Deirdre McCormick sat packed into a barreling southbound train in China last year. The train was cluttered with Chinese families traveling for the New Year, and McCormick made herself as small as possible on the crowded floor, not understanding any of the words being shouted around her. The average traveler would have cringed at the claustrophobia of the train car, but McCormick couldn’t have been happier. McCormick would fight for air and comfort for 25 hours on her train in China, but the Springfield College student enjoyed every minute. McCormick was studying.
McCormick chose to take her education with her around the globe. McCormick spent four months away from Springfield College on a voyage that brought her to the heart of some of the most culturally diverse and historically significant countries in the world. More importantly, her journey brought her a better understanding of the world around her.
Through Semester At Sea, McCormick was able to embark on her journey. Semester at Sea is a study abroad program that allows its students to take classes aboard a ship while they sail around the world. McCormick knew that she wanted to study abroad, but couldn’t decide where.
“I couldn’t decide on a country, and I wanted to go somewhere out of my comfort zone,” said McCormick.
In her junior year at Springfield, McCormick came across Semester at Sea and booked her ticket as soon as possible.
The Scituate, R.I. native said her interest in travel goes back to high school. During her junior and senior years of high school, McCormick attended Cushing Academy in Northern Massachusetts. Cushing Academy is an international boarding school, and McCormick quickly formed relationships with her classmates from Japan and Brazil. After her years at Cushing Academy, McCormick knew she wanted to see much more of the world.
McCormick found it difficult to persuade her father to let her set sail, but nothing would stop her at this point. Before she knew it, McCormick was on a plane heading to San Diego for the beginning of her journey. From San Diego, McCormick and her friend Julianne Butare took a car ride down to Ensenada, Mexico, where the start of their Semester at Sea awaited them.
On Jan 17, 2010, the students boarded the mountainous ship in Mexico and set their sights westward into the boundless Pacific, leaving a continent behind them.
En route for Hawaii, McCormick found her new surroundings on the ship to be unlike anything else.
“The ship was like a floating campus,” said McCormick. “It was too surreal; the whole thing was just surreal.”
Her floating classroom housed 520 other students from universities all over the United States, and she found it a lot like school at times. The Semester At Sea curriculum involves 20 percent in-country experience and 80 percent classroom work on the ship. At times, McCormick found herself navigating 10-12 straight days of class on the vessel as she traveled.
The ship made a quick fueling stop in Honolulu and then dropped anchor in Yokohama, Japan. From Japan, McCormick and her classmates were dropped off in the colorful metropolis of Shanghai, China, as the ship sailed to Hong Kong to wait for the students. Shanghai is the most populous city in the world and its vibrant, bustling atmosphere is difficult to manage with a language barrier. McCormick and Butare needed to travel from Shanghai to Hong Kong, so they hopped on a train.
The train ticket McCormick came across was for standing room only, but she took what she could get. Outside the concrete buzz of Shanghai, McCormick’s train carved the Chinese countryside, revealing a view that she said was truly beautiful. The car was stuffed with Chinese passengers traveling for the largest human migration in the world: the Chinese New Year.
Conversation flew over the students’ heads as they attempted to get comfortable on the floor of the train. Hours passed and McCormick came to the conclusion that the train would not stop for more than 12 hours. McCormick and Butare did not bring any food or drink with them, and the bathroom was occupied by sleeping passengers. The two Americans gathered an audience as they huddled on the floor knitting and playing the card game “War” to pass time. With a crowd forming around the two women, McCormick took the opportunity to teach the game to her fellow passengers on the floor.
“It was a great experience. We ended up talking to all of these people without even speaking the same language,” said McCormick. “It’s amazing how much you can communicate without words.”
Twenty hours into the train ride, the grumble in McCormick’s stomach was answered by a nearby Chinese man who dug into his luggage. The man shared 25-hour-old hardboiled eggs with the girls, along with some unidentifiable vegetable (McCormick thinks it was fried lotus root). McCormick remembers twisting awkwardly between feet and luggage on the floor in an attempt to get comfortable during the ride, finally resting with her head bent under a seat amongst wads of chewing gum.
At long last, the contortionists had finally reached their ship in Hong Kong. Touching bases in Vietnam and India, the vessel sailed the Indian Ocean until reaching Africa.
Africa was an experience all in its own, said McCormick. “Something about seeing the continent of Africa, ‘the motherland,’ was very warming,” said McCormick.
McCormick had been taking a class called Peoples of Africa while on the ship, and after stepping foot in Ghana, she was given the chance to get firsthand experience.
McCormick came upon a large village in Ghana called Torgorme. The village of over 1,000 lies near Lake Volta and is a primitive society, housed with thatched-roof huts. McCormick was without electricity, running water and her usual diet while at Torgorme. The American showered with a bucket and ate the traditional Fu Fu over the fire. Fu Fu is a combination of wild bush meat, mashed yams and spices that McCormick said was actually pretty good.
McCormick stayed with the chief’s daughter in the village and slept on a mattress stuffed with hay. Any worries about oversleeping without an alarm were put to rest at the crack of dawn when she was greeted in her hut by a wandering rooster. McCormick was definitely out of her comfort zone, but she said her stay at the village was one to remember.
“I felt like a celebrity, a lot of people were staring but I don’t blame them,” said McCormick. “I felt really safe; it was very peaceful.”
Rounding out the journey, the ship touched base in Brazil and dropped anchor in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. on May 5, 2010. As McCormick parted ways with her shipmates, she began looking forward to returning to Springfield College. “I felt really lucky that I had Springfield to come back to,” said McCormick. “Other kids were dreading going back to their universities.”
Returning to Alden Street was bittersweet for McCormick. McCormick left her Springfield College friends for four months and sailed around the entire world. While students at Springfield worked toward 15 credits in Locklin Hall, McCormick earned her credits making waves through every ocean on the map. Clearly there would be something separating her from her peers after such an experience, but McCormick fit right back in.
“I was nervous that no one was going to understand what I had been through, but it’s amazing how fast you fall back into your regular routine,” said McCormick.
The conveniences on campus gave McCormick a chance to reflect on the bigger picture of her trip.
“It was weird seeing the things you see in magazines in real life. I really struggled with seeing all of the poverty right in my face, and then realizing what a good experience I was going through,” said McCormick. “I would be in a country for a couple of days, and I was filthy, but I got to go back to the ship and shower.”
McCormick is now a senior at Springfield College. Looking back at Semester at Sea, she said the classroom really is all around you.
“It solved a lot of misperceptions I had about the world. It just showed how small our country is in comparison to the rest of the world,” said McCormick. “It opened my eyes to how small we really are.”
Sean Seifert may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org