Go On A Surf Trip, Get College Credit

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Dr. Leon, spry as a kite.

Dr. Leon changed my life.

That may come across like some dodgy erectile dysfunction ad, but its not. Last spring Dr. Leon Mach III (not related to Gillette) approached my UCSD Surf Team with an intriguing proposal. His company, Sea State, was offering surf-based study abroad programs all around the globe. College students could sign up for 1-3 week trips where they would study, surf, explore a foreign nation, and receive college credit for the lot of it. It sounded too good to be true.

A couple months later, I was on a Singapore Airlines flight to Bali, where I would be taking a Sea State surf journalism course over the following fortnight. The free wine did little to calm my nerves.

The next 14 days very literally changed my life path. Going into my last year of college, I had no real idea of what I wanted to do with my life. I knew what I was bad at: math, science. I knew what I was good at: procrastinating, creative thinking. I knew I loved surfing, and I knew that I would love to make a living off of it, but I didn’t see any direct connection to a career in the industry. All of that changed in Bali.

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Matt George, teaching.

Meeting our professor Matt George, the electric, eccentric wordsmith of a man, was a major turning point. His words and wisdom inspired me to write down these crazy thoughts in my head, and to mix a little surfing in there while I’m at it. Through his teachings, I not only came to love the art of creative writing, but I also got a hell of a lot better at it. Good enough, it turns out, to be hired by Surfing Magazine.

For this reason, and for all the other memories I have from Bali, I feel a great sense of belief and pride in the people from Sea State. I also feel compelled to get my story out there in an effort to convince others to take a similar plunge, and maybe discover something along the way.

I tracked down my now-good-friend Dr. Leon, who is currently teaching in the Panamanian jungle, to get the details behind the Sea State’s current and future endeavors. Here’s what I found out. – Michael Ciaramella

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Mt. Batur, Bali. One of our many unique “classrooms”.

Surfing: What is the Sea State, in 5 words or less?
Dr. Leon: Surf trips for college credits

Surfing: What is Dr. Leon’s academic background?
Dr. Leon: I have a Master’s in natural resources and sustainable development and a Ph.D in Energy and Environmental Policy.

Surfing: Where did the idea for Sea State come from, and how long have you been doing this for?
Dr. Leon: I learned the most valuable things I know from chasing surf around the world. Surfing travel taught me more about international development, culture, and sustainability than any textbooks. Because I genuinely wanted to understand whether or not surf tourism was causing more harm than good for the communities it was inundating, I started conducting research on the impacts of surfing on remote coastal communities. I eventually turned that research into my dissertation after a near-decade long journey in academia. Because no one reads those, I thought the research could come to life during short-term study abroad programs to surf destinations I have fallen in love with over the years. I have been leading these trips for a little over three years now and truly hope I get to continue for as long as I can physically surf.

Surfing: What are your goals for the students?
Dr. Leon: My lofty goal is that alumni will be agents of change, driving surf culture in a thoughtful and sustainable direction. At the very least though, I hope students have the best time of their lives, get some really good waves, and develop a more holistic understanding for global interconnectivity and sustainability issues.

Surfing: What courses do you offer, and who are the professors?
Dr. Leon: Sustainable Tourism is the course that I teach and for our New Zealand program I am teaming up with Nick Towner (Professor at Auckland Institute of Technology and surf guide from New Zealand Surf Adventures) on that trip.
We have a Surf Science program in Costa Rica taught by Sean Newcomer, founder of the surf research lab out of the Kinesiology department at CSUSM.
And we also have a surf journalism course taught by really awesome people including Sam George (the legend and writing giant) in Panama, Trey Highton (Save the Waves Film Festival Director and Doctoral Candidate at UCSC) in Bali, and Margarete Seelie (Badass human and writer out of Mill College in SF) in Spain/Portugal.

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New Zealin’ might be chillin’, but it’s hard to beat Bali.

Surfing: If kids had to choose one trip in 2017, which would you recommend and why?
Dr. Leon: That’s too hard to answer. But for serious surfers, I think the New Zealand trip is going to epic. Nick Towner is a professor and has been guiding there for years. Those willing to strap on a wetsuit should surely score Rags and Shipwrecks among some other lesser-known nooks.

Surfing: Funniest Sea State travel anecdote?
Dr. Leon: During our program in Panama, we were off painting and refurbishing a playground for the community in Mariato for an entire day. When we got back to our hotel, covered in paint and exhausted, the waves were unexpectedly firing out front. Sam George was the professor on this trip, and he was showering outside in his banana hammock when he noticed the surf. He just said, “Hey guys, it looks kinda great out there!” Without hesitation, he grabbed his SUP, sprinted down the bluff, and rode out the session in his Speedo. Probably the only guy to ever SUP this spot and to do so in that garb just made it hilarious, especially while observing the locals’ reactions to it.

Surfing: What is your favorite thing about the trips you get to go on?
Dr. Leon: There is nothing like scoring a day of incredible surf with stoked students and then sitting down to talk about important topics over an awesome fish feast. In short, my favorite thing is just the genuine interactions with students and sharing such a unique and eye-opening experience with them.

For more info, or to sign up for a trip of your own, head to www.theseastate.com.