The first segment of the spring Enrichment Voyage is filled with a number of traveling groups that embarked on the trip together, from the Humber College students who join the ship annually as part of their university curriculum to OLLI (Osher Lifelong Learning Institute).
But only the Friendship Force International has President Jimmy Carter backing its efforts. The organization was founded in 1977 during Carter’s presidency, and the First Lady was an honorary board member and active in the organization that lives by the philosophy “a world of friends is a world of peace” for 25 years.
George Brown, the president of the Atlanta-based organization, joined the ship in Barcelona with 60 of his club members, who hail from the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Brown has been on staff at the Friendship Force for 23 of the last 30 years and has served as president since 2004, though he will retire next month. Friendship Force boasts 20,000 members worldwide in 315 cities in 56 countries on six continents.
Most Friendship Force trips are organized by the individual chapter a year or so in advance and involve 20 members traveling to another country to participate in week-long homestays. As Brown said, “the student exchange is too good to be left to students. The idea [behind FFI] is very similar to a student exchange where you get to learn about the culture by being with the people.”
“The great thing about an Enrichment Voyage is that it’s so well designed for our people—they can just go off and do their own things, attend lectures and go to workshops. We try to keep our members in contact with each other [while on EV] but we find that they’re not as interested as being cliquish as they are being a part of the ship’s family. The Australians in particular are great advocates as everyone wants to talk to them and find out why they’re here.”
While the demographic of the Friendship Force tends to trend more toward retirees, Brown says it’s the organization’s goal to get more Baby Boomers involved—and their children. “That generation is very well traveled. They want more flexibility, and as a result, are doing more of a variety of things. We hope to develop programs that have a shorter homestay; that way, it will be easier to get younger people involved as hosts and members. The younger people like the idea of traveling around and having a homestay component but not just having a homestay, being able to tour a place, too.”
Although it’s only Brown’s second voyage on the MV Explorer, he has a long history with the University of Virginia, Semester at Sea’s academic host, as he received his PhD in international studies from the academic institution a couple decades ago. And Enrichment Voyages offers the perfect opportunity for global engagement that Friendship Force members crave, Brown says.
“[Friendship Force members] have said for years, ‘why don’t we do cruises?’ They’re becoming increasingly popular. The cruise is a huge market for our demographic,” he explains. “I said, ‘we’re not going to do a cruise just to do a cruise. We’re not a travel club, so it has to be a cruise that fits in with our philosophy.”
This won’t be the last voyage for Friendship Force either. Even though Brown retires this June, he says he would like to get the organization more involved in the Lifelong Learner program on Semester at Sea—and broaden the nationalities from Friendship Force that participate.
“It would be nice to internationalize our passengers with more nationalities. I think people enjoy it not just being a North American group of passengers.”