Semester at Sea Q&A
What is Semester at Sea?
The amazing opportunity to live and study on the MV Explorer ship. Over 60 classes are offered every fall and spring semester on this ship, with professors and students coming from across the world. As students take classes, the ship travels the world, making stops in over 12 countries. The spring 2014 voyage began in California, making its way through Asia before rounding Africa and heading up the western coast of Africa to England.
The key feature of Semester at Sea is the shipboard community that forms throughout the voyage. From day one, shipgoers are taught the lessons of ubunto (I am, because of you). The philosophy is that everyone on the ship is who they are because of everyone else on the ship, and ‘No SASer left behind’ is emphasized at every pre-port meeting. The togetherness is palpable at every gathering and event.
What did you do in each port?
Traveling while on Semester at Sea is done in three ways. They include:
- Traveling through Semester at Sea’s field programs. The advantage of traveling through Semester at Sea is that if anything happens, such as us arriving 12 hours late to a destination, the money paid will be reimbursed fully. The tour operators that SAS works with are fully vetted, and proven to be safe/reliable. The multi-day trips oftentimes can cost upwards of $1000.
- Traveling with pre-planned large SAS groups. As soon as students were accepted into SAS, some began independently arranging travel groups through private tour groups. Oftentimes they would mimic SAS experiences for a fraction of the cost, although in the case of us arriving late to a port, no reimbursements could be given. The only one of these I signed up for was a homestay with Mochan in Japan, the first port. I have no regrets about this experience – not only was I able to get through one of the most expensive countries we visited for under $30 a day including accommodations and food, but also I was provided an experience that I would not have been able to have on my own.
- Traveling independently. For 11 of the 12 countries, I had no idea what my plans were when I initially boarded on the ship. This was not a problem in the least, as many other students were also looking for travel partners. Groups start up and oftentimes travel in each country together, although I traveled with different people in each country. Personally I think small groups of 1-4 are best for getting along and delving into the cultures, as well as from a financial point of view.
What were your classes like?
Very good, but each one was extremely different. My professors were all extremely knowledgeable in their fields, and came from Vassar, Stanford, Michigan, UNC, and UVA. The classes were specifically tailored to each country we were docking at, making it a uniquely practical experience.
Time at sea in classes is split between A and B days. There are no weekends. However, during your time in port there are no classes. Because of the proximity of the countries in Southeast Asia, we had class for only 7 days during the month of February.
If you’re thinking of taking 15 credits, don’t do it unless it’s an absolute necessity. You will regret the extra workload – you want to enjoy your semester.
Are the studies difficult? Can you concentrate with so much going on?
The classes vary dramatically in difficulty and workload. While some friends had an easier time compared to their home universities, my classes were actually far more difficult. This was compounded by the fact that I traveled independently through every country, and was in a constant state of making plans for future countries. While I had the benefit of not being distracted by readily available WiFi, it still was very difficult at times – particularly the two days when I had a combined 23 pages of essays due.
What activities did you do on the ship?
While the MV Explorer may seem like a huge ship from the outside, it’s actually very small once it becomes your home. You run into the same people everyday, and it’s literally impossible not to make friends without being in your cabin all day.
You’ll make friends whom you’ll constantly be with. Crossfit is huge on the ship, with 2-3 workout times daily. There’s also morning yoga, worship groups, and intermural sports. It’s extremely easy to start a club based on whatever your interests are.
Every night after dinner there are two lectures or events covering a wide variety of topics from the paradox of blue waters in coral reefs to social entrepreneurship talks by the founders of Serengetee. During the days leading up to each port, there are presentations about each country – starting with an introductory lecture, followed by insight lectures and language bootcamps. There was also a 72 hour film festival, separate talent shows for crew and students, an auction to benefit SAS, and open-mic nights where everyone supported their fellow shipmates. And that’s not to mention Sea Olympics and Neptune Day…
My favorite on-ship activity was weekly family dinners. During the first week, students sign up to have extended families, and be matched with either the professors, staff, or lifelong learners. I was lucky enough to be paired with Nurse Lana and her husband Larry, who were an absolute hoot. Every time I got back from port I would be greeted with a note such as, “Life’s short – eat dessert first. Ice cream sundaes tomorrow my treat.” It was a lot of fun, and gave me a whole new perspective hearing about their travel and the occasional tale from the clinic.
