Professor Marcella Cervantes’ Coincidences With Captain Cook

Professor Marcella Cervantes in 2006 at the 180th parallel in Fiji, a stopping point on her eight-month travel recreating two of Captain James Cook's voyages. (Photo courtesy of Marcella Cervantes.)

This adventure starts in a pub, is inspired by a book club and ends with giving the students of Albion an opportunity for an adventure themselves.

Marcella Cervantes, a professor of biology, has traveled the world, namely two of three voyage routes of 18th century cartographer James Cook. Her traveling experiences are now the basis of a Freshman Year Experience (FYE) course called Pigs, Scurvy, the Sea & Miscom.

Cervantes thought to share her love of new experiences with more people. Since FYE courses are focused on helping first-years adapt to the unfamiliar world of college, the basis of Cervantes’ FYE began with the focus of her trip. She is using the skills and experiences she gained while traveling as tools for the first-years to be successful at school. Major themes of the class are based on communication and problem solving within a new environment, similar to the crew aboard Cook’s ship every time they reached land.

Cervantes took her students up to Traverse City over Labor Day weekend to give them the experience of sailing. Cervantes is considering continuing this FYE course and leading her original students on a trip to Europe to see part of Captain Cook’s explorations.

Cervantes hopes to open up students to all the possibilities around them.

“My goal for my FYE is to get them to see their life and school as the adventure it could be,” she said.

Chance conversation leads to a voyage of communications

Cervantes found herself in a conversation about the Bonderman Travel Fellowship at a pub with a classmate. That evening introduced Cervantes, then a graduate student at the University of Washington, to the opportunity of a lifetime.

Cervantes decided to apply for the fellowship, which pays for UW students to travel anywhere in the world. The application process included submitting a detailed three-page summary of where the applicant would travel and why and then having an interview.

Cervantes said very few people hear about this fellowship. Coincidentally, this fellowship is now offered at the University of Michigan. With UM being so much closer to Albion than UW, Cervantes has been encouraging her FYE students to consider applying as UM graduate students.

While tossing a blown-up globe beach ball around, trying to think of where she wanted to travel, Cervantes got her answer.

“I was in a book club at the time,” Cervantes said. “We had a really easy book that was really light for this particular book club. ‘Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook has Gone Before’ was this really light, funny book about how this goofy guy goes [around the world] with his drunk friend.”

After just finishing “Blue Latitudes,” and knowing she might never get to see some of the Southern Hemisphere, Cervantes thought of Captain James Cook.

Cook circumnavigated the Southern Hemisphere three times in his lifetime. He was a captain in the Royal Navy, along with being an expert cartographer. In search of new land to claim and a Northwest Passage for trade, Cook kept sailing until his final days in Hawaii. Aug. 25 marked the 250th anniversary of his first voyage.

Cervantes decided to follow his first two voyages — he traveled to the United States on his last voyage, and he she didn’t want to stay in the country.

(Photo via Wikimedia Commons.)

Cervantes was chosen for the interview. Cervantes was one step closer to her expedition around the world.

“The interview was the most random thing I’ve ever had in my life,” Cervantes said. “I still remember the questions because they were so strange.”

The questions ranged from, What would you do if you had to communicate with someone who didn’t speak the same language as you? to, If you were one person on Captain Cook’s ship who would you be?

She now uses these questions as discussion topics for her FYE course.

The interview was a success. With $20,000 deposited straight to her bank account, Cervantes went off to follow in Cook’s wake in her 2006 adventure.

Traveling alone was a scary thought to Cervantes, — traveling alone is one reason why there are few fellowship applicants — but she understood that this trip was purely for personal growth. 

The idea of traveling alone, and the opportunity it creates and the hardships that can come with it are a main focus in Cervantes’ FYE class.

The theme of communication is important, too, especially when there are language barriers.

“You just have to talk to strangers all the time. You have to get used to being uncomfortable,” Cervantes explains. “If you’re lost, you just have to ask a stranger because that is all there is.”

To relate to Cook and the men on his ship, a majority of them unable to read and write, Cervantes has assigned her FYE students an interesting assignment a travel journal of their own. Every other week, Cervantes has each student meet with a new person who is considerably different from themselves. Then, they must write a journal entry about the person and the new perspectives they have the opportunity in being a part of.

Cervantes described an long list of new people and how she bonded with them through various communications during her travels, like a “grumpy, old” bus driver in New Zealand. She hopes her students will have the opportunity to bond with new and different people.

“Very few people speak English, but this does not make them reluctant to help you find your way,” Cervantes said of her stay in French Polynesia. “They handed me a plum before I even said, ‘Hello.’”

While staying in a New Zealand hostel, she crossed paths with another American. Neither of them had run into an American in a while.

“He said ‘Wait, I have this book that someone gave me and I’ve been carrying it around, but I’m not gonna read it,’” Cervantes said. “He handed it to me and it was written by an anthropologist about Captain Cook!”

This book went on to describe the miscommunications and struggles of a pieced together crew.

Cervantes explains how everyone has experienced different events in their life, and how where someone lives and who they live with impacts them a great deal. One of the best assets of traveling alone was to learn how to ask for help and clarification, she said. Asking questions and learning new material from cultures, people, and even school, all deals with different levels of communication.

Throughout Cervantes’ FYE, students will have hands-on opportunities to put their new communication skills into use. In fact, being a first-year is the best time to learn and prepare for the rest of college and into a future career field, she said.

Several tour boats line the fishing village of Paraty, Brazil, as Cervantes passes by. (Photo courtesy of Marcella Cervantes).
About Jessica Behrman 24 Articles
Jessica is a sophomore from Fremont, Indiana, with a goal of one day becoming a science writer and illustrator. Often dressed in overalls, she can be spotted around campus with a book in her hand and a smile on her face. She is always ready for a bit of humor or an adventurous story.

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