GoAbroad Interview

Carolyn Kovacs - Operational Director & Marine Scientist

Carolyn studied biology at the College of William and Mary and then continued on to receive her Masters in Marine Sciences from Savannah State University. Carolyn joined Sea|mester in 2013 and has since then sailed from Tahiti to South Africa with Argo, as well as throughout the Caribbean with Ocean Star. She loves teaching marine science and exploring all of the amazing countries that Sea|mester visits as well as surfing, SUP, and dancing.

You’re a Florida native and grew up on the beach, how did you learn about Sea|mester?

I have wanted to be a marine biologist since about the age of four, and grew up going the beach and aquariums on a regular basis. In high school, I heard about ActionQuest, one of Sea|mester’s sister programs, and although I didn’t end up participating it, it planted the idea in my head that these types of sailing/travel/marine science programs existed. When I was in grad school I decided I really wanted to work in a non-traditional education position where I would get to engage students in experiential learning and also get to travel myself. Through some online research I found out about the existence of Sea|mester.  

Sitting at the bow during sunset, one of the most peaceful places in the world

What does an average day as Operational Director/Marine Scientist for Sea|mester look like?

An “average day” can look really different depending on whether we are underway or at anchor, and when we are at anchor or a dock it really changes up so much every day. When we are at anchor, I usually wake up a little earlier than everyone and do some sunrise yoga or prep work for the day. Then we all meet up on deck at 7:30 a.m. for breakfast. After cleanup we might have a class and then go scuba diving and have lunch on the boat, or head to shore for an activity like hiking, a tour, or some free time.

We always return to the boat around 4:30 p.m. to make sure the chefs have time to prep for dinner, and we all have time to do our jump-in ocean showers and a little work before dinner at 6 p.m. We all come together for “the squeeze” at dinner to check in with each other, then cleanup, and a class before bed.

My day is just about the same as everyone else’s on the boat, but with a little more time spent making sure everyone is ready to go, and of course teaching class. When we are underway, watch teams dictate our life – usually four hours on, eight hours off, with everyone coming together for lunch, afternoon classes, and dinner. It is pretty great when you have a long passage and you can really get into a routine.  

Learning about estuaries for Intro to Oceanography class by taking salinity and light attenuation measurements as they are paddled up the Indian River in Dominica in a traditional wooden boat

How is Sea|mester different from Semester at Sea?

I don’t know nearly as much about Semester at Sea as I do about Sea|mester, but from what I do know, one of the major differences is the size and amount of student involvement in day-to-day activities. On Sea|mester you are with a maximum of 20 or 30 people, as opposed to a few hundred, and you really do become like a family with them. I think one of the main things people take away from their experience with Sea|mester, more than the sailing or academics or even the countries they visit, is the relationships they make with the other crew onboard.

Living with people in a small space, working, cooking, studying, learning, exploring and doing every other part of your life with this group of people makes you have a relationship with them different from any that most of the students who come onboard have experienced. Students are also the ones who are sailing the boat, and it is a sailing program as opposed to a cruise. That means they put in a lot more hard work, but it also means that getting to a new country is much more rewarding because THEY are the reason that we all got there.  

What makes Sea|mester stand out when comparing other study abroad programs out there?

Sea|mester is completely different from a typical study abroad program. It is so much more than just studying in a different country; there is a whole aspect of living and working communally and learning a set of life skills. In addition to the academic programs, students learn and practice scuba diving and sailing. But even more than that, they learn how to live, work, solve problems, and communicate with their peers. By the end of the trip they are the ones running the show – planning passages and leading sail raises – and this gives them a sense of ownership for the boat and the program that you don’t get at a regular study abroad program at a university. Then of course there is the fact that students get to visit anywhere from five to twelve countries in a trip, as opposed to only seeing one country. This is a unique experience in that they become exposed to a wide variety of cultures, and often they are places that are very remote and only accessible by sea. 

Doing the “squeeze” on Argo as the sun goes down

Where do the majority of Sea|mester students come from? What are the commonalities among most participants?

The majority of Sea|mester students come from the United States–all over the U.S. We do get some students from outside of the U.S., which I always love because it creates even more opportunities to learn about different cultures–one semester we had students from Malaysia, Mexico, Venezuela, Germany, and three from Canada. There is a mix of gap year students and students who are currently enrolled in university programs, and people come for a variety of reasons: some are really interested in marine science; others aren’t so into science, but thought it would be a fun way to get their science requirements for college; some are really into sailing and go on to pursue their yachtmaster; some want to get more scuba certifications, and some just want the experience for the adventure, travel, and exploration.

No matter what you come in for, you end up experiencing it all. and by sharing those experiences everyone comes together, despite any differences in backgrounds or previous interests. 

