Back to School – On the Water?

Academy students wave their flags as the Africa Mercy arrives into the Port of Dakar.

As millions of students and educators around the world prepare to begin classes again this fall, many will be faced yet again with the unconventional environment that is virtual learning. For thousands of volunteers with Mercy Ships, however, an unconventional learning environment isn’t so out of the ordinary.

Since its inception more than 40 years ago, our floating hospital ships have served as home – and a schoolhouse – to educators and students from countries around the world.

The Mercy Ships Academy – while a unique learning environment on the outside – is a fully accredited learning program that follows a hybrid curriculum from a myriad of countries through the Association of Christian Schools International.

Although coursework and studies are top priority at the Academy, veteran volunteer Beth Kirchner, Kindergarten teacher onboard the Africa Mercy, says the true highlight is the remarkable growth in worldview and perspective her students learn onboard.

“It’s an incredible evolution to watch throughout the year,” said Kirchner. “Our students can feel apprehensive when first meeting patients who are healing and covered with bandages, but by the end of the year they’re begging for longer recess time with the patients. It is impossible to not see the humanity between the two groups.”

Another unique feature of the Mercy Ships Academy: Class sizes. Coming from the public school system in central France, Alexandra Boutroue admitted she had to adjust to smaller classroom sizes – often only two students per year – when she began volunteering as a preschool teacher. She also expressed the challenges – and joys – she encountered teaching students from different backgrounds, including children from America, Switzerland, Holland, England and more.

Academy teacher Beth Kirchner does an art project with a young patient on Deck 7.

“Be prepared to make the best out of any situation,” Boutroue advised. “Be ready for a challenge and excited to learn.”

Alexandra Boutroue, Preschool Teacher, in her classroom with her students.

While she admits the experience was slightly daunting at first, Boutroue credits her family of volunteers onboard the ship for fostering an exceptionally welcoming and supportive environment to help her find her groove as a teacher. Alexandra ended up working as a full-time teacher for two years onboard the Africa Mercy, and even fit in a few unofficial lessons to teach her students the basics of her home language, French.

In fact, both teachers and students alike rave about the unexpected education experience learning onboard a ship can bring. Each year, teachers build a selection of unique field trips into their curriculum including day trips to nearby islands, visiting the galley onboard and even getting some of their own hands-on work experience.

Recent Mercy Ships Academy graduate Zoditu Schwind shared that one of her most rewarding experiences while she was a high school student on the ship was attending a “job fair”.

“We had to dress up and interview with leaders in different departments on the ship,” said Schwind. “After a few rejections from other areas, I was offered a position in the Hope Center, where patients stay pre- and post-operation. Though I didn’t think it was where I wanted to be, I loved getting to interact with patients and the day crew.”

Although Schwind argued that her experience in the Academy wasn’t all that different from a traditional learning environment – she still had homework assignments and different class periods – she also had the rare opportunity to regularly interact with others from all different backgrounds.

“I gained so much confidence being in this environment,” said Schwind. “I worked, learned and ate side-by-side with adults who were engineers, surgeons and more. It made me realize we’re all equal.”

Her biggest takeaway from living and learning onboard? The inspiration she gathered from everyone working towards one main goal – serving others – to which Schwind shared one of her favorite African proverbs: “If you want to go fast go alone. If you want to go far go together.”

Interested in becoming a teacher onboard or volunteering long-term with your family? Check out current volunteer opportunities here .

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