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Semester at Sea sinks at Pitt

| Wednesday, June 8, 2005

For Semester at Sea fans, it's cause for coral grief.

Citing safety and security concerns, the University of Pittsburgh has ended its nearly 25-year affiliation with the aquatic academic program. Semester at Sea allows students to trade the land-locked confines of most universities for floating classrooms that expose them to other cultures and I'm guessing, occasional amoebic dysentery.

It's hard to fault the university for ending its sponsorship. In recent months, Pitt officials monitoring the program must have felt they were aboard the S.S. Massive Civil Liability and the craft was taking on water.

Picture the frayed nerves in the Cathedral of Learning in January, when the pride of the program fleet, the Explorer, spent several days attempting to do a credible impression of the Edmund Fitzgerald.

Battling rough waters almost immediately after leaving Vancouver, the ship's engines were damaged. Furniture toppled in cabins. Nauseated, apprehensive students donned life preservers and were herded for a nerve-wracking time to the ship's upper deck.

Gene Hackman wasn't there to overact, but that still didn't prevent the journey from being more reminiscent of "The Poseidon Adventure" than any "Love Boat" cruise.

They had no control over an unforgiving ocean, but Semester at Sea organizers were entirely responsible for planning the spring itinerary. Pitt officials were none too happy a stop in Kenya was included.

At first, it's difficult to understand why.

The Kenyan visit included a tour of magnificent game reserves, thrilling hot air balloon rides over scenic plains and the opportunity to mingle with malnourished and orphaned children at Mother Teresa's Center, according to the program's geographic syllabus.

All of those activities seem like grand fun. Why would Pitt officials be irate?

Possibly because the syllabus didn't mention that the U.S. State Department cautioned against travel to Kenya and surrounding nations in November. Something about al-Qaida supporters and other extremists lurking over there spooked the State Department.

"Terrorism poses a continuing threat in Kenya and throughout East Africa," the department warned.

"Terrorist actions may include suicide operations, bombings, kidnappings or attacks on civil aviation. U.S. citizens should be aware of the risk of indiscriminate attacks on civilian targets in public places and locations where Westerners are known to congregate."

Such as, one can assume, popular game reserves, hot air balloon landing pads and places where poverty-stricken, Third World children are comforted by students each spending about $20,000 for a semester in a floating dorm room.

No student perished in the Pacific. No one got killed in Kenya. So it's entirely possible that despite its students being increasingly exposed to risk, Semester at Sea will find another university sponsor.

One thing is clear, however: This certainly isn't the program's high-water mark.

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