Semester at Sea provides cultural immersion and a model of resilience for theatre students and faculty

Hanna-Gurvich family
The Gurvich-Hanna family in Dubrovnik, Croatia: Slater Hanna, Roger Hanna, Zhanna Gurvich, and Piper Hanna.

Semester at Sea hopes its students gain the “global understanding necessary to address the challenges of our interdependent world.” For Roger Hanna and Zhanna Gurvich, two Colorado State University School of Music, Theatre, and Dance faculty who believe that the arts, specifically theatre and storytelling, can be a catalyst for cultural understanding and discussion, the unique opportunity to teach on the “floating university” could not be missed.

Roger Hanna headshot
Roger Hanna, associate professor of Theatre, has designed sets for theatre, opera, and dance in Japan, Israel, and across the United States, including over 150 productions in New York City.
Zhanna Gurvich headshot
Zhanna Gurvich, instructor of theatre, is an award-winning designer and painter who has designed for theatre, dance, opera, and film at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, the Joyce Theatre, Chautauqua Opera, and the Julliard Theatre.

Found family

There is a lengthy application process to become a Semester at Sea teacher, and even with encouragement, Hanna admits to missing the window for several years until his kids encouraged him to get ahead of the process. Hanna was accepted as a Global Teaching Scholar for Fall 2020, but the pandemic prevented him from going; he was selected again for the Spring 2022 voyage.

Hanna and Gurvich, a married couple who were able to travel as a family while teaching – Global Theatre and serving as the academic swing/substitute respectively – quickly formed a found family aboard the ship. “I really enjoyed the camaraderie amongst the faculty and staff (coined ‘staculty’ within CSU Theatre),” Gurvich said.

People from across many disciplines enjoyed spending time together, telling stories, joking, and sometimes commiserating. “Being on the ship together made us get together and stay together, which we don’t do enough on land,” added Gurvich who ended up subbing across the liberal arts courses, including several psychology, music, and history classes, and felt very supported doing so.

“I was lucky enough to actually know a good bit about the subjects being covered during the weeks that I taught, and, as a theatre professional, I’m pretty good at sounding confident at all times. Of course the absent faculty remained in touch with me digitally so I was never flying entirely solo.”.

Embracing the differences

Significant differences in the campus atmosphere were enjoyed by both professors. Besides the challenges posed by the occasional rocking of the boat, Gurvich noticed an increase in the amount of contact she had with students outside of the classroom.

Braided hair
Hair braiding as a way to connect outside of the classroom.

“It was a much more holistic experience,” Gurvich said of the experience. “Like when the students and staculty had their hair braided to showcase the talent of Rachel Hernandez, CSU junior neuroscience major.

When considering other differences, Hanna noted that field classes in each country immerse students in a topic, and with the same group of people, for at least eight hours at a time.

Semester at Sea

Nearly 100 years ago, the idea for a floating university that would travel the world became the passionate pursuit of James Edwin Lough, a psychology professor at New York University. He believed changes needed to be made to traditional teaching methods of American universities and soon became a leader in a new educational movement. Travel and first-hand experience, he felt, must be part of every scholar’s education and he set out to find others who shared this vision.

The Institute for Shipboard Education (ISE) is an internationally recognized leader in educating global citizens who engage in comparative learning experiences and positively impact our interdependent world.

The Institute for Shipboard Education (ISE) is a 501c3 nonprofit based in Fort Collins, Colorado, that administers the Semester at Sea study abroad program in conjunction with Colorado State University.

For more about Semester at Sea, visit

While this model of study might feel familiar for theatre, music, and dance students who are used to spending a lot of extra, off-hours time on plays and concerts, for some students, it was the first time they have worked intensively with a faculty member and other students in such a unique and collaborative situation.

Students are surrounded by faculty and small group of peers, resulting in ‘ship families,’ so everyone gets to know people on a deeper level. “I made friends with faculty in economics, religion, and philosophy because there’s really only one expert in any field on the ship,” Hanna said.

Another difference Hanna noted, with a tone of good humor, was the need to remind students to step over the sea-sick students who were determined to come to class but remained lying on the classroom floor.

Connection to the internet posed a challenge with many people using one hot spot simultaneously. This resulted in a need for students to really engage with the class and take good notes. On the positive side, Hanna noted, “I didn’t have anyone explain that they missed class because of a train!”

Creativity and resiliency

Semester at Sea
Global Theatre class and the shadow puppet play.

In addition to the challenges, many wonderful opportunities presented themselves as the tight knit nature of the ship encouraged creative problem solving.

Since Hanna’s Global Theatre class was small enough, they were able to put on a shadow puppet play, and even constructed a screen and backlighted puppets in a space not originally configured for the activity.

“Fortunately, I found some LED fixtures that the ship crew agreed I could use,” said Hanna. “We figured out how to make shadow puppets in the middle of the ocean, on a voyage that prohibited tape and scissors or knives!”

Another unique opportunity including zip-lining between two cliffs over the ocean in Malta. A student took the initiative and organized the whole adventure, contacting the company and convincing them to open in the off-season.

Semester at Sea Cliff Activity
Semester at Sea and the cliff outing. Piper Hanna pictured left.

“I was really impressed with her initiative,” Gurvich said. The students encouraged Piper, the couple’s daughter, when she was nervous about jumping off the cliff.

Students increased their resiliency and encouraged resiliency in others, like Piper.

When speaking of the program’s power, Gurvich explained that Semester at Sea allows students to visit multiple cultures and learn from international experts in various fields. Through cultural immersion, they gain a greater understanding of the issues facing the world at large.

“Students step out of their comfort zones and learn to be self-reliant and confident in situations that they had not previously encountered!”

Written by Chloe Piveral and Jennifer Clary, School of Music, Theatre, and Dance Communications Office. Pictures provided by Zhanna Gurvich and Roger Hanna.