OSU-Cascades alumnus Sam Ford swam with great white sharks in South Africa, tobogganed down from the Great Wall of China and hiked the world’s oldest and biggest sand dunes in Namibia.
He woke up in a new country every week, and watched the sun rise and set from a ship for four months.
Sam also went to classes, studied for midterms and earned college credit.
The program is called Semester at Sea, and students spend a semester studying and traveling around the world.
“This is the best thing I’ve ever done,” said Sam. “But also the worst, because I’m not sure anything will ever be as exciting as this.”
Founded in 1959, Semester at Sea is managed by the Institute for Shipboard Education. Classes onboard are sponsored by a university – when Sam participated he took classes through the University of Virginia. He was able to transfer all credits he earned toward his OSU degree.
His father participated in Semester at Sea in 1978.
“I grew up listening to my dad talk about his Semester at Sea experience,” said Sam. “Every now and then he still breaks out the projector and original slides.”
Sam is from the Portland area and started his college career at the OSU main campus in Corvallis. Attracted to a ski town and smaller class sizes, he transferred to OSU-Cascades his sophomore year. He graduated in 2017 with a double degree in social science and sustainability, and works for the U.S. Forest Service.
He always knew that someday he would follow in his father’s footsteps and participate in Semester at Sea. He applied, was accepted and in January 2015 boarded the ship in Mexico that would be his home for the next 112 days.
The ship is a former cruise ship and holds 650 students and about 100 faculty, staff and crew. After a fuel stop in Hawaii, Sam's journey started in Japan, then continued on to China, Vietnam, Singapore, Burma, India, Mauritius, South Africa, Namibia and Morocco.
The ship is a floating campus. Students wear sweats, backpacks and headphones, and attend lectures in classrooms and share rooms similar to those in a residence hall.
Sam took four classes including World War II in Asia and Africa, water conservation, and sociology of tourism. All students were also required to take a global environmental challenges class to learn about each country they visited.
“You learn about it, and then you go out and see it immediately,” he said.
Students can choose to go on their own when they arrive in a new country, or they can participate in Semester at Sea sponsored trips. Every class had a field trip in-country as well—Sam met up with his World War II class in Japan to visit Hiroshima.
Sam formed a core group of friends to travel with—similar small-town outdoorsy people. They visited ancient ruins and iconic landmarks as well as venturing off the beaten path with the help of locals. They visited orphanages in some of the world’s poorest countries.
As a social science major, Sam wants to get people involved with the communities they live in. He saw great examples of community involvement in his travels.
“After the first few countries I put away all pre-conceived notions and went into each country open-minded—ready to learn and see what the people had to offer,” said Sam.
After several days in each country, students return to the ship and head back to classes. Some of Sam’s favorite memories are sitting outside on the back deck having discussions with fellow students about political systems, global markets, poverty and the environment. While at sea there was no access to phones, Facebook or television.
“I learned more in traveling the world and meeting new people than I did in class,” he said. “And I had to adjust to everyone looking down at their phones when I got back.”
After four months of traveling through Southeast Asia and Western Africa, Sam disembarked in London, England. He made life-long friendships that changes his life. He understood better what it means to be a citizen of the world.
“As much fun as it was going to all the countries—it was the people that made the countries so great.”