Sitting for lectures can be a boring task. It is even worse if all the lecturer does is to lecture: no interaction, no group work, no discussions, no questions, no practical examples, no demonstration, the content is just as dry as the lecturer. You sit on the chair and the lecturer stands on the podium for a whole two or three hours talking as you yawn, toss, and torpidly doze off. And the cycle continues for a whole semester.
But imagine of a semester in the sea. Yes, instead of learning in the ordinary classrooms while boarding in the shared unkempt hostel rooms, you spend a whole semester with your lecturers and hundreds of other students in a ship taking your classes in the ocean as you visit countries in different continents. As a participant you get a global comparative experience as the ship crosses through various cultures around the world. If it sounds unrealistic to you then you have not heard about Semester at Sea program.
But I also did not know about this kind of a “floating campus” until one of my students, Levix Aloo, came to my office in November 2018 and said, “in the coming Semester, January-April 2019, I won’t attend classes here at the university because I will be travelling to several countries while having my classes there.” I got shocked as he went on to explain that he would be spending a whole three and half months in the seas, moving from one continent to another.
Born and raised up by his grandmother in Kibera slums, Levix is just an ordinary young man but with extraordinary determination. He is so determined that he applied to join Semester at Sea, very much aware that it costs millions of Kenyan Shillings which he did not have. But that is Levix for you. He says that he loves multicultural exposure and he would do anything to get out of Kibera and learn from the rest of the world. He explains that it is for that reason he chose to do Bachelor of Education at Tangaza University College where there are students from more than 70 nationalities. He wanted a place he would meet people from other parts of the world.
Semester at Sea, affiliated to Colorado States University, is not your next door campus. Your application will not easily be accepted if your application does not include a high quality paper convincingly showing exactly how attending the semester will benefit you.
When he got the letter of acceptance, Levix was excited but at the same time he was sad about his inability to afford tuition as well as visa processing and traveling expenses. Levix was educated by people of goodwill right from primary school all the way to the university. With his letter of acceptance, he applied for Desmond Tutu’s Scholarship and was required to write a philosophy paper on Ubuntu. “I took time to write the paper in which I integrated my life story because I realized that Ubuntu truly defined my life.” This scholarship which is meant to benefit only one African applicant per year is a very competitive one. So he did not have so much hope.
But surprisingly, he got it! And he was excited about it. Now the only thing that remained was applying for visas for all the countries that he would be visiting. The Scholarship required each candidate to have visas for at least 12 countries with some countries’ visas being compulsory. “You can imagine the hustle of processing 12 visas at a go, while still attending my classes”, he says. Nevertheless, he never lost hope despite being denied visa by several countries.
On 4th January 2019 he landed in San Francisco before traveling to San Diego where he boarded the ship accompanied by 580 other voyagers coming from different parts of the world mainly America, Europe, and Asia. He was one of the only two Africans in the group. After the ship ceremony in the Pacific Ocean, the ship embarked as the group started off on a journey to Mexico, and then Japan, China, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Vietnam, India, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Morocco, and finally Netherlands.
Being a student of Geography and Kiswahili, Levix selected four Geography courses from more than 70 other courses that were on offer in the floating campus. Some of the learning activities used to deliver course content during the voyage included field work, group discussions, class presentations, excursions, simple research, essay writing, reflections, and site seeing.
In the process of learning, Levix went exploring 13 countries and 15 cities in America, Asia, Africa, and Europe. And during those 106 days Levix says that he was most impressed by the diverse cultural exposure. “The integrity, discipline, and humility of the Japanese was remarkable. The forgiving temperament and the hardworking spirit of the Vietnamese and the Chinese was amazing,” says Levix. He also says that technology and infrastructure of the developed countries shocked him. The many things and places that he had been reading about in his Geography classes back in Nairobi now became real as he paid visits to places and saw things for himself.
Apart from learning from the places and the people in various destinations visited, Levix says that he learnt a lot from his fellow voyagers most of who he describes as amiable, kind, entertaining, and exploring. “I am probably the only one among the group coming from a slum background and even after sharing my stories with my fellow travelers, they never judged me although many got shocked,” he says. Disregarding his background, Levix was elected as the group spokesperson in the ship.
When I asked him what he learnt from the 126th voyage of Semester at Sea, the 26 year-old student who before joining the university worked as a casual laborer in construction sites quickly quips, “Never judge people based on their background or their skin color because your perception about them is likely to be wrong.”