Alumni Profile • Barbara Van Cleave-Cobas '03
Cruise to self-discovery

Barbara Van Cleave-CobasBarbara Van Cleave-Cobas ’03 tells a story about her first day as a staff member on board a cruise ship. “My cabin mate handed me a fluorescent-pink wig and a boa and said, ‘Put these on and meet us in the disco.’ I thought it was a joke. But when I got there, they pushed me out on stage into a line dance and yelled, ‘Just follow along.’”

That, she said, is a picture of her career path with Royal Caribbean Cruise Lines: “Put this on; you’ll learn the steps as you go.”

And the Calvin Spanish major did learn how to lead guests through the whole range of shipboard activities, from line dancing and karaoke to rock-climbing walls and team trivia games. She learned so well, in fact, that after 18 months at sea, Van Cleave-Cobas was made Royal Caribbean International’s guest activities specialist. Now in an office (on land) in Miami, Fla., she manages all the activities offered to adults on board all 21 of the cruise line’s ships. She helps train the hundreds of staff members who deliver those activities and helps them work out the problems that come with doing their jobs seven days a week, six months at a stretch.

Van Cleave-Cobas said problems often arise because of the interpersonal dynamics of the situation: 900 staff members from about 60 different countries on board a ship at sea. “You have all of these different personalities coming from different cultures and religions, and they’re all reacting differently to a situation from which there is no running away!”

Van Cleave-Cobas asks her staff to try what she tried when she was aboard ship. “I challenged myself to listen and to be open-minded,” she said.

Her ability to do that, she went on, developed during her four years at Calvin. “In my first two years on campus, I was given an idyllic environment to shape my values and who I am. After that I could go off campus confidently to study in Honduras and the Yucatan and Chicago and deal securely with diversity. I learned a person is a person in God’s eyes. On board the ship, treating everyone, from the person who cleaned the toilets to the captain, was one of my strongest traits, and it was noticed.

“At Calvin I also learned to work until the job is done. Now I really value that work ethic.”

Lest anyone think she’s found it easy to apply her Calvin education to the world of cruise lines, Van Cleave-Cobas added, “My first cruise was a crossroads for me. No one knew me or my values. I could create my identity, and in a new world that was a challenge.”

She’s grateful she took the challenge, though, and not only because along the way she got to experience over 100 ports of call with shipboard friends, including an Argentinean man who last March became her husband.

“I wish I could take all my friends who’ve sat in an office since graduation and put them on a ship for a month. With all the different kinds of people there, things happen in your face, and you have no time to stop and think about what your reaction will be. You really discover who you are, at your core, what you need to face about yourself and how to move forward. I thank God I had that opportunity for self-discovery.”