GoAbroad Interview

Michael Zoll - Vice President Academic & Student Affairs

Semester at Sea has had a long history of challenges and success as an institution of international education. The idea of shipboard education began with James Edwin Lough, a psychology professor at the University of New York in the 1920s, and would have ended with him if not for the efforts of California businessman Bill Hughes in the 1960s and his University of the Seven Seas. Today, shipboard education is thriving, giving students wishing to study abroad an alternative to conventional means of international education.

Michael Zoll is vice president for academic and student affairs of Semester at Sea, but he first sailed on SAS in spring 1990 as Resident Director. Michael earned a doctorate in educational leadership from University of La Verne, master’s degree in higher education and student affairs administration from University of Vermont, and bachelor’s degree in communication and religious studies from University of California, Santa Barbara. Michael currently lives in Charlottesville, Virginia with his wife Jennifer and four children (Owen, Sophia, Henry, and Grace).

A person on a voyage.

Though you technically joined Semester at Sea in 1990 when you became an onboard Resident Director, what inspired you to continue your relationship with SAS and pursue a career in the field of international education?

Semester at Sea’s impact on students. The significant outcomes of the program on student learning compares to nothing I’ve seen in over two decades of work with students. 

What makes a semester with Semester at Sea different from programs offered by other shipboard educators? 

There are several ingredients to the successful receipt: first, its global comparative nature. The unique program architecture facilitates a synthetic comparison of different countries, regions, and cultures. Second, a living-learning shipboard community. The learning community that forms each semester is without comparison and is the envy of many colleges and universities. Third, a rich and diverse curriculum, with 80+ courses spread among 20+ disciplines. The courses provide subject area depth linked to the places visited, providing a true “theory linked with practice” learning opportunity.

What, in your opinion, draws students to shipboard education with Semester at Sea?

Students tell me they are drawn to global comparative synthesis (whether intentionally or by default), participating in the stimulating shipboard living-learning environment, and studying with notable faculty—which number 40 on each voyage and represent excellent teachers and scholars from some of the world’s best colleges and universities.

Semester at Sea has a wonderful list of lecturers and alumni, which includes Nobel Peace Prize recipient Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Cuban president Fidel Castro. Have you met anyone while working with SAS that has uniquely impacted you? Or is there a current staff member you see as extremely beneficial for SAS students to work with?

The program has been blessed over the years to attract notable world figures. One of our most recent and successful advances connects students with practitioners in foreign service (from the U.S. State Department) through immersive activities at sea and in port. Our long-standing interport lecturers and student programs provide meaningful engagement with host nationals in advance of arrival. 

Each year that passes brings different voyages to different regions or countries. How does Semester at Sea select destinations each year? Why not travel to the same places each year?

For most of the program’s 50+ year history, the program has maintained a consistent itinerary (essentially, a fall and spring circumnavigation). We’ve consistently called on the same countries, adding or deleting some as needed for political and/or health and safety issues. The advent of the summer voyages in 2000 allowed itineraries to expand more deeply into Europe (Mediterranean and Scandinavia), Latin America, and Pacific Rim. ISE senior management will retreat with our ship’s management company in the coming month to vision future itineraries.

Semester at Sea has Spring, Fall, and Summer voyages. Is there one semester that is better for students interested in one field or another?

We have now returned to our original voyage model (fall and spring voyages), following 15 years of also hosting summer voyages. I believe that both the time of year and specific itinerary speak to students’ interests.

How do you ensure the safety of all students and staff aboard? Can you tell us about what happened to the ship in Spring 2005 and how Semester at Sea prevented what could have been a tragedy? 

We are committed to health and safety awareness education and strict enforcement of health and safety rules and regulations. The Spring 2005 voyage encountered a significant storm system in the Pacific (not unlike the storm that just raked the Bering Sea). The ship diverted to Hawaii for repairs, while students flew ahead to Asia to continue the program (the ship then caught up with them a week later). To mitigate significant winter weather risks in the Pacific, we’ve altered our spring itinerary path so that we traverse a southerly route. We routinely position the ship (through speed and direction) to mitigate risk—essentially by moving away from bad weather systems when possible.

Studying abroad at sea is an incredibly unique experience. What characteristics do you think it is important for potential participants to possess in order to be successful in Semester At Sea programs?

You must cherish community. Semester at Sea is a community program. We live and learn together on board, and we partner with others for the in-country experience. Those who thrive on Semester at Sea contribute to the community as much or more than they receive from the community. Another characteristic that is important is a spirit of flexibility and humility. One must remain adaptable to the inevitable change of plans that occurs with international travel overall, and travel by ship in particular. For all cultural exchanges, remembering that one is a guest in another’s country is the beginning step toward intercultural sensitivity and competence.

Managing hundreds of students along with a massive ship and handfuls of staff takes an incredible amount of coordination and organization. How does Semester at Sea make sure every students needs are taken care of and each trip is completely successfully?

Our voyage faculty and staff are amazing. We make sure to hire a mix of repeaters and first-timers on each voyage. A team from our ISE home office staff helps orient the faculty and staff, embark the students, and stay on the ship until the first port to ensure a steady start to the voyage. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, the ship’s officers and crew are totally committed to the program. They love the students like they are their parents, providing challenge and support in equal measures, with health and safety foremost in their actions. 

What is Semester at Sea’s secret formula to success?

As mentioned, the shipboard living-learning community facilitates an incubator like none other… faculty, staff, students, lifelong learners, and crew tell us that their connections to one another around a shared purpose (learning) is intense and fulfilling. Add a global itinerary that compares developing and developed destinations during five- to six-day port stays, including extending class into port (or field labs, as we call them), and the chance to wander on your own or join a Semester at Sea field trip—it all adds up to what the majority of our students identify as the best semester of their college experience (in fact, 98 percent of our alumni say that it was their most valuable semester of college!). 

What is in store for Semester at Sea participants in the next five years?

We will continue to build on strength, stay true to our mission, enhance learning at every opportunity, and hopefully continue to thrive abundantly as a program—which in turn allows us to significantly invest in challenging and supporting the learning of our students.