International student to spend winter semester traveling the globe by ship

GVL / Sara Carte
Grand Valley University international student, Yulia Conley, recieves the Semester at Sea Scholarship on Dec. 11.

Sara Carte

GVL / Sara Carte Grand Valley University international student, Yulia Conley, recieves the Semester at Sea Scholarship on Dec. 11.

Drew Howard

International student Yulia Conley will spend her winter semester in a way few students will ever have the opportunity to: at sea.

Through the University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea program, Conley will spend the first four months of 2016 visiting 11 countries by way of a cruise ship as she researches the impact of rising sea levels on the environment.

Conley first got the idea to apply for the program in a conversation with Grand Valley State University professor Patricia Houser nearly one-and-a-half years ago. Since then, she has managed to raise enough money to support her travels through a variety of scholarships from GVSU and the Grand Rapids community, including a presidential scholarship worth $35,000 in tuition, room and board, insurance and textbooks.

In the program, Conley will study the impacts of rising sea levels within the coastal communities of Hawaii, Japan, China, India, Vietnam, Myanmar, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Morocco and England.

“Environmental impacts is one of the threats that a lot of communities in our voyage are facing,” Conley said. “Some of them are dealing with the threats and certain impacts such as floods, storm surges, land subsidence, saltwater intrusion and many other issues. Some of these places implement wonderful policies and robust infrastructures, but some of them aren’t, and there’s still some subjectivity whether it’s even a threat.”

Conley’s research will be conducted through both random sample surveys as well as discussions with professionals and stakeholders in China, India, Japan and Vietnam.

To fit the needs of all 600 students enrolled in the Semester at Sea program, the cruise ship Conley will be traveling on has been fitted with dorms, classrooms, a buffet, a pool and even a recreation center.

“It’s like a campus where we study,” she said. “About three-quarters of the semester will be spent in the ports while about one quarter of the semester will be on the ship. And while we’re on the ship we study every day to carry out the 12-credit course work.”

As an international student who made the trip from Russia to Michigan at the age of 15, traveling across the globe is nothing new for Conley.

“I was raised in a very multicultural environment and really always felt like a person who belongs to the entire world, not to any particular culture,” she said. “I used to sing and ballroom dance when I was a kid, and the musical theater to which I belonged used to travel all over Europe on almost a monthly basis. I was in school for about five months of the year, and the rest of the year I was performing and traveling with a whole bunch of kids.”

Roy Cole, a professor in the department of geography and planning at GVSU, advised Conley when she was developing her research proposal for the program. Cole said he believes Conley will go above and beyond what is expected of her during the trip.

“With respect to her academics, Yulia is intelligent and focused,” Cole said. “As a person, she’s delightful to work with. I know my expectations will be exceeded and she will accomplish things I haven’t foreseen.”

Conley added that the whole experience of applying for the program is even more encouraging knowing she’s an international student.

“If you do believe in something and you really want it, you can make certain steps,” she said. “We have everything, all the resources – and this is coming from a person who is a resident of the United States but essentially a foreigner. If I can take advantage of all these opportunities, then my American peers are at an even greater advantage.”