SEA Semester Affiliation Puts Students at the Heart of Oceanographic Research Around the Globe

February 23, 2015


Alexis 'Ali' Johnson ’16 enjoys the view from the rigging of the SSV Robert C. Seamans off the coast of New Zealand.

Alexis “Ali” Johnson ’16 will never forget the night she felt the sky and ocean were alive, at once, all around her.

It was around midnight, and her ship was cutting through the South Pacific off the coast of New Zealand.

“The sky was perfectly clear,” says the mathematics and environmental science double-major. “I remember climbing up the ladder and through the doghouse doors and all I could see were stars. It felt like we could see every single star in the sky. Even more amazing were the dolphins playing around in the bioluminescence in the water.  It was like something out of a Disney movie.”

This winter, Ali and classmate Kate Morneault ’16 became the first students to take advantage of Stonehill’s new affiliation with the renowned Sea Education Association (SEA). For more than 40 years, the SEA Semester program has educated college students about the world’s oceans on ships plying the seas of Fiji, New Zealand, the Caribbean and the Mediterranean. And its emphasis on experiential learning fits perfectly with Stonehill’s commitment to help students go where knowledge lives — whether that’s in a campus lab or halfway around the globe.

 “​I’ve never learned so much in such a short period of time,” said Kate, an accounting major and environmental studies minor. “It was one of the most challenging yet rewarding experiences of my life. I learned that I can do anything I put my mind to.”

Where Science and Seamanship Meet

The pair began their odyssey at the Sea Education Association campus in Woods Hole, on Cape Cod, with 21 other undergrads from around the country. They spent six weeks conducting research while also taking a full course load — including oceanography, nautical science leadership, and maritime history and culture — before flying halfway around the world to Auckland, New Zealand.

When they arrived, the next step was to learn how to navigate a 134-foot brigantine, the SSV Robert C. Seamans.

“The students are all considered crew members,” Kate says. “It was a 24-hour job, so we were split up into three watch groups and shared the responsibility of steering, sail handling, keeping watch for traffic, recording weather, performing hourly boat checks, doing dishes and cooking.”

The students learned that at sea, the sailors’ mantra is  “ship, shipmate, self.”

“We all depended on each other,” Kate says. “It’s a very selfless experience.”

Kate saw that mantra come to life when she had to steer the tall ship through a storm.

“There was a huge squall with winds up to 30 knots during our last night of sailing. My watch was supposed to be finished at 3 a.m. but the weather was so bad … we stayed on.  It was incredible to see everyone working together (in) pitch dark and scary conditions. It was amazing.”

Their six-week trip took them around the tip of New Zealand’s North Island, through Cook Strait, with ports of call in Wellington, Dunedin and Christchurch, where they conducted more research and explored the island nation.

An Opportunity for Personal and Professional Growth

When they weren’t on watch duty, students were typically studying and participating with environmental science faculty in experiments in the ship’s laboratory, Kate says. They even learned how to draft a policy brief on marine renewable energies.

“One of the best things an undergraduate … can do is to get some hands-on experience working in the field,” says Kristin Burkholder, a teaching postdoctoral fellow in Stonehill’s Environmental Sciences & Studies Program. She should know: Her undergraduate experience as a SEA Semester participant led her to pursue her Ph.D. in oceanography. “It’s an incredible opportunity for personal growth. Students are placed on a 134-foot vessel for weeks at a time, often in physically demanding conditions, with virtually no contact with the outside world. … In my experience, these conditions teach you a lot about yourself.”

That certainly proved to be the case for Kate and Ali.

“I really grew as a person [and] realized how beneficial it is for students to be independent,” says Ali, adding that the experience has changed her career plans: “I now know that I want to go back to sea and travel. I can’t see myself being away from the sea for long.”

Added Kate, “We learned what’s truly important in life: caring for your community and living in the moment.”

It’s a revelation that happens in academic departments across the campus and a reflection of Stonehill’s commitment to “educating the mind and the heart.”

“[We] allow students to own their own voices, to own their own way of making sense of the world,” says Professor Greg Shaw. “Students develop a sense that to really think deeply they have to think also with their feelings, with their heart. You can’t decide to be a responsible citizen unless you have an empathic awareness.”

Emily Tokarowski ’16, who along with James Conley ’16 will soon set sail on a SEA Semester experience, said she can already tell the program is going to have that kind of transformative impact on her. “It’s the perfect opportunity for adventure, learning new and amazing skills, and meeting some of the greatest people who will become your close friends. The opportunities that await (me) are once in a lifetime.”