CASTINE — Juan Agudelo Arboleda comes from a long line of mariners, and has pretty much become one himself. He grew up in the Colombian city of Cartagena and, at 21 years old, eventually hopes to work as a pilot for his family’s business.
Pilots are the sailors who board vessels as they enter port to help them navigate the unfamiliar waterways; they know the location of every current, sandbar and sunken ship.
For the last four years, Arboleda has been one of the few international students enrolled at Maine Maritime Academy (MMA) — more than 2,000 miles from the waters he wants to navigate for a living.
What’s he doing there? And why, for that matter, have students from countries as diverse as Turkey, China, India, Saudi Arabia, Russia, Jamaica and Sweden crossed literal oceans to study at MMA in recent years? The short answer: MMA does a fine job training its students.
Just like their American counterparts, the academy’s international students have landed well-paying jobs in the maritime and logistics fields. They’ve also used their overseas experiences to make contacts, acquaint themselves with a different culture, eat the obligatory lobster and better understand English, the language of global trade.
Arboleda, a commander in MMA’s student regiment, has appreciated the opportunity to earn his U.S. Coast Guard’s license in four years, versus the 20 years it would have taken him to do so by working on ships.
Students in MMA’s marine transportation program log many hours at sea, both on the school’s training ship, the State of Maine, and during an internship aboard a commercial ship.
On the training cruise to Spain last summer, Arboleda said he navigated the ship several times and was forced to make important decisions, such as which direction to turn to avoid striking a ship that was spotted 20 miles away.
While Arboleda spoke English before coming to MMA, he’s also learned more nautical language in the last four years. As a freshman, for example, he was confused when officers asked if anyone needed to make a “head call.”
Not knowing that “head” refers to a ship’s toilet, Arboleda recalled, “I thought it was like going to make a phone call. I was like, ‘Are they going to call their parents now?’”
The language barrier has also been a challenge for Osmancan “Oz” Nuzumlali, 23, of Turkey. He first came to MMA in September, flying from Istanbul to Munich to Boston, then taking a bus to Bangor and a taxi to Castine. (He didn’t know the school offers rides from Bangor.)
Having taken up English just four years ago, after previously studying French, Nuzumlali said he had trouble understanding local accents when he first arrived.
“I told my family, ‘I’m in the U.S., but I think U.S. people don’t speak English, because I can’t understand what they’re saying,’” he recalled. “But now I’m used to it.”
Nuzumlali is pursuing an undergraduate degree in international business and logistics as part of a dual-degree program offered by MMA and Dokuz Eylül University, in his home city of Izmir.
Having never traveled to the United States before, Nuzumlali said he came here for three reasons: to practice English, learn about logistics at a high profile college and make connections with classmates who will eventually work for import and export firms around the world.
After working for a freight forwarding company in Turkey before coming to MMA, he hopes to land a job as a ship broker — a role that requires a vast Rolodex.
The flow of students such as Nuzumlali and Arboleda to MMA has been steady in the last five years. The school has hosted students from four continents and formed partnerships with two overseas universities: Nuzumlali’s and King Abdulaziz University in Saudi Arabia.
Most of the overseas students have been undergraduates, including a group of 20 students from the Middle East who took a month-long seminar in logistics last summer.
A few have pursued master’s degrees in global logistics and maritime management.
At a time when Maine’s education officials are increasingly looking to countries such as China for students willing to pay full tuition at American high schools and colleges, MMA says it isn’t following the pack.
“We do not anticipate increasing recruiting efforts with international students above these traditional levels,” said Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs David Gardner in a written statement. “Students from the state of Maine and students pursuing merchant mariner licenses will remain our primary recruiting focus.”
Of the 1,033 students currently enrolled at MMA, just five, or 0.5 percent, are from abroad. For comparison, 3.4 percent of Maine residents and 14 percent of U.S. residents are foreign-born, according to U.S. Census figures.
Of MMA’s American students, 28 percent come from out of state and more than 70 percent are Mainers.
So the experience of an international student in Castine remains distinct from the type that he or she would get in, say, central Florida. Just ask Ashwini Krishnan, 25, of tropical Chennai, India.
Before getting her master’s degree at MMA last year, she studied at a university in Orlando, Fla. Krishnan had to adjust to both the isolation of small-town Maine and the weather, which included last winter’s epic “snowpocalypse,” she said.
But overall, she enjoyed her MMA experience. She’s now interning at the Maine International Trade Center in Portland, a job she found through contacts at the school.
Just as international students learn about American culture, Don Maier, associate dean of MMA’s Loeb-Sullivan School of Business, said the exposure can benefit local students who may have had little meaningful interaction with people from other parts of the world.
As both an instructor and a veteran of the supply-chain management sector, for example, Maier said it’s important to talk more slowly when interacting with more rookie English speakers.
He recalled the time an instructor from abroad, who was at MMA temporarily, told him and his fellow American instructors, “‘You guys really need to talk slower so I can understand you.’ That was a learning experience for all of us, because we just rattle away. I’m from Chicago, I got a guy from New York, and I’ve gotta guy from Boston … He was trying to keep up with us and it just wasn’t working.”
Misunderstandings aren’t limited to language. Arboleda, the midshipman, said he’s heard his own share of stereotypes about Colombia’s drug trade. Mistaking the South American country for Mexico, he said, some classmates have also asked, “Oh, so you must know how to make tacos?”
Arboleda appreciates that humor to a point, he said, but also makes a point to educate his classmates about his own culture.
Overall, he said he’s felt welcomed. As an example of the warmth that abounds for all MMA students, past and present, he pointed to the way the school came together to mourn the sinking of the freighter El Faro.
“We’re a close community,” he said.