Come Sail Away

January 26, 2017

Amanda Nagy

illustration drawn by Gabrielle Ment
Ment drew this illustration to accompany a nautical science assignment.

Kameron Dunbar has been thinking a lot lately about the Oberlin recruitment slogan, “Think One Person Can Change the World?” This semester, he’s putting his worldview to the test as he sails across the globe on a voyage with the Semester at Sea passenger ship.

Returning to Oberlin this spring is Gabrielle Ment, who spent her fall semester conducting oceanographic research aboard a tall ship sailing vessel with the Sea Education Association’s Oceans and Climate program. She was among 25 students who sailed as full, working members of the ship’s crew and scientific team on a voyage across the subtropical Atlantic from the Canary Islands (off the coast of Africa) to the Caribbean.

These two completely different semesters at sea programs are linked by Oberlin students’ common interest in substantive study away initiatives.

The Sea Education Association has accepted 98 Oberlin students in its SEA Semester study abroad program since it was founded in 1971. In spring 2015, double-degree student Sophie Davis made connections between environmental science and violin performance on an expedition from New Zealand to Tahiti—an unusual undertaking considering the effects of salty, humid air on musical instruments.

Ment, a third-year majoring in environmental studies and dance, was drawn to SEA Semester because of her lifelong love of the ocean and a deep concern for humankind’s impact on the ocean environment.

“On a 3,000-nautical-mile-long transatlantic voyage, I may have innocently hoped that human waste wouldn’t affect the marine systems so far from civilization. However, I have learned that human waste and impact is vast, and the ocean and climate are complex systems. The signs of human impact are there, and now I know where to look and how to measure it,” says Ment, who is from the coastal town of Truro, Massachusetts, on the northern tip of Cape Cod.

Her research focused on the relationship of phytoplankton and nutrients in the water column across the subtropical and tropical north Atlantic ocean. “The productivity of phytoplankton has extreme importance and relevance to the health of the ocean and all land animals, including humans, who breathe oxygen,” Ment explains.

“Taking the Ocean in the Global Carbon Cycle class during the six-week shore component first introduced me to the subject. I quickly became fascinated by phytoplankton and started extensively researching the subject, especially in relation to climate change. This led me to the composition of my scientific research plan,” which she carried out with another student at sea.

Before Dunbar embarked from San Diego in early January, he said the prospect of sailing around the world felt surreal. “Lately, and in response to recent sociopolitical changes, I've realized that I don't really know and understand the world as well as I thought I did. This is my attempt to see the world, to experience different cultures, and to hopefully shape my advocacy for the rest of my life.”

Semester at Sea integrates multiple-country study, interdisciplinary coursework, and hands-on field experience. While at port, students are free to travel and explore.

A second-year politics major with a minor in rhetoric and composition and a concentration in peace and conflict studies, Dunbar is living aboard a seven-deck, 590-foot ship for the 100-day voyage. The spring 2017 itinerary includes port visits in Hawaii, Japan, China, Vietnam, Myanmar (Burma), India, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, and Morocco.

While at sea, Dunbar is taking courses in international security; globalization, sustainability, and justice; and interpersonal communication skills, each with an accompanying field lab. Field labs are manifestations of the Semester at Sea mantra “the world is our campus,” and allows experiential learning in those countries.

Dunbar said he was particularly excited about seeing the Taj Mahal in India and visiting Mauritius during the country’s independence day celebration. “I’m also looking forward to going hot air ballooning in Myanmar, going on safari and visiting Robben Island, South Africa; seeing Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, and traveling by camel and sleeping in the desert in Morocco, among other things.”

A student blogger for Oberlin’s Office of Communications, Dunbar received a $5,000 scholarship for program costs and travel expenses from Diversity Abroad. As part of his scholarship, he will be documenting his experiences. He has also created a personal blog to consolidate all of his trip writing.

Ment says her SEA Semester experience will likely shape her capstone project for environmental studies. She is also interested in applying her knowledge and experience to tell a story through performance in circus arts.

“I want to raise awareness and share some of what I learned through performance. The Payomet Performing Arts Center has given me an amazing opportunity to build a show about the ocean this summer on Cape Cod. I am planning for my research to be an integral part of the show and its environmental theme and message.”

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