When Carys Parker told her friends she was going home to the Congo for Christmas, she realized she had left out a certain detail: She had never actually been to the Congo.

That's because for Parker, who just finished her first year of college at Whitworth University in Spokane, Washington, home is never a specific country, let alone city. Rather, home is a 500-foot-long hospital ship that sails along the west coast of Africa, treating those with little or no medical care. Most college freshmen experience a period of transition, but Parker's has been extreme, even when compared to typical third-culture students.

"I feel like I have one foot on the ship and one foot here," she says. "I never really belonged anywhere except the ship, and I don't have one country or one culture I can claim as my own."

For the first 12 years of her life, Parker lived on the now-retired Anastasis; her teenage years were spent on the Africa Mercy. For 27 years, Parker's father, Gary, has been an oral and maxillofacial surgeon for Mercy Ships, the maritime ministry that spun off from Youth With a Mission in 2003. Her mother, Susan, is an executive assistant on the ship, while Parker (whose first name means "mercy") attended the ship's school, along with her brother, Wesley.

Parker, 19, is the first person to have been raised entirely on a Mercy Ships vessel, and one of three to have completed high school on the ship. In 2013, she graduated from a class of three.

"It felt like when my family drove away I wasn't just saying goodbye to them—I was saying goodbye to a very specific and unique way of life," she says. "Once they were gone, no one on this campus would ...

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