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College of Education > News and Publications > 2016: 01-03 news > Class in session on high seas

Class in session on high seas

Class Afloat experience combines teaching and travel for College of Education and Schreyer alumnus

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. --  Like most teachers, Schreyer Honors College alumnus Kyle O’Donnell starts his day by gathering with his students at 8 a.m. For O’Donnell, however, “homeroom” is held on the deck of the 200-foot tall ship that he calls both his home and his workplace.

Kyle O'Donnell
College of Education and Schreyer Honors College alumnus Kyle O'Donnell teaches in a unique classroom setting that combines classic education with a sail-training program.

O’Donnell is a math teacher with Class Afloat, a Nova Scotia-based experiential education program. After graduating in fall 2014 with honors in secondary math education and a minor in special education, O’Donnell secured a position teaching on the ship for the 2015-16 school year.

“The program is very unique in that it combines traditional classroom education with a sail-training program that takes its students around the world,” O’Donnell said. “This year, our vision as a faculty team is to provide the best experiential education program possible that empowers young people to develop in an inclusive community of responsible, global citizens who celebrate diversity and embrace lifelong learning.”

O’Donnell first heard about Class Afloat while student teaching in Jönköping, Sweden, in the fall of 2014. After researching the program upon his return home, O’Donnell said he “knew it was something I wanted to do” and applied.

Over the course of just a few months, O’Donnell has had the opportunity to visit many unique places, but his favorite memory is a four-day trip across Morocco, from Agadir to the Algerian border.

“To get out to the campsite, we all rode camels for the three-hour trek. It was quite the sight: 60 people riding camels in the Sahara Desert to a campsite where we would spend the night,” O’Donnell said. “Once we arrived, we were treated to some traditional Moroccan food and entertainment, and we got to enjoy the sunset from the top of a sand dune.”

O’Donnell said he appreciates that the program combines both traveling and teaching. As students consider post-graduation options, O’Donnell said they should look at opportunities which add some excitement to their career path.

“If you’re sure that what you’re studying is what you are passionate about, then pursue the most exciting and enticing way to practice it,” O’Donnell said. “When people think of teachers they think of someone in a tie and khakis standing in a classroom, not someone sailing tens of thousands of nautical miles on a tall ship.”

While the job is incredibly rewarding, it does have its challenges, O’Donnell said, including long stretches of work and being far from home. Any day spent sailing is a class day, so longer passages can be exhausting for students and teachers alike. Recently, during a trip from Natal, Brazil to Buenos Aires, Argentina, class was in session for 22 days straight.

On a typical day, students are in class from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., with an hour-long study hall after dinner. O’Donnell teaches three to four hours each day, spending the rest of his day “planning, grading assignments, in meetings, or out on deck.” Students and faculty keep busy in the evenings with programming or special events, O’Donnell said.

“The most rewarding aspect of my job is the opportunity to make a difference in my students’ lives,” O’Donnell said. “That is one of the main reasons why I wanted to become an educator, but when you eat, sleep, teach, learn and live on the same 200-foot ship as your students for nine months, the opportunity to have a positive impact increases exponentially.”

Reflecting on his undergraduate career, O’Donnell said the Schreyer Honors College provided excellent opportunities for internships, as well as an “outstanding academic adviser.” O’Donnell said that it is up to students to actively seek out the many opportunities provided by the college. 

“Exciting, unique opportunities like Class Afloat exist for many professions, it’s just a matter of searching for them,” O’Donnell said. “I would also say to take any opportunity that excites or intrigues you. You will always have a degree, but certain opportunities are once-in-a-lifetime, so take them.”

By Caroline Briselli, Schreyer Honors College student (January 2016)