Students at St. Mary's College of Maryland are starting an impromptu semester at sea — sort of. They will live on a cruise ship that's docked in a river just off campus. The 300-foot Sea Voyager will serve as a floating residence hall because two dorms infested with mold spores were deemed uninhabitable.
Joseph Urgo is president of the small liberal arts college, which is on the western shore of the Chesapeake Bay in St. Mary's City. He says the floating residence hall on the St. Mary's River makes perfect sense for the college.
"The river's a really critical part of the college's identity, so having this here in some ways is really an organic solution for us," Urgo says.
The St. Mary's Seahawks are known for aquatic sports. Their sailing team has won many national titles. So when an alumnus mentioned that the Sea Voyager was available, the college moved quickly. It was already spending around $1 million on hotels and shuttles for the displaced students, and the cruise ship didn't cost much more.
Still, the decision came as a surprise to students. They were in for an even bigger surprise when they started moving into the ship's cabins.
Mary Beth McAndrews is a freshman at St. Mary's. At 5 feet, 10 inches, her feet hang off her new bed. There's hardly enough room for two of these mini-beds in the room — even without the clothes, books and shoes that she and her roommate will house here.
McAndrews' mom looks for the bright side in all of this, which is quite literally the afternoon sun reflecting on the St. Mary's River. Her daughter isn't impressed. She'd prefer more space, but Mary Beth McAndrews is taking the experience in stride.
"It's aggravating now, but in the long run, I'll be like, 'Hey, I lived on a boat in college — and a hotel and a dorm — so it's a fun story to tell people," she says.
Down the hall, Diana Zhang is taking a first look at her cabin-cubicle. She and her roommate, Catherine DeCesare, have brought only the bare minimum. Zhang says the shifts have taken a toll on her grades.
"The moving in and moving out, being late for the classes — you miss the stuff which you [are] supposed to learn," Zhang says.
St. Mary's isn't the first college to charter a ship because of adverse circumstances. Some New Orleans-area colleges took the same route when residence halls were ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.
Anthony Lorino, the chief financial officer at Tulane University, says the cruise ship there wasn't exactly a luxury liner. "It was not paradise. It was nice, it was clean, but it wasn't extravagant," he says. There were no chocolate fountains or slot machines and the bar was closed.
The Sea Voyager doesn't even have laundry machines for St. Mary's students to use. With limited occupancy and tight security, the ship is unlikely to become party central — although St. Mary's students could prove to be as resourceful as their college's administrators.