How is the food?
That depends completely on what you mean. The food in each of the 12 countries was some of the best I’ve had in my entire life. You haven’t tasted pho until you’ve been to Vietnam, real tanjine until you’ve been to Morocco, and so on.
I’ll be honest – on ship food isn’t the greatest. Before SAS I heard tales about pasta and potatoes and was expecting it to be horrible. Upon arriving to the ship, I was surprised that it was actually somewhat tasty. During lunch and dinner there are always fresh salad and fruits, often steamed vegetables, and sometimes good dessert. Every dinner buffet line consists of one pasta dish, one potato dish, one grain, one vegetarian option, one meat, and a soup of the day.
I’m sure it’s really difficult to design a menu for 700+ students and staff based on whatever ingredients they pick up in each country. But overall the food is just repetitive over time, and after a while everything began tasting the same. I’m fairly sure that over the voyage there were at least 20 different names for the same dish – pasta and red sauce.
There’s also a pool bar upstairs that serves burgers, fries, pizzas, and smoothies – but those cost extra and that can add up quickly.
What kinds of students are aboard?
There’s no one type of SASer. While an overwhelming majority were studying liberal arts fields, there were a surprising number of STEM majors – particularly engineering. There were people who spent their time playing video games, writing poetry, or dancing. Some preferred eating the pasta and potatoes, while others spent the money to eat at the upstairs pool bar.
Despite our differences, I found the people on the ship to be some of the kindest, accepting people I’ve ever met. SASers are the kind of people who are willing to take the life we know, and turn it upside down completely while living on a ship and traveling in the world. Because of this, I’d say that we’re a pretty awesome kind of people.
What was your favorite country?
I plead the fifth. This isn’t so much me not wanting to answer as it is me not being able to answer. Countries are like children, and each one was special in its own unique, special way. Not enough can be said for how each country appealed in a different way – Vietnam for the absolutely mind-blowing food, India for my fantastic homestays with cooking classes, South Africa for its fantastic scenery, Morocco for the warmth of its people and generosity when sharing meals; the list goes on. I would go back to any of these countries in a heartbeat.
What was your least favorite country?
Very similar answer to above. Honestly I didn’t have any horrible experiences in any countries, beyond perhaps providing a local stimulus package with friends in Mauritius (paying $25 to go 1 mile in a taxi).
Did you get sick?
Yes, three times as a matter of fact.
- The first night from seasickness (along with about 50% of the ship).
- In Tokyo, I ate 3 meals of delicious food in 2 hours – more than my stomach could take. My fault entirely.
- Food poisoning in Hong Kong. A friend’s cousin treated us to an extremely fancy dinner at an upscale restaurant, and I had a miserable night. What can I say; my stomach is conditioned for street food.
What was the craziest thing you did?
Hitchhiking with two friends on the back of a woman’s electric fruit cart in Guilin, China. She looked at us as if we were lost puppies (which we were), and thought we were hilarious for asking her for a ride in the back of her cart. I was the only one who spoke any Chinese, but could only understand about 25% of what she was saying. She kept on asking me where we wanted to go, but I didn’t know the names of anywhere in the city in Chinese, which was even funnier to her. She stopped at home, unloaded her goods, and continued driving us for about 30 minutes until we reached the night market in Guilin. She wouldn’t accept any money, even when I offered to pay for her gas.
How much spending money should I bring?
For all 12 countries, students spent on average between $2000-$5000, maybe more depending on how many field programs they signed up for. I spent roughly the lower amount as I tried to be an economical traveler. If you email me, we can talk specifics.
Was it worth the money? Are you glad you did it?
Full disclosure: I was fortunate enough to have been given a CY Tung scholarship for studying Sino-American relations. Therefore, studying at sea was almost as cheap as my home university.
