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Semester at Sea Experience Rewarding, Enriching for Medora

Published: August 2, 2010

When you’ve seen the ends of the Earth, what’s next?

Family and Consumer Sciences’ Nilufer Medora answered that question with a look at everything in between when she followed her 2007 and 2009 study abroad excursions to New Zealand with a trip through the Semester At Sea program this January to May.

Medora, who joined CSULB in 1987, joined faculty from all over the world as they journeyed from San Diego back to Florida as part of the non-profit Institute for Shipboard Education program that has launched 100 Semester at Sea voyages since 1963. In that time, the program has educated more than 50,000 students from 1,500 institutions and traveled to more than 60 countries.

“On the ship, I met some of the best and most brilliant but modest people that I have ever met,” she recalled. “The conversations that I had with them were intellectually so stimulating and thought-provoking. All the faculty members were top-notch people in their fields, but very humble and down to earth, and the staff members were very friendly and sincere too. The executive dean (Loren Crabtree from Colorado) and the academic dean (Mark White from Virginia) worked very well together and provided an atmosphere where optimal learning could take place.” She noted that there were 800 students from all over the world, 32 faculty members from the U.S., Canada, Europe and Australia. There were 200 crew members and our captain was from Croatia.

Equal opportunity distinguished the 26,000-mile journey. “Some students were from very privileged home backgrounds and were sent to boarding schools in Switzerland and England,” she recalled. “Other students were from South Central L.A. and were on financial aid and were happy and content to participate in the program and sail around the world. What I loved about the program is that all the students were given an equal opportunity to participate in any activity or function that took place on the ship or at the ports. The program did not cater only to affluent kids.”

Semester at Sea Boat
Photo courtesy of Nilufer Medora
Medora (c) with students.

Medora saw the whole trip as one long highlight. “I can honestly say that this was the most rewarding and enriching four months of my life,” she said. “I loved working with the students and the faculty. I had to work very hard because the program kept us occupied all the time, which left very little time for class preparations but it was well worth it. Overall, I felt that my hard work was appreciated, partly because I was voted the best professor on the ship.” Medora, an expert in cross-cultural research, received her 1983 Ph.D. in family studies from the University of Nebraska.

Medora also saluted the level of organization she encountered. “The Institute for Shipboard Education in conjunction with the University of Virginia, did a very good job in planning, managing and executing the voyage,” she said. “They did it with great precision, making the learning experiences on the ship and the practical field experiences at the ports very educational and enjoyable for people of all ages. They cater to students from all the different disciplines and to students from all walks of life. Every small detail is attended to. Nothing is left to chance.”

Semester at Sea Boat
Photo courtesy of Nilufer Medora

When 800 students boarded in Ensenada, the ship continued on to Hawaii, Japan, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, India, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Togo, Benin and Brazil. “That was a really exciting four months,” she said.

One reason Medora believes she was selected to participate in the Semester at Sea program was her prior international experiences and the support that she got from CSULB’s International Education program who she thanked. CSULB enrolls approximately 1,500 International students from 101 foreign countries each academic year, while some 900 CSULB students take advantage of both short-term and year-long study abroad opportunities. She also thanked the department of Family and Consumer Sciences and the dean of the College of Health and Human Services for supporting and approving her leave proposal. “My chair Wendy Reiboldt was very supportive,” she recalled.

She previously led 20 students on a three-week class to New Zealand titled “A Comparative Study of Children and Families in New Zealand and the United States” in the summer of 2007 and 2009. The group traveled all over the nation from its northernmost city of Paihia all the way south to the capital city of Wellington.

She is the first to point out the Semester at Sea program is not for everyone. “After all, faculty members are expected to be with students all the time,” she explained. “We live with them on board. We eat with them and sleep on the same schedule. When you go on excursions, students are with the faculty members all the time. Yet I feel so privileged and so blessed that I got this opportunity. I would do it all again.”

Medora has been active in Partners for Success, which nurtures newcomers to the university, since 1997. She began her education in her native India with a bachelor’s in psychology and a master’s in sociology. Her American education continued with a master’s in child development from the University of Arkansas. She began her teaching career at Montana State University.

“This trip will stay with me forever,” she said. “This has made me a citizen of the world,” she said. “Each culture has something unique to offer. Each visit overturned cultural stereotypes.”

She was especially interested in how the African coastal nation of Ghana so successfully overcame her expectations. I learned to appreciate such natural resources as its distinctive wood forests. Now, even looking at wood carvings from there, I have new associations. Beautiful, intricate wood carvings are their international emblem. The workmanship is so wonderful. But workers receive a pittance for their labors. I also learned to appreciate Ghanaian fabrics.” Now, when someone mentions Ho Chi Minh City, she remembers how it sounded. “The traffic in Vietnam is utter chaos,” she said. “But at least it is regulated chaos.” She found a balance between the modern Communism she found there and its ancient forms of worship. “They don’t consider themselves religious but they still go to temple,” she said.

She encourages other faculty members to participate in the Semester at Sea or at least to consider making travel part of their instruction. “Go for it,” she said. “It will change your life.”