A semester at sea

Jessi Gudgell participated in a semester at sea this past spring. She is pictured above in Myanmar.

Jessi Gudgell is heading into her junior year at the University of Oregon, and she can already cross some major items off her bucket list.

The 21-year-old is back on Orcas for the summer after the experience of a lifetime: circumnavigating the world during a semester at sea program.

“There are moments and faces from my adventures that will never be erased from my mind,” she said. “The hearts of love and welcome attitudes that most everyone in each port I visited shared with me and my travel companions was incredible. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have a group of American college students invade your hometown, but with our gracious hearts and their warm welcomes and constant kindness we were able to create friendships with people all over the world.”

Gudgell saw the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal in India, Angkor Wat in Cambodia and the landscape of temples in Myanmar. She gave out TOMS shoes to impoverished children in South Africa and volunteered in orphanages.

“I was taken aback at the realization that some organized orphanage visits seemed more like a ‘field trip’ than time for us to actually help the children,” Gudgell said. “They would get attached to us and we would leave – just like everyone else. And that absolutely broke my heart. Our intentions were good but maybe we were doing more harm than good.”

Gudgell says she was overcome by the reality of poverty and how Americans interact with others in foreign countries.

“Imposing our Western ideas on people of different mind sets than our own is not necessarily going to be beneficial to them,” she said. “I would like to travel and do aid work in the future, but only if it is asked for by the people and not forced upon them.”

The study abroad program was sponsored by the University of Virginia and included 550 U.S. students and 100 international college kids. There were also life-long learning students, families of professors and crew members aboard the 600-foot, seven-deck vessel, bringing the passenger total to 900.

Over the course of four months the ship traveled through Asia and Africa. Gudgell lists Myanmar, South Africa and Morocco as her favorite locales but says, “I fell in love with every place I saw and left pieces of my heart behind in each port.”

The philosophy on the ship was “ubuntu,” a South African saying about human kindness that means “I am because we are, and we are because I am.” Those on the ship were without internet or phones for most of the trip. Gudgell said it made for deeper, more connected relationships.

“People were really there to learn about the world and immerse themselves in the community,” she said. “I played games with children on streets and crawled through temples with natives who knew the town like the back of their hand. Despite

the language barrier we were able to communicate by facial expressions, gestures and love in our hearts. Love is a universal language.”

Gudgell took five classes and each course also had a field lab – an outing in one of the countries where they stopped. In Vietnam her Spanish class met with college students in the area and they conversed only in Spanish. The ship spent six days in each port it visited, and the students had five nights to explore on their own.

Next on her list is to visit all seven continents. She has three left: Australia, Antarctica and South America. Gudgell is also considering joining the PeaceCorps. Her degree is in family and human services, but after the semester abroad she wants to pursue nursing or public health.

Gudgell is sharing her story of travel in the hope that it will inspire others to travel and gain a sense of global awareness. She says that kind of education is especially important for those – like herself – who are raised in small communities.

“There is only so much learning that can be done in a classroom,” Gudgell said.  “Experiencing different religions, political views, conflicts and beliefs by immersing yourself in different cultures is of inexplicable value and importance to everyone, no matter what one’s background might be.”