safari.”
The next venue was a performance area bounded by walls of cinder block and tarps. The group that created it also runs an arts program for children in the township to keep them out of trouble. Inside, a group known as the Volcanoes was performing jazz numbers.
As at the previous venue some of our students decided to jam with the Volcanoes. One of the students, Alyssa, had brought along her trumpet. As she blended into the all-male group, she was struck by the mesmerizing virtuosity of the male trumpet player, whose trumpet was cracked and held together by tape, yet still made beautiful music. After two hours, as we were getting ready to leave, Alyssa’s fellow trumpet player asked if he could look at her trumpet. He looked at it for a minute and handed it back, saying, “Very nice horn.” Then she just instinctively reacted to the whole situation and after putting her trumpet in its case, said, “Here, I want you to have it.” To say that he was stunned was an understatement. Incredulous, he reached down and hugged her.
Susan and I were overwhelmed by Alyssa’s generous heart, as well as by the reaction of the trumpet player to this unexpected gift. We couldn’t hear everything he said to her, but Alyssa told me later that he said he has had a very hard life, and her act of kindness had given him a sense of hope and joy that he had not often experienced. Alyssa’s act of generosity surprised her almost as much as it did the trumpet player, and she was humbled by his reaction. When we got back to the ship, one of Alyssa’s friends told her, "If he can play his horn like that, imagine what he will be able to do with yours." And imagine the transformation among people that is made possible by one with a generous heart.
Many more examples from our voyage give me hope for the world and its people. Some of these came from our students and their passion for creating peace and justice, and some came from people we encountered. One of our students formed an Amnesty International group on board the ship and mobilized all voyagers to write letters condemning human rights violations around the world. A group of students installed a water filtration system in rural Ghana. Others gave away soccer balls. Still others volunteered their time at orphanages, joined groups to build homes for the homeless or gave away their own clothing to people in need.
Interacting with the localsOur voyage went to many countries with emerging and developing economies. What that meant was that those of us from the U.S. and other advanced economies were generally seen as rich, even though most of us would not have considered ourselves so. Because of this, and sometimes also because of language barriers, it was often a challenge for all of us to get beyond transactional encounters with the residents in developing countries in order to have an authentic interaction. Barriers were there on both sides of the equation, but there are many examples of how individual students and faculty and staff were able to move across this divide.
Little gestures meant a lot. It was so simple, but the greeting we received from a Moroccan man in the Kasbah, “welcome to Rabat,” was so friendly and sincere, it created a positive tone for our entire visit to that beautiful city. In Japan, my friends and I got lost while trying to make a train connection to Kobe. A Japanese man, seeing our dilemma, didn’t just give us directions; he walked with us for about a half mile, to make sure we got to our destination. I have vowed to remember how grateful I was for this and repay him by doing the same for visitors to Seattle whenever I have the chance.In addition to these one-on-one interactions, I have hope for the future based on my experiences in two countries against which we waged war, Japan and Vietnam.
In Japan I was part of a group that took the bullet train to Hiroshima to visit the Peace Memorial Museum. I did not know what to expect the museum to be like, but I would not have been surprised to see some anti-American artifacts, especially since I have seen anti-Japanese and anti-German artifacts in the World War II exhibits in U.S. museums. But in the entire museum there was no anti-American sentiment. What there was, instead, was a sobering account of the damage done by the Atomic bomb’s blast, the conflagration it ignited, and the radiation that came afterward. The message of the museum is the necessity of peace.
After the Atomic Bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, people felt it would be many generations before the Hiroshima earth would allow new things to grow. That turned out to be wrong. There is a phoenix tree that was growing near the epicenter of the bomb’s blast. Although one side of the tree was hollowed out by the blast, the tree is still alive and still producing seeds, many of which have been sent to schoolyards all over Japan as an enduring image of the need for peace.
As a first-time visitor to Vietnam, I wondered how the people there now felt about Americans. I went to college in the ‘60’s, and the Vietnam War (or, as they say in Vietnam, the American War) is still vivid in my memory. The haunting photo of Kim Phúc as a 9-year-old, naked girl who had just been seared with napalm is imprinted in my memory, as it is in the minds of many of my friends from that time. In Vietnam myself for the first time I was heartened to discover that we were greeted warmly and that the prevailing attitude toward Americans was energetically positive. The main museum in Ho Chi Minh City, now called the War Remnants Museum, displays ample evidence of American (and South Vietnamese) atrocities during “the American War.” Still, Americans seem popular in Vietnam, giving me hope that our country, if it is true to its core values, can use its power for world unity and peace.
Powerful lessons learnedA final message of hope I took away from my experience on the Semester at Sea is the power of forgiveness. The tone for this was set by the unforgettable experience of sailing around the world with Archbishop Tutu and his wife, Leah Tutu. Archbishop Tutu (or Arch, as he encouraged us to call him) and Leah both radiate incredible joy and love for others. His laugh is one of the most amazing sounds I have ever heard. It comes from deep in his soul and is entirely genuine with no vestige of artifice.
Arch and Leah took many of their meals in one of the ship’s large open dining rooms, and were open to having other voyagers join them, and many did so during the voyage. After a few days of sailing, though, the Tutus were treated like any other voyagers. My own most frequent contact with Arch was high-fiving or fist-bumping as we would pass each other in the hallway. But despite Arch’s approachability and informality (his normal clothing consisted of shorts and tennis shoes), everyone was well aware of his stature in the world community and the honor of having Arch and Leah sail with us.
Archbishop Tutu’s incredible personal presence, joyful and humble, added to the power of his message of reconciliation when he did speak to the community. He spoke in the Global Studies class I attended about apartheid in South Africa and about his struggles, and those of other South Africans, in the post-apartheid era. He was asked about whether he had a bodyguard during the troubles in South Africa. His response was that he asked God, “God, am I doing your work?” God’s answer to him was that he was; therefore, he needed no other bodyguard.
There were several other times that Archbishop Tutu spoke to the community, or came to individual classes. Reconciliation was a common theme. We had the tragic situation of having a student die on board the ship (the first in the history of the Semester at Sea). Archbishop Tutu delivered the main talk at the memorial service we held on board the ship, which we taped and sent to the deceased student’s parents. He also delivered the Commencement address at our graduation ceremony. What a treat for our graduates (and us)!
The last Sunday before we arrived home in San Diego, our religious life coordinator told me she had invited Archbishop Tutu to give the sermon for the Christian worship service that night. She was wondering if she should let the ship know about it, or just have the regular two-dozen or so worshippers show up as usual. We decided on the latter. Imagine the worshippers’ surprise when Archbishop Desmond Tutu himself delivered the sermon! Although he had participated in the worship service before, and was one of the few people to show up for the blessing of the ship when we sailed (I was another), this was the only time he delivered a strictly religious message during the entire voyage.
Everyone might expect to come away hopeful after a semester of interactions with Archbishop Tutu, but my hope springs as much from the exchanges I had with the students on the voyage. Alyssa, generously giving away her trumpet, is only one example of many that I could have shared. So many students today want to make a difference in the world. It is our job as educators to help them develop the knowledge and skills, and the habits of mind, which will enable them to use their special gifts to address the world’s needs.
In retrospect, I understand how self-serving my “bucket list” goal of sailing around the world was. Going forward, I have added a revised goal at the top: through my work with students, help them use their unique talents to make the world a better place! My journey as a dean on the Semester at Sea has given me great hope for how many positive things this generation of students can accomplish.
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