All Aboard! Sail. Learn. Connect.

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The Communication at Sea, Summer 2019 program is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for students to study abroad while cruising across the Atlantic Ocean from Florida to Barcelona. FIU undergraduate and graduate students from the Department of Communication had opportunities to think in new ways about communication and branding strategies in the age of social media and digital technologies.

In our overly connected world, it is a novelty for students to digitally isolate themselves for more than a few hours, let alone a week-long transatlantic crossing. On this trip, students were encouraged to digitally detox, connect with their peers in a more meaningful way, and learn about themselves as much as they learned from the coursework. This is what separates the Communication at Sea program from the other study abroad programs regularly in place at universities. 

Over a two-week period, students went from mingling only with each other and those aboard the ship to exploring Portugal and Spain, all during the same program. Such a complex program allows each student to have a unique experience that influences their lives and careers. Four such students are Kaylee Perez, Keenan Thompson, Samantha Sarmiento, and Alexia Dudley. Each of these students represent the distinct goals and outcomes of the program; Kaylee worked on her own Social Media Marketing Agency brand; Keenan took advantage of the multicultural class to conduct an in-depth study of the LGBT+ community; Samantha, president of the Student Association of Journalism at FIU, took a closer look at the Asian-American culture; Alexia worked on her social media brand for her Life Coaching Business. Since this study abroad program is a rich mix of academic learnings and self-discoveries, we’ll present the itinerary with testimonials from the students themselves.

The first week was spent entirely at sea aboard the cruise ship. It departed from Port Canaveral bound for Ponta Delgada, Portugal. Most of the students separated themselves further by making a conscious decision not to purchase the onboard Wi-Fi.

What I can say is that I loved being disconnected from technology and the utilization of my cellphone; the experience fostered the ability to make new organic relationships. We discovered, as individuals, that we are more alike than we are different, and that concept is something I believe the foundation of an international university was built on,” said Alexia. “This experience of building connections stood out to me as a transfer student who works full-time and doesn’t have the pleasure of enjoying many campus-life activities at FIU. Therefore, this experience gave me the opportunity to have a taste of what that’s like while making genuine connections with my peers.”

Traveling by sea also creates changes to each student’s daily schedule, especially across the Atlantic. There are time changes daily as you continue your voyage East. This brings many challenges that help build the experience, ones you may not have anticipated before the study abroad program.

Sam recalls When you’re home you complain that you’re tired of the monotonous routine but when you’re busy with a schedule you kind of miss it. There were just some small moments when things were hectic—such as getting lost in a big city due to unfamiliarity with public transportation and not understanding the language. Once we reached our destination after getting lost, we enjoyed what was before us and were too distracted to miss home.”

Norwegian Cruise Lines took students on a tour of the entire cruise ship once aboard. It’s one thing to think about how large a cruise ship is, it’s another to be shown how many people are employed, how the ship stores and serves food, how many people operate the cleaning services, where the crew sleeps, ect. Understanding how the ship functions was an added value to the overall learning experience. 

FIU students are able to take up to 6 credits once they have been accepted into the program. This year, FIU’s School of Journalism + Communication had 16 students led by Mihaela Plugarasu, M.S., faculty director for this program. Most of the students took Strategic Branding and Social Media (ADV 4323) and Multicultural Marketing (ADV 4411), a perfect combination with two distinct purposes. 

In Multicultural Marketing, students took advantage of projects that reflected the varying cultures and ethnicities onboard. The premier project was to complete an ethnographic study; starting with choosing a cultural group present on the ship, interviewing them, and eventually attending an event that is relevant to that culture or group. It’s extremely important to see the subtle differences people display in their natural environments, so during the event, students pinpointed relations within the groups, interactions, verbal and non-verbal cues, etc. At the end of the week at sea, students presented their findings in front of their peers and professor. The ship can be seen as a natural lab for all the ethnographic studies during the course period. This trip not only has a positive influence in helping you gain exposure to a wide variety of cultural groups, but also an introspective opportunity for yourself.

“During this trip, I was able to discover how well I’m able to connect with people that are so different from me. I think it was very beneficial because I was able to learn the most from people with opposing opinions and/or outlooks on life. It gave me the opportunity to learn at a much faster, more efficient pace than before.” said Keenan Thompson.

In the Strategic Branding and Social Media course, students learned to create and implement a successful social media strategy using clearly defined communication and business goals. Most students were able to work on something important to them, as you could expound on your own businesses’ branding. Ms. Plugarasu encouraged all students to work on a brand that they care about and feel emotionally connected to.

Alexia, who worked on the social media strategy of her own Life Coaching business, said This course had a major part in the decision I made to experience this particular study abroad. I am currently in the beginning stages of building a business/personal brand and this course and the way Prof. Plugarasu taught this course has forever changed the way I understand the concept of strategy and the various channels of social media.” 

After the first week at sea, students arrived in Ponta Delgada, Portugal. From here on out, they traveled fairly quickly in between European cities. They gained exposure to many different settings in Europe, from slow seaside towns to big bustling cities. The trip continued from Ponta Delgada to Funchal, Funchal to Seville, Seville to Malaga, Malaga to Cartagena, Cartagena to La Palma de Mallorca, and La Palma de Mallorca to Barcelona. During this time, students were able to explore the cities in day excursions as part of groups; big or small. This provided an opportunity for students to experience the sights they wanted to see. From traveling to local landmarks to spending the day at the beach, there was never a shortage of opportunities to learn, connect and discover. On the last day in Barcelona, students resided together in a hotel for the day before continuing wherever their journey took them next. 

To finish off this long and eye-opening experience, students were asked what they would like to convey to anyone thinking about enrolling in a study abroad or what they wished to say to anyone reading this article. 

Kaylee mentioned “how important it is to go out of your comfort zone. I feel like a lot of people forget about this concept and it is something that was challenged on this study abroad. It is the only way for us to really experience life in my opinion.”

Keenan responded to the question : would you recommend a friend to do this same study abroad trip or any study abroad trip in the future? “My answer would be, absolutely yes! For this trip specifically, it was a more hands-on interactive experience. We got to work hand in hand with crew members as well as the guests on board. We had the opportunity to see what it is like to work on a cruise ship and tour the ship with the general manager. From an educational perspective, I feel like I learned more in the 2-week of this trip than in a whole 16-week semester course.”

Samantha reminds all FIU students that everything is possible: “One thing I’d like to convey is that I never thought study abroad was attainable for me. I simply thought I’d have to skip out on it. But—with some quick research I figured out I could do it. I understand everyone’s financial situation is different, but if you receive financial aid, you can do it! If you have the opportunity to do so, take the risk. I’d also like to add that you can do as much research as you want on where you wish to go but you’ll never know what’s waiting for you. Wherever you chose, an unexpected adventure will follow. You just have to be open and embrace it. As cliché as it sounds, it really is a once in a lifetime opportunity  and I hope every college student gets to experience it. There will always be the good and the bad in anyone’s travels, but I believe this helps define and shape who we’re trying to be, as we come of age. This trip has certainly changed me in ways I can see immediately and other subtle ways I can’t wait to see unravel as I grow.”

Special note: The Communication at Sea program was modeled after the very successful Hospitality at Sea Study Abroad Program at the Chaplin School of Hospitality & Tourism Management, now in its 8th consecutive year. Prof. John Thomas, chair and faculty director of Hospitality at Sea, led 62 students on this same trip.

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