Towson student sets sail for a voyage around the world

Semester at Sea

Sara Garvick and her new Ghanaian friend, David, at a market in Accra, Ghana. (Photo by: Sara Garvick/TU Student)

At the ripe age of 20, Towson student Sara Garvick will be able to say she has visited 11 different countries in 105 days.

On Jan. 19, Garvick boarded the MV Explorer, her home and school for the next few months. There was no turning back as she set sail off the coast of Nassau to study abroad this spring with Semester at Sea (SAS), a program dedicated to educating global understanding through multiple-country studies and hands-on field experiences, according to the Institute for Shipboard Education.

“I chose SAS because I heard about it when I was in tenth grade and ever since then I wanted to do it,” Garvick said. ”The whole idea of traveling around the world and seeing so many countries was amazing to me and I knew it would be an experience of a lifetime.”

The cost of the program is not cheap, but it didn’t discourage her. Experiencing different cultures and ways of life is well worth the pricey tuition to sail with Semester at Sea, she said.

In fact, there are many options for funding available to students interested in expanding their studies in another country, including scholarships and grants both through Towson and outside affiliates. For Garvick, several sources helped make her dream of studying abroad come true.

“I received my Towson financial aid, as well as the need and merit grants from SAS,” Garvick said. “I applied for and received scholarships from both SAS and Towson.”

Rebecca Pisano, the director of the study abroad office at Towson, said they give out nearly $50,000 a year in scholarships. Last academic year, 75 percent of the students who applied for the TU Institutional Study Abroad Scholarships received an average of $600 each, according to Towson’s 2010-2011 Annual Report.

Studying abroad in college should be explored with an open mind, Pisano said. “Just come find out,” she said. “There’s a lot of different opportunities out there, and they might be surprised to find something that might work for them.”

In addition, there are other entities on campus that have funding, as well as external organizations. Last year, 12 different sponsors awarded a total amount of nearly $68,000 in scholarships to 36 Towson students, according to the annual report.

“Students really do draw from all different types of sources,” Pisano said. “If they take advantage of the information, there are potentially a lot of sources.”

Furthermore, some study abroad programs provide opportunities to work while abroad. For instance, Semester at Sea offers work-study grants that allow students to earn pay for certain job positions while onboard the ship. Those who receive a position can earn $4000 for spring and fall voyages, $2000 for summer voyages and $500 for short-term voyages, according to the Institute of Shipboard Education.

James Fealey, assistant director of admissions at the Institute for Shipboard Education for Semester at Sea said they fill 13 different positions based on work experience.

“We do have a large number of students apply,” Fealey said. “Typically, we will receive 300 to 400 work-study applications. We hire on average between 70 and 80 students for spring, fall and summer voyages.” Depending on the voyage, students are required to work one to two hours a day only while the ship is at sea. The job supervisors are flexible and make sure to arrange work schedules around classes, Fealey said.

“We receive positive feedback from students,” he said. “They enjoy working with the faculty and staff in their positions. It keeps them a little more involved with everything that is going on during the voyage.” Fealey encourages students to submit applications for the work-study position that they have the most experience in, especially if they are interested in reducing the cost of the voyage.

Garvick said she wished she had a work-study position. “It would have been a big help with the cost.” Nevertheless, there are benefits to studying abroad in college, including exposure to different perspectives and varied approaches to education.

“Courses can be taught differently,” Pisano said. “It can be a total different educational format.”

For example, Garvick is taking a Spanish course through Semester at Sea in which a more conversational approach is used to teach the language. “The professor pretty much just asks us questions, and we sit with the person next to us and talk in Spanish about whatever he asked,” she said. “Immersion into a language is the best way to learn, and it’s definitely helping.”

Pisano also mentioned the ability to take courses that aren’t offered at students’ home schools. “Our students who go to Japan can take flower-arranging or T’ai chi,” she said. “There are different opportunities that are just not the norm here.”

Moreover, the opportunity to live in a different culture for a period of time can be a transformative experience for students, even if they have “no desire to do anything international after college,” Pisano said.

“There are skills that they gain that they might not realize,” she said. “For example, the ability to interact with different types of people, the ability to be adaptable. You have to become used to ambiguity and be able to adapt to different situations and unknowns, and that’s actually a very valuable skill in any environment.”

Pisano said even students who have never been away from home achieve a sense of courage from learning how to navigate through a new environment.

“It instills self-confidence,” she said. “And the knowledge that you can do something that you’ve never done before because when you go to a totally different environment, especially if the language is different, even little things like taking the bus can be a big challenge. So it’s definitely an empowering activity.”

Sara Garvick said she doesn’t regret her decision to partake in Semester at Sea this spring. She is less than two months into her voyage, and the benefits of studying abroad have already paid off.

“Everything I’ve done has been absolutely amazing,” she said. “I’ve seen some of the best and most beautiful things, as well as some of the worst. I have been humbled and completely changed by everything I’ve seen and done, and I still have a month to go. It was worth every penny to be able to interact with so many people from all over the world, and experience different ways of life. I would do it all over again in a heartbeat, even if it means being in debt up to my eyeballs.”

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