Big Wave Surfer/PhD
Surfing really is one of those rare things that translates to everybody.

Surfing really is one of those rare things that translates to everybody.

The Inertia

As a life-long surfer, my experiences in the ocean have helped shape my understanding of everyday life ashore as much as it has in the ocean’s own unpredictable movements and patterns. I think surfing may just be one of the more powerful learning vehicles, offering us a deeply immersive experience, a boundless medium that literally dissolves barriers and allows us to tap into a source far greater than ourselves. As witnessed and experienced at the Surf + Social Good Summit in Bali (May 2015) surfing can be a catalyst for community-building, facilitating connection, and collaboration. At a time when politicians try to create more physical barriers, erect wire fences, and tighten border controls, surfing can be a beacon for new possibilities of global interconnectedness and radical societal change. But this is not guaranteed, it must be something we collectively and constantly strive for.

The global surf industry is estimated to generate $13 billion by 2017, with 35 million people already surfing around the world. Arrival of surf tourists, often the first leisure travelers to visit emerging destinations, is a historic indicator of long-term sector growth. And yet, surfing, as a global industry and community, still falls far short of its potential to deliver positive impact often failing to directly benefit the communities foreign surfers visit. Surf travel is becoming increasingly sterilized, creating a bubble around surf tourists which shelters them from the real people, landscapes, and challenges facing the areas they visit.

Unsurprisingly, this has led to the emergence of “impact travel” (already a growing, cross-cutting sector in the tourism industry) as a way to address the shortcomings of the industry. However, before we can deliver impact we need to gain more of an understanding. Director of the Ubuntu Lab, Mike Radke, states, “Being able to understand people is the key to humanity’s greatest opportunities; it unlocks our potential to solve our greatest challenges.”

It’s within this context that, along with SeaState, I began to design a study abroad program that would not only provide memorable and life changing experiences, but also transfer skills necessary for students to enhance their compassion, global citizenship, and environmental stewardship for our globalized world. The Engaged Global Citizenship program that I will be leading encourages a self-reflective practice and some of the questions it addresses include: How does one listen to and understand the local voice? How does a passion (surfing, art, etc.) lead to social impact? Why does surfing matter, and how does it impact participants and communities? How might we accelerate new processes to solve society’s most intractable problems? As a society, who are “we” and what are “we” seeking? How might we do more good?


The belief in surfing (and learning to surf) as a medium to better connect with nature and cultures around the world (as well as, with one another) is at the core of SeaState’s mission and vision. Surfing is not an add-on but a fundamental part of the learning experience and critical pillar of the goal to guide students towards becoming self-reflective change agents through study abroad programs.

In context: Haiti


“The spirit of Ubuntu, that once led Haiti to emerge as the first independent black nation in 1804, helped Venezuela, Colombia and Ecuador attain liberty, and inspired our forefathers to shed their blood for the United States’ independence, cannot die. Today, this spirit of solidarity must (and will) empower all of us to rebuild Haiti.” -Jean-Bertrand Aristide

Haiti, although an economic and politically oppressed country, is rich in culture and beauty. Surf explorer and writer, Sam Bleakley, who has pioneered many of the surf breaks on the island along with the SurfExplore team and local surfers, gives a colorful and energetic description of Haiti: “Here is a country rich in spirit, rough, resilient, ironic and brave—a place where people confirm the simple joy of being alive… Her uncrowded waves, rugged coastline, thriving informal economy, decorated taptap buses, Creole wit, grace, artistic energy, religious expressiveness in vodou and laughter cannot be extinguished even in the face of adversity, and often come knocking at night playing tunes on bones and whistling dark melodies.”


The first independent black nation, Haiti was founded (in 1804). “Not just in revolt, but in revulsion at the idea that one person can enslave another,” says Bleakley. The country has suffered more than its fair share of catastrophe, challenge, and upheaval, and is still on a road to recovery especially since the devastating 2010 earthquake.

Recently, there has been an emergence of contemporary surfing and of surf tourism, with the first surf club, Surf Haiti, established in 2014 in Jacmel. Surfing offers something different to traditional sports and there is a growing body of work and research that agrees surfing has implicit values that can transcend barriers and cross-cultures. When I asked Lisa Hunter at Waikato University about this trend, she emphasized a real need to strengthen our understanding and evidence-base of how surfing and projects using surfing make a difference (if at all) and what that difference or impact is. It will be interesting to see in Haiti if surfing could embody the elusive quality of Ubuntu that Jean-Bertrand Aristide speaks of and how, with a genuine engagement of the local community and creating shared ownership, it might avoid some of the pitfalls common in sport-for-development initiatives imposed in a top-down manner.

During the Engaged Global Citizenship study abroad program in Haiti, high school students will be fully immersed in Haitian culture and work with a local non-profit (Devoted to Children Foundation) who provide art camps for at-risk kids in the community of Jacmel. This study abroad program seeks to emphasize a more creative approach to how we understand and address social and environmental challenges, recognizing surfing as a creative form of self-expression and art as a powerful cultural connector. Students will also be learning to surf and be educated on the budding Haitian surf culture from those who live it every day. The purpose is to open the eyes of high school students through the modality of art and surfing to cross-examine cultural immersion.

SeaState creates a study abroad environment that combines close relationships with faculty and staff, cultural and language immersion, engagement with local stakeholders, rigorous academic content, while embracing the power of play and creativity. As Dr. Belinda Wheaton outlined in her talk at the SSG Summit, the next step for social change is to go beyond the personal and toward the collective, with a need to understand the differences and and diversity of perspectives and experiences. And that’s what this program seeks to explore.

The Engaged Global Citizenship program is open to all high school students from anywhere in the world. In order to help less fortunate students enroll on this trip of a lifetime, please support Mikiko our trip coordinator’s fundraiser HERE.

To learn more or to apply visit The SeaState.

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