I've been staring at this box for an hour, trying to think of the best way to put my experience into words. Let's start at the beginning:
In college, I'd wanted to travel abroad for years, but never had the finances or fluency in a necessary language or credit match to make it worthwhile. Senior year rolled around, and I was 9 credits shy of finishing a second degree, so I figured I'd stick around for a summer session after my final semester and knock it out. As fate should have it, I sat down in a lecture and a poster on the wall caught my eye: Semester at Sea.
To this day, I remember texting my Mom after class and asking if she had heard about Semester at Sea. I certainly hadn't heard of it. She exclaimed that she had, and nearly got into the program in college herself. So I did some research and was blown away by the experience offered by the Institute of Shipboard Education. Digging deeper, I realized that Semester at Sea offered a ton of financial aid and scholarship opportunities and did have classes that would align with the credits I needed to finish my degree. (At this point, it's important to note that I jumped into the Semester at Sea program VERY last-minute, so I'd suggest not waiting until your final year in college to start researching...)
After making sure everything checked out financially and academically, I did a massive pile of paperwork to apply for a position in the program, as well as for scholarships and aid to make it more affordable. Luckily, I was granted a position on the Summer 2011 voyage around the Mediterranean, and even more luckily, granted a work study position as the Communications Coordinator's assistant, as well as a small scholarship.
Enough about my good fortune, though. I had never traveled outside North America, so I was giddy with the opportunity to finish my college education on this "floating campus," as they dubbed the MV Explorer.
I still remember the anticipation of boarding the ship. The nervous energy around arriving in Nassau, Bahamas (where we boarded) and seeing hundreds of unfamiliar faces who I'd eventually get to know as well as lifelong friends from home.
The guy I split a hotel room with on that first night in Nassau is still one of my closest friends -- he lives 20 minutes from my office in San Francisco. The first person on the entire trip that I met was a girl at the hotel check-in line -- we still talk and have seen each other a handful of times since 2011. I've driven 20+ hours through the snow from California to Colorado with two guys I became close with on the trip -- we met up with 8 other people from our voyage who lived as far away from Colorado as Boston and Virginia and spent four days partying, skiing and reminiscing.
This is the most important memory of my time on Semester at Sea. As cliche as this is bound to sound, some of my best friends were scattered among those hundreds of strange faces in Nassau. It's the most important takeaway from my time on Semester at Sea, because I truly believe that you'll learn as much about life and love and, most importantly, yourself, in a summer of traipsing around Europe, Asia and Africa with 500 strangers as you will in four years of lectures.
For the sake of the review, let's talk about logistics here. First, the academics:
I took four classes on the ship (most people take three, but I needed that last class to finish my degree and the administration allowed it upon request). Poetics of Travel, Travel Writing, Ethnomusicology and Global Studies. The latter is required of every student on every voyage, but it is pretty interesting, honestly. I was a Journalism/Creative Writing major, so the writing classes were write up my alley. I still trade writings with some people I got to know in those classes and keep in touch with the professors. In Ethnomusicology, we essentially studied musical practices of global cultures and it was absolutely mesmerizing!
You only go to class and study and turn in assignments when the ship isn't docked, and besides the way to your first port and the way back home, that's rarely longer than three straight days. Sometimes, you'll have minor assignments at port, but who is going to complain about having to write a paper about what visiting Pompeii meant to them? That's just awesome.
All in all, the academic aspect wasn't extremely aggressive and most of the professors are just as interested in traveling and experiencing new things as the students, which is why they're on the ship in the first place.
Second, the travel:
My voyage embarked from Nassau and traveled to Barcelona, then Naples, then Rome, then Dubrovnik, then Athens, then Sofia, Bulgaria, then Istanbul, then Casablanca, before returning home to Boston. I won't go into too much detail about each place because I want you to experience it yourself, but I can vouch for every single one of those places being just as amazing as you'd expect. When I returned home and people asked me, "What was your favorite country?" I literally had no answer. They all were so fantastic in so many different ways that it would be impossible to choose.
For example, our port in Bulgaria was a last-minute scheduling change from Egypt due to conflict arising in the latter. Needless to say, everyone was a little bit disheartened by that news. But, one of my favorite memories was going on a field trip to a remote Bulgarian village, to which no foreigner had ever been before. We took a tour of the town, met the "Mayor," and were treated to singing, dancing, food and drink for hours.
Lastly, the ship life:
Everyone from the crew to the staff to the faculty to the fellow students were truly a joy to be around. You could stay in your room with your roommates and watch movies together or just wander aimlessly from deck to deck and either way you'd find someone to strike up a conversation with and exchange travel plans.
The administrators did a good job of creating fun activities for us too, including the infamous Sea Olympics and an orientation-day scavenger hunt. I'm still Facebook friends with a crew member named Edward, who was the friendliest, fistbump-giving person on the whole ship. From a small gym, to a pool, to a basketball court, there were always activities to do, which were very necessary when you were feeling cramped and away from land for too long.
It's been more than three years since I finished my voyage in August 2011 and I don't exaggerate when writing that I still think about Semester at Sea every single day. I think about all the friends I've made -- both the ones I kept in touch with and the ones from whom I've drifted -- and long for more adventure in the Italian countryside or the Grand Bazaar in Turkey.
Semester at Sea isn't just a study abroad experience, it's a life-changing study in human relationships. I can't possibly put into words exactly what the trip meant to me, but I can recommend it higher than anything I've ever suggested, for those looking to travel, study and meet new people along the way.
In sum, Semester at Sea made me a better, more opportunistic, happier person. I've forged lifelong friendships and created endless memories that warm me on a daily basis, even years later. Someday, I hope to return as a teacher, administrator or lifelong learner.
Please, if you have the opportunity to do so, GO on a Semester at Sea. It'll be the best decision of your life.