A Semester at Sea Includes a Camel Ride in the Sahara

By Jennifer Donovan | Published

Jasmin Francisco, at right, and Semester at Sea friend Marie Delacruz ride camels through  the Sahara Desert.
Jasmin Francisco, at right, and Semester at Sea friend Marie Delacruz ride camels through the Sahara Desert.

They call it “Semester at Sea,” and Jasmin Francisco’s summer voyage did span 11,476 nautical miles, but it also produced an opportunity to share family stories across language barriers on a train ride to Marrakesh and a camel trek in the Sahara Desert.

“I didn’t know what to expect,” says Francisco, a third-year biomedical engineering major from Chicago. “They said it would be a life-changing experience. And it really was.”

Semester at Sea—one of approximately 120 Study Abroad programs offered at Michigan Tech—is run the Institute for Shipboard Education, a nonprofit organization sponsored by the University of Virginia. Founded in 1963, the program has taken more than 50,000 college students, teachers and older adults on voyages to dozens of countries.  Five Michigan Tech students have participated and a sixth may be going next year.

Francisco, a native of the Philippines whose family now lives in Chicago, heard about Semester at Sea when Greta Gustafson, coordinator of Tech’s Study Abroad programs, spoke to her first-year World Cultures class.  She was ready to set sail immediately.

“I’d never been on a ship,” she says, “but I was hooked right away. I couldn’t wait to get on board.”  

She applied for the Summer 2010 Semester at Sea, a 66-day Mediterranean tour that sailed from Halifax, Nova Scotia, stopping in Spain, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Egypt and Morocco. 

Semester at Sea is much more than a pleasure cruise.  While on board the ship between ports, participants take rigorous classes, and they are expected to complete field assignments and service learning projects in the countries they visit.  Francisco’s classes included politics and art in the Mediterranean.

In a new Semester at Sea scheduled for 2011, the curriculum is based on United Nations millennium development goals. Students will use these goals as a framework to study technical solutions to engineering challenges and improvement of the quality of life in the developing world. 

Semester at Sea is not a bargain-basement proposition. It can cost as much as $11,000, not counting spending money in the countries visited, and even the shortest voyage comes with a $3,475 price tag.  But there is a healthy scholarship fund, and the program helps would-be students find outside sources of support.

In a textbook case of “pay it forward,” the program’s participants themselves raise money with shipboard auctions to help provide scholarships for future Semester at Sea students. “Spring semester they raised $20,000,” Francisco says, “so we decided to raise the bar.”  She and her summer-semester shipmates’ auction raised more than $50,000.

Even so, Francisco had to take out loans to make the trip, and she had to book a smaller cabin on a lower deck than she had hoped for. But that was a blessing in disguise. “I got less seasick than the people on the higher decks,” she reports, “and I had the room all to myself.”

Although it’s called Semester at Sea, the study abroad program makes landfall in each country along the route, arranging optional field trips or turning the students loose to explore on their own.

That’s one of the things that appeals to Greta Gustafson, study abroad coordinator at Michigan Tech.  “Semester at Sea offers students a chance to explore global comparative cultures instead of studying in one country,” she explained. “Students returning from Semester at Sea often express surprise at the large differences from culture to culture, but they also say that the program helped them to see how the world is interconnected and how similar we all are.”

Francisco is thinking about a career in pediatric medicine, so one of her most satisfying stops was Egypt, where she visited a nonprofit children’s hospital. Egypt also stands out because of a field trip to the pyramids and the opportunity to ride a camel in the Sahara desert. 

Another experience that stands out in her memory was a train ride from Casablanca to Marrakesh in Morocco.  Francisco and her shipmates shared a compartment with a Moroccan family of three—a mother, father and their young son. “They were so guarded when we first sat down, but we had learned some basic Arabic and French phrases, and soon we were telling them about Semester at Sea, and they were showing us pictures of their family, whom they were going to visit in Marrakesh,” she recalls. “It was very humbling to experience how they loosened up enough to feel at ease sharing stories about their family.” 

“It was all very cool,” Francisco goes on to say. “I feel more comfortable in my own skin now, after experiencing all those different cultures and lifestyles. I realize that we’re not so different from each other.” 

Francisco is president of the International Club at Michigan Tech and treasurer of Circle K and the Biomedical Engineering Society. She also is an active member of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers.

She has been named a global ambassador for Semester at Sea, and she’s already planning her next shipboard adventure with the program, possibly a new, shorter trip to Central America, scheduled between the spring and summer semesters.

“This was an experience that will pay off all my life,” she says.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.