You have an academic background in Biology and Marine Science; what were the key takeaways from your degrees that you use in your daily work with Sea|mester?

When I started with Sea|mester I taught Introduction to Marine Biology, and after four semesters I switched to Introduction to Oceanography. I love teaching both classes and how much the information between the subjects go together, as well as how it overlaps with what we learn about and experience while diving and sailing. It is awesome to see the organisms I learned about in school and now teach about while we scuba dive, and to use the information about waves, currents, tides, and wind that we study in oceanography to explain and understand how our environment affects the movement of the boat. 

In Carolyn’s “office” on Ocean Star, preparing for an Oceanography lecture

You conducted research on dolphins and managed a dolphin research lab, what are you able to teach students about dolphins from a marine biology standpoint during their voyage?

I love whenever we are on a passage and I hear someone shout that there are dolphins or whales around–I always run up on deck with my camera to see if we can photograph them and determine the species. Then, I break out the marine mammals book we have onboard and it is a great chance for some spur-of-the-moment learning. I could tell them all of the same things in class, but everyone is so much more interested when it is an animal you just saw 50 feet away from the boat. Since starting this job I have seen about ten different species of whales and dolphins, most of which I had never seen before, so it has been awesome for me as well! 

What advice would you give a prospective Sea|mester student?

Do it! And don’t pack too much, you will be amazed how little you need and there isn’t very much space, so less is more. Come in to it ready to take advantage of everything put in front of you–there are so many opportunities, and the students who really get the most out of the experiences are the ones that come in with an open mind and give everything 100%. Be prepared to have one of the busiest and craziest semesters of your life, but also be prepared to walk away with amazing memories and friendships.  

You lead fitness classes in your free time, how can students stay fit while living on a boat?

It can be challenging to exercise due to how busy we always are, but some people (myself included) wake up to do some workouts or yoga in the morning. I will offer to teach fitness classes if students are interested, it just depends on the group. One semester I had a student who would come to me almost every day and ask for a Zumba “class”–everyone else on the boat got used to seeing the two of us dancing around the deck–we know we looked silly, but it was a lot of fun! When we get on shore I love to walk, both for exercise and to get to explore the areas we are in, and we also do quite a few group hikes. These can be pretty exhausting at times, but we always get some amazing views at the end! You also get a pretty good workout just working around the boat, especially raising the sails or hauling up the dinghies.  There are always a few students who have a goal to be able to raise a sail or the stern of the dinghies by themselves by the end of the semester, and they definitely end up with some good muscles from it!

You’ve been with Sea|mester since 2013, what has been your biggest accomplishment in the last two years?

I think sailing halfway around the world (from Tahiti to South Africa) is pretty impressive! 

One of Carolyn’s favorite days she has had with Seamester–when they spent the day with the members of a small Fijian village. The kids didn’t speak any English, but they all had a great day playing together, and the kids even picked a bunch of flowers and put them in Carolyn’s hair!

What are your primary goals for 2015?

This summer I am actually leading trips with Sea|mester’s sister programs for high schoolers–an adventure abroad program in Australia with ActionQuest, and a global service project in Thailand with LifeWorks. I am really excited to be able to participate in all three of the main branches of the Global Expeditions Group programs and am looking forward to leading these groups of students through an amazing experience. I will then return to Sea|mester for the fall trip and am looking forward to another great semester in the Caribbean! 

Watch Team 2 crossing the Indian Ocean–during passage you spend an average of eight hours a day with your watch team, so you become pretty close!

What is the best part about working for Sea|mester?

One of the best things about our job is seeing changes in the students. There are physical things that you notice looking in photos at the beginning and end of the trip, like a tan and more defined arm muscles from hauling up the sails, but many times there are also significant changes in a student’s outlook on life. People definitely change during the trip, and it is usually things they are very proud of. They typically walk away feeling more self-confident and sometimes with a stronger view of what they want to accomplish with their life. Seeing how much the program has affected people is really powerful and makes you feel happy and proud of the part that you played in their experience. We had several students from our fall 2014 voyage go on to get their yachtmaster or dive instructor certifications, and a few have already gotten jobs in the field. Getting messages from them makes you feel like a proud parent! 

Of course, there is also the fact that I get paid to travel around the world and often spend my days exploring new countries with the students. I love to travel, but I never would have imagined being able to go to some of the remote islands and parts of the world that we get to visit to on the boats. Who else can say that while working they got to dive the Great Barrier Reef, be guests at a feast with all 200 members of a small Fijian village, swim with manta rays in the Maldives, round the infamous Cape of Good Hope on a sailboat, and hike to the tops of volcanoes in the Caribbean?