Lots to SEA during tall ship sailing semester

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There's wind in your hair, a crisp briny spray on your tongue and warm golden sun on your face. Next port of call: Bermuda, Barbados, possibly Tahiti.Sound like the best spring break ever?Think again.

There's wind in your hair, a crisp briny spray on your tongue and warm golden sun on your face. Next port of call: Bermuda, Barbados, possibly Tahiti.

Sound like the best spring break ever?

Think again.

This isn't spring break at all but a full semester. At sea. For 17 college credits!

Welcome to SEA Semester.

It's Moby Dick meets Galileo, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to sail the seas in a mighty tall ship and learn celestial navigation. You'll study maritime law as well as the nuances of island culture and research marine biology in the biggest, most pristine laboratory on the planet.

And you'll do it for the best reason of all. Yours.

"Our students come for all different reasons," said Philip "PJ" Petrone, assistant dean of admissions for the Woods Hole, Mass.-based Sea Education Association.

"Some come for the sailing adventure - they think they might want to be a swashbuckler. Others come because they have that love of the ocean and want to learn more about it. And still others come for the science. The data they collect can be used by scientists all around the world. That kind of opportunity isn't usually available to an undergrad."

Thanks to a recently-formed partnership with the SEA, Rowan University students can now join students from some of the best institutions in America -- from Harvard to Stanford -- on a journey that begins in the world-famous Woods Hole oceanographic laboratory and lasts for the rest of their life.

Something for everyone

A SEA semester offers students the opportunity to conduct original oceanographic research and have more fun working hard than they ever imagined. But Petrone, who sailed himself with the SEA as an undergrad, said the program was designed to appeal to science and non-science majors alike.

"You're learning about yourself and other people," he said. "You're learning about problem solving, critical thinking and leadership - qualities that will be valued by any employer."

Dr. Courtney Richmond, an associate professor of biological sciences at Rowan University who had her own SEA Semester as a Swarthmore College undergrad, said the experience simply changed her.

"It made me do what I do," said Richmond, who, in addition to her teaching duties, conducts a variety of ocean-based research including the development of hybrid sea grasses for Florida wetlands. "I wasn't going to be a marine biologist before I went into that program but they have a lot of stories like that."

Richmond said one of the things she liked best about the experience was how varied it is.

"They certainly do ocean science but even in their science classes they read maritime literature and talk about the law of the sea. You clean the decks, prep the galley, help out in the engine room... Students gradually take on more and more responsibility in terms of running the science - taking water samples, weather observations, towing nets. And they learn how to handle navigation - where the ship is going and how to get there."

East Coast-West Coast Thing

The SEA operates two tall ships -- one in the Atlantic Ocean and one in the Pacific -- and their respective crews perform original science projects every trip.

The routes vary each semester but past Pacific treks have stopped in San Diego, Honolulu and Tahiti while Atlantic Ocean excursions have included stops in Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, the Galapagos Islands and Costa Rica.

Past research aboard the SEA's dual 134-foot brigantines - two-masted vessels with square sails on the forward masts - has included everything from documenting changing ocean temperatures to monitoring sea birds.

"They learn a lot of science but it's not knowledge in a vacuum," Richmond said. "It's all hands-on."

Land and Sea

Students in either the 12-week SEA Semester or the eight-week Summer Session spend the first half of the program - the Shore Component - at the Woods Hole campus. There they study maritime policy, history and literature, ship navigation and oceanography. They learn about the ocean's power and mystery, use scientific technology to study it and design research projects that will be the focus of their work at sea.

The second half of the program, the Sea Component, takes students out to open water. They apply knowledge acquired on-shore but learn new skills, conduct formal research, and meet the centuries-old challenges of the sea.

Edward Farrell, a 2006 Rowan grad, spent his spring 2005 semester in the SEA program. His eastern seaboard excursion took him from Key West to Bermuda to St. Croix where he studied the migration patterns of American eels.

"I was always on the water growing up but this was definitely cool," said Farrell, a Cape May native and resident who earns his living as a commercial fisherman off the coasts of New Jersey and North Carolina.

Farrell, 23, plans to pursue a graduate degree in either environmental management at Duke University in North Carolina or fisheries biology at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science at the College of William and Mary.

"(The SEA Semester experience) pushed me more in the direction of what I always wanted to do - hands on research in the field," he said. "Before I thought that was what I wanted but this confirmed it."

One Choice of Many

Prof. Edward C. Smith, interim director of the International Center at Rowan University, said the SEA Semester is one of some 200 options for students with an interest in spending time abroad. In addition to the SEA Semester, there is a similarly-titled Semester at Sea program in which students may earn credits aboard a cruise ship. Smith said all of the exchange programs require a minimum GPA of 2.5 and at least 30 completed credits.

"Foreign exchange introduces students to other cultures and often other languages and gets them to think differently about their own backgrounds and education," said Smith, a professor of French and German in Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures. "It makes them not only broader but, in the end, more marketable to future employers."

Petrone, the assistant dean of admissions at the SEA, said the cost for a semester in the program is about $22,000 but generous financial aid packages are available.

"We tell everyone that if they're interested, apply," he said. "If it's just a question of cost, we can usually find a way."

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