You might call it the ultimate college class.

Last May, 18 University of Southern Maine students took a discounted cruise to Bermuda on Holland America Line’s MS Veendam as part of an unusual tourism and hospitality study program for college credit. Even their friends were incredulous.

“They’re like, ‘You’re going on a cruise to Bermuda – for school?’ ” USM senior Jenna Rossnagel said.

But university officials say the program, which uses private donations to pay a significant portion of the students’ cost, is about cultivating the next generation of leaders in an industry that is vital to Maine’s economic future.

For Rossnagel and four of her classmates, the cruise was merely the capstone of two semesters of hard work. Five interns, including Rossnagel and her classmate Haylee Munson, didn’t just go along for the ride. They spent months putting together the itinerary for the ship’s four-day stint in Bermuda. Their goal was to offer passengers a different kind of experience.

The theme that kept emerging in brainstorming sessions about the cruise was “authenticity,” Munson said.

“It was just a natural occurrence for us to think, ‘What would appeal to us?’ ” she said. The answer was to stay away from the usual tourist traps and research the places and people that could offer passengers a more genuine cultural experience.

Munson and Rossnagel reunited aboard the Veendam on Sunday in Portland for a successful fundraiser that will ensure the program continues for at least another year. It is a collaborative effort between USM, Holland America and AAA of Northern New England.

The sold-out luncheon event raised $4,000 and AAA contributed an additional $2,000. Holland America provided a gourmet lunch for the 100 attendees at the $40-a-plate event.

Matt McKenzie, the auto club’s vice president of branch operations for northern New England, said programs such as the USM Bermuda cruise course benefit the region’s tourism industry and AAA.

“What’s in it for the club? We get a great pipeline of students from the university,” McKenzie said.

The program is the brainchild of USM faculty member Tracy Michaud Stutzman. When she joined the tourism and hospitality program four years ago, Michaud Stutzman said she tried to put together a class that involved travel but did not receive enough student response.

A group of students researched the problem and found that too many of their USM classmates simply couldn’t afford it.

“One of the primary barriers was the cost,” she said.

Michaud Stutzman said she approached AAA for help to come up with a way to provide her students with practical experience at a reasonable cost. With the help of Holland America, they came up with a scholarship program that allows star students in the tourism and hospitality program an opportunity to test their skills in the real world. The seven-day, Boston-to-Bermuda cruise retails for about $1,000 minimum. The scholarships provided up to half that cost.

As part of the program, the students organized and led tours, conducted a comparative study of the Maine and Bermuda tourism markets, performed a self-assessment of their own preferences as travelers and launched a social media campaign to promote the cruise.

“It was an incredibly deep learning experience,” Michaud Stutzman said. “But it was also a lot of fun.”

USM President Glenn Cummings said that as Maine continues to transition away from an economy based around manufacturing, it needs to tap more deeply into young talent to boost industries such as tourism. Having the ability to tout a Bermuda cruise class certainly doesn’t hurt.

“I can’t tell you how great this is for our recruiting,” he said.

Rossnagel said she is among those members of the younger generation who would like to live and work in southern Maine, where some have struggled to find decent jobs. Luckily, hospitality and tourism remain bright spots for the area’s economy, and programs that raise the level of practical experience among USM graduates can only help.

“I think more young people want to stay in Portland, so we need to create more jobs for young people who want to stay in Portland,” she said.

 

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