At times last year, 21-year-old Jessica Stephenson found it hard to keep her eyes turned toward the front of her classes. And who could blame her? The classroom window opened onto “miles and miles of ocean bliss,” says the UAB student and Oxford, Alabama, native.
Semester at Sea college credit trip, Stephenson attended classes on an old cruise ship remade into a mobile university that set sail along the coast of Central America. The decks included state-of-the-art classrooms, an 8,000-volume library, and a 24-hour computer lab.As part of a
For 26 days, the secondary education and math major joined fellow future teachers from across the United States on a journey to six countries while taking a semester’s worth of courses, teaching native students, and trying to squeeze in a little fun in the sun.
“I always dreamed of going on Semester at Sea, but could not believe it was actually coming true,” says Stephenson, a member of the UAB Global and Community Leadership Honors Program. “I remember seeing the ship for the first time and thinking, ‘How is this even possible? Is this really happening to me?”
Stephenson learned about the program while attending a high-school college fair and resolved to set sail someday. She entered UAB as a biomedical engineering student, but after working with a Memphis-based street ministry doing outreach to urban communities, she discovered her passion for teaching and changed her major.
Stephenson researched Semester at Sea programs and found one that would allow her to study various teaching methods abroad. Covering the cost of the trip, however, presented an initial obstacle, she says.
She found a program that was a less-expensive, abbreviated version of the typical semester-long voyages and received a partial scholarship from the UAB Office for Study Away. That gave her the green light to book her trip and set sail on her educational voyage.
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During the day, while on the 25,000-ton MV Explorer, Stephenson would attend rigorous classes while sailing from country to country. Ports of call included Nassau, Bahamas; Port of Spain, Trinidad; Colón (Cristobal), Panama; Puerto Limon, Costa Rica; Puerto Cortes, Honduras; Puerto Barrios, Guatemala; and Belize City, Belize.
While at sea, Stephenson spent the majority of her days studying and preparing for classes, she says. She stayed in a cabin that she called “the cave.” It was much like the ones on a cruise ship, “limited space and all.”
Her group would dock in a country for several days, take a field practicum with a professor, and then do hands-on work with local students. “During our travel we saw many poverty-stricken areas,” Stephenson says, “but they often offered the most beautiful views and scenery I have ever seen.”
In Honduras, Stephenson's group attended a rural school in the mountains, several hours from the port in Puerto Cortes. On the last stretch of the trek to the school, the group had to walk up a mountain because their bus could not journey up the incline and dirt roads. The entire town welcomed them, Stephenson says. The residents presented a skit for them and fed them as well.
In Port of Spain, Trinidad, she went to an all-girls private Christian high school. She and her group taught the girls a lesson on peer pressure. Then the students taught Stephenson and her group about the history of Trinidad and Tobago. “Their great pride in their countries, despite their poverty, was definitely something I was not used to encountering on a daily basis,” she says.
Stephenson plans to combine the lessons she learned at sea with the work she does in Birmingham-area urban schools through UAB to become the best teacher she can be, she says. But she’s already eyeing another trip abroad. This time, she says, it will be a sea voyage around Europe.
—Written by Marie Sutton