BELGRADE — Tiarra LaPierre will never forget the happiness a group of schoolchildren in a Ghanaian village, despite the fact the school had very few supplies.

Ghana, in West Africa, was among the 12 ports around the world that LaPierre, 20, a junior at the University of Maine at Farmington, visited with more than 500 other American college students during a recent Semester at Sea through the University of Virginia.

“It’s really mind-blowing that I went through the whole day there knowing they had very little,” said LaPierre, of Belgrade.

The village of Tafi Atome had few teachers, LaPierre explained, because Ghana is becoming an industrialized nation and teachers are moving to larger cities where they can get paid. She and other students were assigned to teach a classroom of children around ages 8 and 9 while visiting the village.

LaPierre said the chalkboards were full of holes, the children had no books and there were no computers. So, she and her classmates started singing songs like “If You’re Happy and You Know It” and “Itsy Bitsy Spider” and took the children outside to play games.

Ghana was one of LaPierre’s favorite places to visit because she found the country to be beautiful and the people to be welcoming. Ghanaian families catered to the college students by taking them on tours around their country, where she had a chance to hike in the forest and admire beautiful waterfalls.

“In Ghana, I felt 100 percent immersed,” she said.

Japan was LaPierre’s other favorite country to visit while at sea. Like Ghana, she found the Japanese to be very friendly.

“If you were holding up a map, someone would rush over to help you and walk you to your destination,” LaPierre said.

She found the cities she visited in Japan — including Tokyo, Kobe and Yokohama — to be extremely clean and the Japanese to be fully accepting of those from other cultures.

Always wanted to travel

A graduate of Messalonskee High School in Oakland, LaPierre has always wanted to travel and signed up for the semester-long program after watching a video of students talk about their experiences.

The program costs $22,000, but LaPierre was able to secure $10,000 in scholarships and took out a loan for the remainder of the course. Her parents, Melanie Knox and David LaPierre, helped her as well.

The trip started in Montreal in late August when students boarded the MV Explorer cruise ship, then sailed down the St. Lawrence River. She said there were about 800 people on board, including 550 college students, life-long learners of all ages, faculty, staff and crew. LaPierre shared a room with a student from New Jersey and another student from California.

Students signed up for classes of their choice while at sea, but were required to take Global Studies so they could learn about the history, political system and logistics of getting around airports and staying at hotels, before arriving in the countries they were about to visit.

They had a choice to participate in service programs in the countries they visited or spend time on their own exploring.

The students first sailed to Morocco.

“It was a good first port because it threw us into something that was opposite of our own culture,” LaPierre said.

She visited the city of Rabat, where — even though it is more westernized — women continue to wear the full headdress. On the other hand, she said, the city of Fez is older and more traditional.

While there, LaPierre and her friends enjoyed a seven-course meal for only $5. One evening, while dining at a restaurant built on a rooftop, she and her friends watched Moroccans flock to the many mosques in the city to pray as the sun set.

“That was a really cool experience,” LaPierre said.

The female students were advised to dress modestly and travel in large groups of male and female students, but were still harassed by men on the streets.

“I never felt segregated like that before. By the end, we were wearing head scarves,” she said.

They spent a day in Mauritius, an island nation off the southeast coast of Africa, where a lot of Europeans vacation.

They stopped in Kerala, India, which had forested hillsides and big jungles. They were able to communicate with the children because they spoke fluent English, she said.

In Penang, Malaysia, LaPierre visited a spice garden and took a cooking class.

In South Africa, she worked on a service project with her theater class and performed at a school in District 6.

“We were the first people to ever come do a production at their school. Afterwards, they sang and performed for us too,” she said.

They visited Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, where she got a 90-minute massage for $10. LaPierre met a Vietnamese news anchor for lunch one day and they talked about attitudes the Vietnamese held after the war ended.

“We were nervous. We didn’t know how we’d be treated there, but they were totally fine with us,” she said. The anchor shared with LaPierre her concerns about the state of education in Vietnam.

While in Costa Rica, LaPierre had a chance to use her Spanish skills and go zip-lining.

They also spent a day working in a soup kitchen in Hawaii.

Her most challenging experience was in China. LaPierre and a friend chose to travel around the country during their five-day stay and found it extremely difficult because there were no signs in English. They relied on memorizing Chinese symbols to know when to get off a bus or train and found it difficult to communicate with the Chinese.

They visited Shanghai and Beijing and went to the Great Wall of China. They also took in a Chinese opera one evening.

The semester ended in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., in mid-December, where students had a final meeting and LaPierre met up with her parents to drive back to Maine.

That experience, LaPierre said, has made her much more aware of the problems in the world and how little she has to complain about her life in the United States. “I feel like the world is a lot more accessible than I did before,” she said.


Only subscribers are eligible to post comments. Please subscribe or to participate in the conversation. Here’s why.

Use the form below to reset your password. When you've submitted your account email, we will send an email with a reset code.