TAMPA — Imagine, as a high school student, taking two months out of each school year to travel the world, learn new cultures, see poverty first-hand and visit war memorials whose stories until then lived only within the pages of text books.
Moored behind the USS American Victory near the Florida Aquarium, a 162-foot square rigger — a former dry bulk carrier turned tall ship — is temporary home to 44 Swedish students doing just that.
At home, on a cluster of tiny islands in the Danish Straits, the teens spend their free time together studying, baking, talking politics, riding bicycles and hitting the gym. Coming to Tampa, they say, is like living on a movie set, with big cars, shopping malls and sunny, sandy beaches, so unlike the stoney, chilly shorelines of home.
Back in 1999, when he served as consul to Sweden, Tampa ship agent Arthur Savage, of A.R. Savage & Son, was called upon to arrange this annual visit. Working with Bill Kuzmick, president of the American Victory Ship Mariners Museum, he arranged for a pilot to guide the T/S Gunilla into Port Tampa Bay, to tie it up to the former World War II cargo ship, get the students through customs and a Coast Guard inspection.
Every year since, the ship, owned by the municipality of Öckerö on the coast of Sweden, has visited here, partnering with Hillsborough High to show the students the American education system and give them a taste of teen life here in Central Florida.
“It’s amazing to have been able to see this much,” said Emma Svensson, 18, who comes from a small city outside of Gothenberg, Sweden. “Being on this ship is the best thing I’ve ever done.”
Because the ship is owned by the municipality, only students who live there get the opportunity for this trip, during which the only thing they pay for is their meals and a few special excursions. Svensson moved to Öckerö and into a friend’s basement at age 15 to be eligible for the program. “It was all new and very scary, but I’m really glad I did it.”
On the ship, the students live in 10 cabins, eat their meals together and learn to sail the vessel between ports.
Celine Stensson, 19, from the island of Kalvsund, very near Öckerö, takes a ferry or her own boat to get to high school. Three of her four siblings had sailed on the Gunilla and when she applied, it was without a backup plan, she said. “It’s all I wanted to do.”
During various trips, they’ve visited Morocco, Spain, England, the coast of Sweden and various other countries, learning culture and history and studying the social sciences.
In this instance, the ship sailed to Miami, where the students flew over to meet it. From Miami, they have already visited Havana, Cuba, Punta Gorda, Guatemala and Progreso, Mexico, staying five or six days in each location.
In Havana, they found Cuban people to be just as poor as they’d heard, but better dressed than the indigent people in other regions of the world. One student got a book of ration tickets to take home as a souvenir. They discussed what it must be like to live under a dictatorship.
Tampa has been unlike their other stops. Some of the Hillsborough High parents have invited them in for slumber parties, to go play laser tag, visit the beach and shop. Some of the students have even gone mudding and visited local “community conscious” radio station WMNF, where they were interviewed on the air.
“Here, kids hang out at the mall,” Svensson said. “At home, there is no mall to hang out in. If we want to go shopping, it’s an hour by bus. Here, you take the car everywhere. At home, we take our bikes.”
“And we talk about different things,” Stensson said. “We like to talk politics and they talk about not so important things.”
Here, the students and their parents all declare their religious affiliation, Svensson said. In Sweden, while the majority are Christian, most don’t attend church regularly or discuss religion. Like here, they said, there is a separation of church and state.
They did find another stark difference during their Tampa visit, they said. The Hillsborough High International Baccalaureate students are laser-focused on getting into a university immediately and pursuing a future profession. Many of the Swedish students plan to take a year or two off from school to work, travel and to think for a while about their future. In their school of 300 students, only about three seniors plan to go right into college, they said.
“It’s a great experience in American culture and gives them a chance to compare their lives with others their own age,” said Brita Malmcrona, director of studies for the group. “They find they have a lot in common, but that they are also very different.”
On Wednesday, the Swedish students will shadow Hillsborough High students during the school day.