Semester at Sea Sends Rochester Senior on Life-Changing Trip

Univ. Communications – 2010 was an exciting year for Marcus Williams, a senior member of Rochester’s men’s basketball team, who in between studying and shooting hoops traveled to more than ten different countries in four months and ten days.

In spring 2010, the Syracuse, N.Y. native had the opportunity to go on a ten day trip to Haiti with his local church, Abundant Life Christian Centre, immediately after the 7.0 MW earthquake hit on January 12th. They connected with a church in the capital Port au Prince and their task was to remove two hundred tons of rubble; the earthquake had caused the church to crumble and three people had been killed when the structure collapsed.

Haitian culture was not such a huge shock to Williams, whose mother is Haitian. Growing up he had the opportunity to partake in Haitian cuisine, learn about the country’s history, and learn a little bit of the language. In fact, his first words were in French. However, the biggest thing Williams knew about Haiti is that it is a poor country with quite a lot of corruption. In spite of the fact that Haiti was the first nation to receive independence from slavery in 1804, it remains the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

Williams reminisces about times when his mother would jokingly remind him of how lucky they were to have what they had because she came from a poor country. Not only did he have the opportunity to see the poverty that his mother had described to him all his life, he also had the privilege of sharing the experience with his mother and his best friend, for which he is very thankful.

In spite of his prior knowledge about Haiti, the poverty he encountered was “striking and numbing.” It was also the first time that he smelled a dead person and he says the scent will never leave him.

“The pain and suffering humbled me. It made me more grateful for what I have and made me want to be able to help other parts of the world. I am blessed to be a blessing,” Williams said.

After Haiti, Williams wanted to see more of the world, so for the fall 2010 semester he went on the Semester at Sea program offered through the University of Virginia. This program provides students, faculty, and lifelong learners with the opportunity to visit 12 different countries in four months. On this particular voyage they embarked from Halifax, Canada, visited Spain, Morocco, Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius, India, Singapore, Vietnam, China (Hong Kong and Shanghai), Japan, and Hawaii, eventually debarking in San Diego.

During the semester Williams took five classes that totaled to sixteen credits: corporate finance, global studies, poverty and development, making business work, and international business.

Travelling around the world opened up his eyes to exactly what he wanted to do. He had previously been on the pre-med track but on this trip discovered that business was his niche and he wanted to use it to help the world.

Along their travels he had the opportunity to be part of a team that started Finding Refuge, a nonprofit organization that partners with City of Refuge Ministries, an orphanage working to end child slavery in Lake Volta, Ghana. Finding Refuge has committed itself to spreading the “reality that slavery is a prevalent issue around the world” and raising support for the orphanage through five different fundraising packages. Funds, depending on what package the donor chooses, go directly to freeing a child from slavery, building safe houses, purchasing materials for the schools, and supporting the fair trade company created to provide a livelihood for mothers in the community to alleviate the economic pressure they face.  Membership has expanded to include 45 different universities around the country and the organization has currently raised $30,000 for the cause.

What he marveled about from the experience was that each country he visited brought something new.

“It showed me that people are people just living their life no matter where in the world they are,” he said, noting that the great difference in wealth around the world was another humbling encounter. “One day we’d be sleeping in a place of deep poverty like India and then the next living like kings in a country like Singapore. But even after all the countries I saw, there was no country whose poverty compared to that of Haiti.”

Coming back to the States was shocking and it was difficult to be with family and friends that did not understand what he had experienced. However, Williams managed to conquer this reverse culture shock with the support of his mother and four other University of Rochester students that were on the trip with him; one who was on the men’s baseball team and three who were on the men’s basketball team with him. The men were a great support not only because they had shared the experience with him but also because they had built deep and real friendships that made them feel like they had known each other for years.

“I truly believe that everyone should do this. It changed my life, the way I think. It changes who you are, it just doesn’t affect it,” he said.

Article written by Audrey Kusasira, an intern in University Communications who is pursuing a Master’s of Science degree in Marriage and Family Therapy at the School of Medicine and Dentistry. Photo courtesy of Marcus Williams.