Multicultural Scholar Ship preps for maiden voyage

Sally Dadisman

(MCT) -ÿWhen picking a study-abroad program students have a choice: They can select a trip that would compel them to fully integrate into a culture – different language, unusual customs and perhaps uncomfortable living situations – or choose an overseas excursion as culturally eye-opening as a spring break trip to Cancun.

The Scholar Ship, which will embark on its maiden voyage in September, is a program trying to offer a unique spin on the former.

While the program may draw comparisons to Semester at Sea, The Scholar Ship tries to guarantee a more global onboard community by pursuing students, faculty and staff from all over the world.

“There are students who will live with families, learn the language, eat the food and learn about local culture, but the chances of students actually going to that extreme are nominal, which is a shame,” said Ron Zighelboim, chief marketing officer and a founding member of The Scholar Ship.

“Many times, students from a particular country go to a destination where they all congregate … and as a result don’t ever integrate in the other culture.”

The idea behind The Scholar Ship is it becomes “a third culture,” Zighelboim said. “It doesn’t exist anywhere else and it’s the people who actually make it. It’s going to be different every single voyage.”

With such a diverse atmosphere, the staff is not unrealistic about the possibility of clashing cultures.

“We’re basically bringing the planet together on a ship with really high densities and lots of opportunities for interaction,” said Alfred Flores, the director of onboard life. “It’s naive to assume that everything will go exceedingly comfortably well as a result of that.”

But, he says, “In the end we believe … students will be able to navigate the complexities of the world through this experience and develop skills to move beyond and be able to tolerate differences.”

The semester-long program starts in Piraeus, Greece, in September, and ends in Kobe, Japan, in December. The ship, which Royal Caribbean is providing, will make eight stops in countries such as Portugal, Australia and China.

The voyage from Australia to China is long, so with periods of up to two weeks where students have only the open ocean ahead of them, developing onboard activities has been a major focus.

Flores assures that, along with the offshore activities and learning experiences, “there will be ship-wide events, such as celebrations where we’ll come together as a community, maybe through drumming, dance or cultural awareness programs. There might also be competitions, which are more scavenger-hunt oriented.”

The administration also wants to hear what the students have to say, with the development of a student council. Students will be divided into 24 residential communities, which will each pick a leader to serve on the council. That body will then elect the leadership.

“In part they’ll be helping decide what are the programmatic priorities,” Flores said. It will also serve as a source of feedback for faculty and staff.

The Scholar Ship began as a way to fill what some saw as a hole in the study-abroad market.

“I wanted to do something very special with a multi-national educational institution,” said Joe Olander, president of The Scholar Ship and a former president of South Ocean International University in Beijing, China.

The new program has already struck partnerships with many universities across the globe. There are academic stewards, including University of California-Berkeley, which Olander describes as the “quality-ensurers.” They send faculty as well as contribute curriculum.

Then there are academic partners, which can do the same, but must be approved by academic stewards.

And finally, academic affiliates are universities that are looking to send students onboard.

“We encourage students to study abroad for longer periods of time, to get not only a multicultural experience but multi-regional one as well,” said David Keitges, director of international education for Miami University of Ohio. “Everything’s interrelated these days. (Students will) see the same things in different countries, and not just McDonalds; everybody’s watching everyone.”

Keitges said he believes at least one student from his university has applied for the ship’s maiden voyage, to which he says his staff will be paying close attention.

“We’re going to monitor the program closely,” Ketiges said. “We’ve had students in the past go on Semester at Sea, but this one is a little bit different, especially in regards to direct immersion. The contact from students in other countries is really positive for the students, and we’re interested in how that works out.”

Olander says generally the response from institutions has been great, but recognizes the program has something to prove its first time out.

“The higher-educational community can be a very, very conservative – if not skeptical – community and they’re saying, ‘Joe this is exactly what higher education needs and clearly it produces inter-cultural leaders,'” Olander said. “But they’re sitting back to see if we’re successful.”

Zighelboim said the program has received about 25,000 application requests and more than one million hits on its Web site, which has been up for a little more than a year.

Prospective students can also register at the group’s social networking Web site,, where students, faculty and eventually alumni can log on and chat with each other. The site features an interactive map showing the location of everyone who is logged on.

While minor details are still being ironed out, those behind the Scholar Ship are already looking ahead.

“Some might say the most important date is in September 2007 when the ship takes off, but I think December 2007, when the ship ends its journey, is more important,” Olander said. “I want the faculty, staff and students to walk off and say, ‘My God what a life-changing experience this has been.’ And I think that will happen.”