Semester at Sea doesn’t come cheap. That being said, keep in mind that the fee includes not only tuition, but also food, room/board, and misc fees (excluding the fuel charge).
I say with certainty that Semester at Sea is one of the best study abroad programs around. No other program can provide the practical learning and amazing experiences that SAS does, in particular learning about each country you visit as you travel the world. Even if you think it’s too expensive I encourage you to apply. Nearly 3/4 of people on the ship had some scholarship, and the Institute of Shipboard Education was great with aid. Apply for scholarships, but most importantly apply for SAS. You will not regret it.
Any tips on applying for scholarships?
Apply for as many of the Semester at Sea scholarships as you can, as well as for outside funding. I applied for six scholarships in all, and was fortunate enough to receive the CY Tung. Be yourself and show why you would be a great addition to the shipboard community. Look up projects/videos/blogs from people who have previously received each scholarship, and try to understand what the goal of each scholarship is. Most importantly, be yourself when filling out applications.
Is there enough time in each city?
It depends on what you mean by “enough time.” (See below)
How do you compare what you learned in Ghana to what you learned through Semester at Sea?
According to the iceberg metaphor for culture, we initially see 10% of culture sticking out of the water- examples being customs and courtesies. The remaining 90% of the iceberg is hidden underneath, and includes values, priorities, and aspects of the culture which are not so straightforward.
With six days maximum in each country, it is impossible to understand the culture of each country. On Semester at Sea, you get a mere glimpse – a snapshot in the mind. Your six days in a country is often different than everyone else’s 6 days, and if you were to come back for another six days, you’d likely have an entirely different experience. The great thing about such short-term travel is that you’re on the ‘honeymoon phase’ in each country. Everywhere is new, exciting, and wonderful; there are likely no ‘lows’ during your time abroad. Semester at Sea is a sampler platter, helping you discover where they’d like to return to – and making the ultimate discovery that you’d like to return everywhere.
With YES Abroad, I lived for a year in Ghana. I came to feel like a local, with all of the up’s and down’s of living in African society included. Returning to Ghana on SAS was to return home; while I wouldn’t profess to fully understand Ghanaian culture, I feel as though I have a good grasp of their life and country overall. Returning to any of the SAS countries would feel entirely different, as there are so many places I haven’t yet seen within each one.
So what’s better, studying abroad/traveling for long-term in one place or traveling to many? It’s impossible to say really, both have their perks.
On YES Abroad, staying in one place gives us a deeper understanding of our host community, country, and ourselves. How did staying in many places for a few days each alter your view on the global community and your role in it?
Casey Hudetz, our communication director, spoke the truth at convocation when he described how smiles are the world’s universal language. Despite learning a bit of Twi for the markets in Ghana, I predominantly spoke English there. However, in the majority of countries we visited on SAS, I knew none of the language besides ‘Hello’ and ‘thank you’.
Despite my unpreparedness, everyone I met went out of their way to help me in any way they could. I learned a lot about while there are perks to being perfectly prepared for traveling/life, sometimes it’s even more fun to have no expectations and just travel. I’ve discover that if you bring your smile along with you and treat locals nicely, they will take care of you as if you are their child.
I feel connected with every country I visited. Not only with every country, but also to its people. To everyone who responded to my smiles, and returned with one. From the Vietnamese children in Can Tho yelling ‘Hello’, the only English word they knew, to the Japanese woman who tried to help us return to Yokohama and ended up sending us on the right train towards the wrong direction for an hour.
I was worried when I returned to Malata market in Ghana; would the sellers remember me? The answer was a definitive yes, and I was given pounds upon pounds of fruit by the women upon my return. I have learned to stay connected.
What was your favorite part of Semester at Sea?
Getting back to the ship after an amazing six days in-port. The top is lit-up with a strand of white lights, and when you finally see them shining after your time away, it just feels like returning home. During dinner everyone recounts their experiences – each story completely different, yet all great. As the boat departs, sitting around the dinner table as land gets increasingly small, you come to appreciate just how special Semester at Sea is.