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September 12, 2002

A glitch in your travel plans? Semester at Sea dean can top it

Imagine being hired as dean of a new college where the curriculum focuses on Europe and the Mediterranean. You have one year to recruit a faculty.

Before you can even begin recruiting, however, your bosses tell you the curriculum has undergone a sea change. Now, your assignment is to recruit Pacific Rim specialists.

No problem. But a couple of months later, after you've begun recruiting, your bosses warn you: There's a chance the college may go with a Euro-Mediterranean academic program after all.

Do you scream? Resign? Mutiny?

Not if you're a phlegmatic Semester at Sea veteran like Frank Colavita, who faced an analogous situation after being named academic dean for next summer's SAS voyage.

The Institute for Shipboard Education, which administers SAS out of offices in the William Pitt Union, announced recently that after three summer voyages to European and/or Mediterranean ports, the summer 2003 voyage (and future summer voyages) will visit the Pacific Rim.

Scheduled to depart Vancouver, B.C., on June 17, the 65-day voyage will take students to Sitka, Alaska; Vladivostok, Russia; Pusan, Korea; Shanghai, China; Haiphong, Vietnam; Keelung, Taiwan, and Osaka, Japan, returning to Seattle on Aug. 21.

"It's an exciting curriculum and it makes a lot of sense from a practical point of view," said Colavita, a Pitt associate professor of psychology.

"If there is one, overall motto for Semester at Sea, it's 'Be flexible,'" he pointed out. "That applies to this change in the summer itinerary."

Colavita, 62, was a faculty member on the fall 2000 voyage and loved it all, even the gale-force winds and 30-foot waves that slammed SAS's floating campus, the S.S. Universe Explorer, on two occasions. "I put on my foul-weather gear and went out on deck," recalled Colavita, his mustache curling up into a grin. "There were only two other people out there, a couple of students from Alaska."

Eager to sail again — and knowing that teaching faculty usually must wait five years before being considered for another voyage — Colavita applied to be academic dean.

Last spring, following a round of interviews, Institute for Shipboard Education officials offered Colavita a deanship. "They asked whether I would prefer a fall, a spring or a summer voyage," he said. "I had mixed feelings because I had really enjoyed the fall itinerary.

"Ultimately, though, I chose the summer because of the European itinerary. My mother was from Ireland, and my father from Italy. My wife Harriet's family background is Polish and Russian. All four of those countries were on the itinerary for summer 2003."

Until last June, anyway.

"In early June, Max Brandt [the institute's chief academic officer] called me in and said, 'Um, Frank, it looks as if it's not going to be Europe next summer. It's going to be Asia.'"

At that time, the Institute for Shipboard Education was in the final stages of negotiating for year-round access to the Universe Explorer. SAS had been using that ship for its 100-day, around-the-world fall and spring voyages since 1996. But during summers, the ship's owners reclaimed it for tourist cruises in Alaska. SAS summer voyages employed a couple of smaller, Mediterranean-based vessels owned by other shipping companies.

Julian Asenjo, SAS associate director of enrollment management, described the headaches this caused: "After every spring voyage, we would have to immediately dismantle the Universe Explorer as a floating college campus — removing all of the chalkboards, classroom desks and so forth — and then, just as quickly, create a new campus environment on the ship that we were using for our summer voyage."

Year-round access to a single ship would eliminate those harrowing makeovers and give SAS a larger choice of ports. No longer would summer voyages be limited to coastal Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. (Because of post-Sept. 11 security concerns, last summer's itinerary was limited to Europe — the first all-European voyage in SAS history.) The Institute for Shipboard Education considered relocating summer voyages to Latin American ports, but opted instead for the Pacific Rim because of SAS's long-standing relationships with cultural organizations, university and government officials, and travel agents in those countries.

"Okay, fine, we're going to Asia and Alaska instead of Europe," Colavita remembers thinking last June. "So I start hiring Asian specialists. I recruit an anthropologist, a biologist, a historian and so forth. Everything's going great."

But then, as negotiations with the Universe Explorer's owners dragged on into late July, Colavita received another voyage update. "I was told by ISE [the Institute for Shipboard Education], 'We haven't dotted the I's and crossed the T's yet, Frank. There's a slight chance we may be going back to Europe.' "That scared me."

For 10 days, Colavita avoided contact with prospective faculty for the summer 2003 voyage. "But then, luckily, ISE wrapped up its negotiations," Colavita recalled. "We knew we'd have the Universe Explorer, so we would be going to the Pacific Rim."

The Universe Explorer can accommodate 650 students and senior adult passengers, 200 more than the ships used for previous summer voyages. "I've hired faculty for a student population of about 450," Colavita said. "If the enrollment for next summer goes up, I'll have to hire more faculty" — a prospect that hardly intimidates a seasoned salt like him.

"During the fall 2000 voyage, our ship collided with a freighter in the Saigon River [approaching Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam], tearing a 30-foot gash in the hull," Colavita noted. Workers welded metal plate over the hull, painted it and the Universe Explorer sailed on.

"After leaving Asia, we thought we were going to be sailing through the Suez Canal and on to the Mediterranean. A lot of our curriculum was built around places like Cairo and Istanbul," Colavita said. But, heeding State Department warnings following the terrorist attack on the S.S. Cole in Yemen, SAS changed plans and sailed around South Africa instead, visiting Cape Town and Mombassa, Kenya.

"After all of that, I'm not too worried about recruiting a few more professors for next summer," Colavita said, with a laugh. "It's no big deal."

— Bruce Steele

Filed under: Feature,Volume 35 Issue 2

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