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GUY RAZ, host: Dormitory life is often a little grungy, but at St. Mary's College of Maryland, building conditions were so bad, they moved some students out. The school is giving them sort of a semester at sea. Actually, the students are living on a cruise ship. It's docked in a river just off campus. NPR's Beenish Ahmed reports on this impromptu floating residence hall.

BEENISH AHMED: Late night fire drills are an all too common part of the college experience, but instead of shrieking sirens, a couple hundred students in St. Mary City, Maryland will hear this sound in case of emergencies.

(SOUNDBITE OF SHIP HORN BLOWING)

AHMED: The deep tuba toots come from the Sea Voyager. It's a nearly 300-foot cruise ship that's docked just off St. Mary's riverfront campus. The ship was brought in when two different dorms were deemed uninhabitable due to mold.

Joseph Urgo is president of the small liberal arts college. He says the floating residence hall makes perfect sense for St. Mary's.

JOSEPH URGO, PRESIDENT, ST. MARY'S COLLEGE: The river's a really critical part of their college's identity, so having this here, in some ways, is really an organic solution for us.

AHMED: The St. Mary Sea Hawks are known for aquatic sports. Their sailing team has won many national titles, so when a sailor alumnus mentioned the Sea Voyager was available, the college moved quickly. It was already spending around $1 million on hotels and shuttles for the displaced students. The cruise ship didn't cost much more.

Still, the decision came as a surprise to students. They were in for an even bigger surprise when they started moving into the ship's cabins.

MARY BETH MCANDREWS: Hey, Mom, look how tiny it is.

AHMED: Mary Beth McAndrews is a freshman at St. Mary's. At five feet, 10 inches, her feet hang off her new bed. There's hardly enough room for two of these mini-beds in the room, even without the clothes, books and shoes she and her roommate will house here. McAndrews' mom looks for the bright side in all of this, which is quite literally the afternoon sun reflecting on the St. Mary's River. Her daughter isn't impressed.

MRS. MCANDREWS: Look at that. It's pretty.

MCANDREWS: It is pretty, but I can't live out there.

AHMED: She'd prefer more space, but McAndrews is taking the experience in stride.

MCANDREWS: It's aggravating now, but in the long run, I'll be like, hey, I lived in a boat in college and a hotel and a dorm. I lived in three different places my first semester of college, so it's a fun story to tell people.

AHMED: Down the hall, Diana Zhang is taking a first look at her cabin cubicle. She and her roommate, Catherine DeCesare, have brought only the bare minimum. Zhang says the shift has taken a toll on her grades.

DIANA ZHANG: The moving in, the moving out, being late for the classes, you miss the stuff, what you're supposed to learn.

AHMED: St. Mary's isn't the first college to charter a ship because of adverse circumstances. Some New Orleans area colleges took the same route when residence halls were ravaged by Hurricane Katrina.

Anthony Lorino is the chief financial officer at Tulane University. He says the cruise ship wasn't exactly a luxury liner.

ANTHONY LURINO: It was not paradise. It was nice, it was clean, but it wasn't extravagant.

AHMED: There were no chocolate fountains or slot machines and the bar was closed. St. Mary's Sea Voyager doesn't even have laundry machines for students to use. With limited occupancy and tight security, the Sea Voyager is unlikely to become party central, although St. Mary's students could prove to be as resourceful as their college's administrators.

Beenish Ahmed, NPR News, Washington.

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