Whenever I look back to my program on Semester at Sea, I have to remind myself that it actually DID happen. The combination of traveling the world, living on a ship, taking intellectually challenging courses, and being surrounded by a supportive community was almost too good to be true... almost. Somehow, Semester at Sea became one of the most definitive life experiences I could have ever had.
To get to the sad-but-true parts out of the way: first, it's pretty expensive. Although the value is second-to-none (think of going on a cruise for 3.5 months, plus the cost of a full course load of tuition, plus what it would cost to get to 10+ countries on your own, and SAS pays for itself 1,000 times over), the actual cost is substantial. I was able to raise the funds through a lot of hard work, but another thing I did not consider in advance was that the socio-economic status of a many of the students was above what I was used to and the shipboard community was not as diverse as my home institution in the U.S. I consider this a bit of a drawback, and I sometimes I had a difficult time relating to my peers. Some students won’t even notice this and it’s actually probably a reality in many study abroad programs, but for some students who really appreciate diversity you might notice this. Next, it was difficult to stay in touch with friends and family back home. I observed that students who were juniors and seniors on the program handled this much better than those who were sophomores (I never encountered any freshmen) and I was glad I already had some established independence so it made separation easier.
Now, to the good stuff (and most of it is GOOD):
Before we even departed, Semester at Sea advised us how to get visas, gave us options for field programs, and thorough descriptions of courses. I traveled to the program completely by myself and didn't know anyone else who was going, but Semester at Sea helped me feel comfortable with the unknown that lied before me. Whereas many people traveled with their parents, friends, or families before embarkation, I went to the Bahamas on my own to meet up with the voyage and I was completely fine with it because of the pre-departure advice SAS offered.
In my situation, my courses were a mix between challenging and easy. I was one of the few students who stuck through the infamous Global Studies course (required of all students, but too difficult to take attendance for 700 people so many ended up skipping) and I actually liked what I learned—I’m kind of a nerd, sue me. For other classes, some of the professors were really amazing at creating course curriculum that complemented where we were traveling on our voyage and it was some of the most interactive learning experiences I have ever had. On the other hand, some professors of mine were also just as excited to be on Semester at Sea as me, and it was somewhat evident that their lesson planning was lacking while they focused on other things. In the end I was grateful that some of my courses were easy; even as a really good student, I had a hard time balancing all the course work with the overall experience. It was difficult to do homework where there wasn't always a quiet place to "hide" and study and research was sometimes a nightmare (when I was on the voyage, we had strict internet restrictions) and the on-ship library only went so far. There was also the several aspects of time to adjust to that weren’t standard: at sea you attended classes, at port you had an open schedule; we didn't have weekends, we had new countries. Instead of schoolwork we often wanted to take the time to plan what we were going to be doing with our friends in the next destination. Additionally, my voyage (Spring 2008) went eastward around the world, which meant we lost an hour every few nights as we crossed time zones. I didn't get enough sleep in college when I had 24 hour days, so imagine how tired I was when days would last only twenty-three hours! In the end, I was so grateful I only took 12 credit hours, even though back home I was used to 15 or so credits in a semester.
Before each new destination, we were given information about customs, money conversions, etiquette, recommended places, safety & emergency procedures, and more. Semester at Sea worked with local tour operators for added field trips (sometimes they were incorporated into a class) or you could go travel on your own. The only restrictions were international travel (at least for my voyage—we didn’t go to Europe or anything) but otherwise students could travel anywhere nationwide while the ship was docked. I personally stayed close to the ship most of the time to keep within a budget, but you don’t necessarily have to travel anywhere to find great museums, bars, beaches, mountaintops, coffee shops, and new friends. I could talk for days about all the different countries, but given that voyages vary and there are plenty of guidebooks to read, I’ll speak more to life on the ship. Daily meals are prepared on board, and even in port you can always come back to the ship for lunch or sleep in your cabin if you’re on a budget (although the meals did get repetitive after a while and “Taco Day” is infamous”). There were cabin stewards who straightened up your room every day (you’re expected to tip) and the crew were some of the nicest people hailing from around the world—many became good friends of ours. The staff members and professors are all carefully selected and all are amazing and brought something to the shipboard community. Activities were planned, professors would give bonus lectures or seminars, people would teach yoga or dance classes—it really was up to the students, faculty, staff, and family members to make what they wanted out of the experience. One of the coolest aspects of the ship is how close-knit of a community it became and it’s something that can’t really be recreated anywhere else. There’s a unique sort of bond you form with 700 people sailing around the world together. Before I went on Semester at Sea and I would interact with alums of the program I thought they were all ridiculous in their obsession about the program it was over, but now I get it; you have to somewhat be indoctrinated into that way of thinking. There really is nothing like Semester at Sea, and there’s only so much anyone can say before you just have to experience for yourself.