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St. Mary's students learn to love life aboard cruise ship

— Michelle DiMenna digs into a salad and flips through a novel on the balcony above her college dorm room.

It's the kind of leisure time a college freshman usually takes for granted — oblivious to the grinding days of work and family responsibilities that lie ahead.

Not DiMenna. "I mean, look at this," the Baltimore native says, sweeping her hand across the vista in front of her. It is lovely, a scene of classic homes, gently lapping water and autumn-tinged trees that you could sell on a postcard.

And DiMenna, a first-semester student at St. Mary's College of Maryland, occupies the perfect vantage from her home aboard, yes, a cruise ship.

For almost three weeks now, the Sea Voyager has been home to 240 St. Mary's students, who were driven from their residence halls by pervasive mold. The ship, docked beside campus in the St. Mary's River, will be their home for the rest of the semester. The nautical accommodations have brought unaccustomed attention to the normally hushed Southern Maryland campus.

"It has been really exciting for a while," says St. Mary's President Joseph Urgo. "But I also think we'll be happy when it all goes away."

Many students celebrated the audacity of the ship concept from the moment it was announced in late October. Others had their doubts. Some were skeptical of living at sea, others sick of being bounced around after an interstitial week spent at area hotels.

So now that the idea has matured into reality, here's the skinny on life aboard the 286-foot Sea Voyager: The two-person rooms are cramped. You can't stand in the middle and touch both walls, but it's close. Every time students return from classes, they have to check in with a security officer at the foot of the dock and again with a steward at the entrance to the ship. With only 20 visitors passes available, hosting a party is pretty much out of the question.

That's the annoying stuff for the students, but in truth, few ship residents seem preoccupied with the down side.

The quarters might be small, they say, but they've learned to be creative about sharing resources and storing belongings under their beds. It might be a minor hassle to get to their rooms, but open the doors in the morning and they're face-to-face with a brilliant sunrise. Guests might be limited, but that just means the ship's residents have bonded among themselves, chatting until the wee hours of the morning in the ample second-deck lounge.

They display an uncommon camaraderie forged by sharing a strange couple of months. They're planning to produce class T-shirts with the slogan "Ship Happens."

"I think the ship has taken what had become a grueling semester and lifted everyone's spirits with the novelty of it," Urgo says.

Like everyone else, Urgo laughed at an alumnus' initial suggestion of renting the ship, on its way from New England to Virginia, as a temporary residence hall. But after a little investigation, he decided it was the best way to reunite a campus that had been scattered by the mold crisis.

Students agree, saying they're proud to attend such a creative institution.

"I mean, I'm pretty adaptable," DiMenna says in a refrain typical for the ship's residents. The Sea Voyager receives only a few TV stations, she says, but she likes the shows on the USA network, so that's good enough for her. The showers are tiny, she adds, "but I'm tiny, too."

"I would totally live here all year," she says.

She and her roommate have even built an iPod playlist of songs about boats and water so they have the proper soundtrack for the experience.

"Today is not a good day for our room to be seen by anyone," DiMenna says, noting piles of clothing cluttering her scant floor space. As if on cue, her roommate, Aprile Doubt, arrives from class and demonstrates how hard it is for two people to pass in the room's stunted foyer.

"I was skeptical, especially after seeing the room spaces for the first time," says Doubt, an Ohio native. But she has learned to love it — the pajama hangout sessions, the way she can crack her blinds in the morning and watch mist rising off the river. "This has really turned into the opportunity of a lifetime, even if I resented it at first," Doubt says.

Down the hall, in the lounge, freshman Nicole Jackson has opened her laptop and a cup of macaroni in front of a big window facing the river. "I get to watch the sunset every night as I walk back from class," the Baltimore native says. "This is an experience I'll never be able to have again. I just kind of forget sometimes that this is really happening. This is my life."

In the background, Jason Mauck, a junior from Bowie, sidles up to the lounge's baby grand piano and fills the room with a pleasantly liquid melody. He pauses to call up an image on his cellphone of the mold that darkened the ceiling in his dorm room. "Everyone was really upset," he says. "But the whole situation has flipped. I really have to give President Urgo credit. The boat was a million-dollar idea."

When the ship idea emerged, some parents worried about safety, visions of rowdy parties ending with students tumbling into the chilly river. The reality, Jackson says, is that if they're looking to cut loose on Saturday night, they walk to campus.

"It's been really chill here," she says of the mood aboard ship.

The Sea Voyager's captain, Georgios Theodorou, had his initial doubts about hosting a pack of teenagers rather than the ship's usual gray-haired clientele. "I really need to express my congratulations to the parents and role models of these kids," he says. "I was expecting to have more problems, but they have been wonderful."

The captain peppers his small talk with observations about the nature of life. The students, he says, have demonstrated an important lesson with their adaptability: "It's our choice whether to be miserable or happy."

In a few weeks, the ship's residents will depart for winter break and when they return in January, the Sea Voyager will be gone. That will be strange, especially for the freshmen who barely know what it's like to live a "normal" college existence.

"I'm definitely going to miss it," Jackson says, looking up at chandeliers that would never be found in a typical residence hall. "This is just so insane."

childs.walker@baltsun.com

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