Senior Kayla Wilson Takes the Helm During Her Study Abroad Adventures on the Atlantic Ocean

a young female hanging out on the bow of a boat in the middle of the ocean
Kayla Wilson '17

When senior chemistry major Kayla Wilson finished her core undergraduate requirements within three years at Rhodes, she decided to pursue a new adventure--sailing across the high seas of the Atlantic Ocean. Wilson participated in the highly competitive Sea Education Association (SEA) Semester Study Abroad Program Sept. 26-Dec. 21 this past fall. With no prior sailing experience, she found herself helping operate the SSV Corwith Cramer—the program’s 130-foot, 280-ton research ship—across endless blue water and skies.
The ship carried a captain, a chief scientist, three mates, assistant scientists, two engineers, a steward, four sailing interns and 14 students from schools around the world, who had to quickly familiarize themselves with maritime language, such as trimming sails and taking the helm, as well as learning navigational techniques by using star positioning and paper charts to pinpoint location.
Each student also was given the task of standing watch in shifts, from 7 p.m. to 1 a.m. or 1 a.m. to 7 p.m. Part of being on watch was to stand lookout, which according to maritime law, is required when it’s dark out. Wilson recalls her experience on duty one evening and hearing splashes near the bow of the ship. Almost like a scene in a movie, she says a pod of dolphins burst through the surface of the water, stirring up the bioluminescent organisms and creating a soft glow in the water. Not only did Wilson and her shipmates get to experience the diverse wildlife of the ocean, but they also got to witness dazzling sunsets and starry nights uninterrupted by light and noise of land.

A native of Dallas, TX, Wilson’s interest in a semester at sea began in high school at the Hockaday School when she saw posters for similar programs. Once at Rhodes, she stumbled upon SEA while searching the college’s portal of study abroad options. She worked with the study abroad office and Dr. Tait Keller, who at the time taught a course on global environmental history, to submit her application to the program.
Once accepted, she set off in September to Woods Hole, MA, for intense training and coursework on oceans and climate. She says classes were a mix of researching in the lab, learning environmental policy, and learning all the ins-and-outs of running a ship. While this was all new information to Wilson, she believes the work ethic and time management that she developed at Rhodes benefitted her in being able to handle it.

Then in November, Wilson and her shipmates began their voyage on the SSV Corwith Cramer in the Canary Islands, sleeping in bunks, taking oceanographic samples, monitoring ship traffic, sharing responsibilities of communal living, and getting used to calloused hands and different times to sleep. “No day was ever the same,” says Wilson.
Students also went to class while on ship, and Wilson conducted research based on shifting ocean temperatures as well as the presence of microplastics, which are small plastic pieces that can be harmful to ocean and aquatic life. She says the longest leg of the journey was when they went 30 days without seeing land, and they spent three days navigating without relying on computers. Their voyage ended in St. Croix in December after a port stop in Dominica, where they got to tour a rainforest.

When she got back to the United States, Wilson spent part of the spring semester in an organic farming working exchange program. She is currently on another sailing expedition and will return to Rhodes in May for graduation. Wilson fondly refers to her semester abroad as a humbling and rewarding experience, and says, “The biggest thing I got out of it was a lot of personal growth. I don’t think I’d be doing everything I’m doing now without the semester at sea experience. It taught me that I can do challenging things and that the biggest limits that exist are the ones I put on myself.”

After graduation, Wilson plans to pursue a Ph.D. at the University of California, San Diego, in its Center of Marine Biotechnology & Biomedicine at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. 

By Lizzie Choy ’17


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(Photo by Mike Rigney)

While on her sea at semester voyage, Kayla Wilson made blog posts about her adventures. Here is what she said in her last post to sum up what she’s learned:

1. You can do hard things. Courage isn’t the absence of fear; it’s being afraid and continuing on anyway.
2. You can learn something from every single person you meet, you just have to be willing to listen.
3. Relying on others for help doesn’t make you weak, it makes you lucky to have such supportive friends. 
4. Thank the people who help you, and pass it on when you can.
5. Take pride in the things you enjoy, especially the dorky things.
6. Be all there. In the moments when you’re so unbelievably happy you want to cry, in the moments when you’ve never felt more exhausted, in the moments when you and all your problems feel vastly insignificant, in the moments when you don’t even know what you feel. Take it in, all the good, all the bad, all the things that have ever happened to get you to where you are in this very moment, because you belong here, right where you are.