Semester at Sea

Semester at Sea: Exploring Endangered Languages in Hawaii

For students on Semester at Sea’s Spring 2015 voyage, the port of Hilo, Hawaii was the first stop on their four-month-long, round-the-world journey. Hilo was a logistical and re-supply port, meaning that voyagers had just a short 24 hours to soak up the multitude of experiences that Hawaii has to offer. Unlike most of the visitors arriving at Hilo’s terminal—who debark their cruise ships in search of white sand beaches and scenic waterfalls—the students in Professor Caleb Everett’s anthropology class headed instead for the campus of the University of Hawaii at Hilo and its newly constructed Language Revitalization Center.

screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-4-31-01-pmThe mission of the language center at UH Hilo is to document and preserve the Hawaiian language and promote its expansion in business, education, social life, and the arts. With Hawaiian counted among the world’s endangered languages, comprising just over 30,000 surviving speakers, UH Hilo’s work could not be more vital to the survival of Hawaiian as a written and spoken language.

In keeping with Semester at Sea’s values of fostering global understanding through experiential learning, the faculty of UH Hilo had designed a hands-on learning activity for the arriving SASers that was to be their first foray into cross-cultural immersion. UH Hilo’s Hawaiian studies students were instructed to engage with the incoming SAS students speaking only in their native Hawaiian, without alluding any knowledge of the English language. “Essentially it was like we were getting off Captain Cook’s ship in the 1700’s,” said Tiffani Holt of Sullivan University. “We had to learn their names, objects they had on them, numbers, and terms for kinship.”

screen-shot-2016-11-26-at-4-33-11-pmFor Erin Skoczylas of Saint Leo University, the activity revealed the interconnectedness of language and culture. “We learned a lot about how a culture is tied into a language; you can’t separate the two,” she said. “So in order to understand I had to put myself outside of the English mindset and go into an unknown territory, which is a lot like traveling!”

Sophie Connot of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln meanwhile reflected upon a question that her professor had posed in class. “He asked us to write down three things we would miss if our language disappeared,” she remembered. “I wrote down colloquial terms, like how my grandma always says ‘dearie’ or how my parents say, ‘love you bunches.’ I feel like that would just take a part of me away. After meeting so many people who’ve grown up in this culture and lived through the tradition, it makes me so sad to think that it could have been lost. It’s really inspiring to see how they’re handling their endangered language.”

For Tiffani, Erin, Sophie, and the other SAS students, their Hawaiian language lab offered a first glimpse of the many eye-opening experiences that awaited them on their voyage. As the MV Explorer slipped out of Hilo’s harbor to begin its long, trans-Pacific trek to Yokohama, Japan, students were left not with the traditional memories and souvenirs of a Hawaiian vacation, but with newfound knowledge, perspective, and curiosity that would serve them well on the journey to come.

A Journey Around the World, A Journey of Self-Discovery

The MV Explorer sat moored in Southampton harbor. Luggage lay piled on the docks. The ship’s gangway was lowered and the students, staff, and faculty of the Spring 2015 Semester at Sea voyage descended their floating campus for the last time. After 112 days, 12 countries, and 25,000 nautical miles, their journey had come to an end.


Voyagers are treated to a spectacular light show as the MV Explorer departs Hong Kong.

As the MV Explorer whisked its passengers from the expanses of East Asia’s megacities to the post-modern skyscrapers of Singapore, past thatched villages in India and townships in South Africa, to the barren deserts of Namibia and the ancient bazaars of Morocco, the ship became home, a refuge of familiarity and security amidst the ever-changing terrain beyond its portholes. Its cargo, a collection of 629 students representing 267 universities from 47 different countries, became family. And the world outside, persistently slipping past as the voyage advanced toward its conclusion, became at once both much smaller and vastly larger: a little less intimidating, a little less unknown, but more alive with possibility.

On the final day of the voyage, Kaiulani Kamau of the University of Hawaii announced her intention to switch her major from sports medicine to global health. “There’s just so much need in the world,” she observed. For Talon Warburton of California Lutheran University, the impact of the voyage was no less profound. “I believe that this ship and my time on it have shaped me as to the person I’m to become, as to what life I’m going to lead, and to the impact I’m going to make on this world,” declared Talon, “and I will never forget this ship and the role that it’s had in shaping me.”

Travel is inherently perspective-shifting. Traveling around the entire globe in the span of just four months has a way of completely upending one’s view of the world and one’s own place in it. For Maria Castillo of Lindenwood University, the voyage provided a tremendous boost of self-confidence. “Semester at Sea is something really big and now I know that I can do big things,” she said. “Now I want to pursue big things: I want to go to good schools, I want to travel the world, I want to help people. Now I know that I can just go for it!”

Voyagers watch as the MV Explorer departs Casablanca, Morocco, the final port of the Spring 2015 voyage.

Voyagers watch as the MV Explorer departs Casablanca, Morocco.

For all involved, the ending of the voyage was bittersweet, the closing of a profoundly impactful chapter of their lives, but one that also suggested the possibility of new beginnings. “I feel that even though this voyage has ended, our journey hasn’t ended,” said Inga Lam of the University of Bristol. “There’s a reason why we’re on this voyage and why we’re learning so much, because when we go back and share our stories with other people, we’re encouraging others to set off on a new journey and to learn about the things that we experienced.”

“I’ll never stop sharing my stories,” declares Inga. “And in fact, I want to go back to these countries and I want to go to the countries that we weren’t able to visit this time, because I’ve only﹘” she stops mid-sentence and corrects herself, “I got the opportunity to visit so many countries, but there’s still a lot more to learn and I can’t wait!”

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