For many people, a university education is not complete until you've studied in a foreign country. Each year, thousands of North Americans spread East, West, North and South— to all points of the globe— to further their studies. Many go to perfect a foreign language or to live in ancestral homelands. Whatever the case may be, studying abroad is a rewarding, enriching experience.
Early on in my college career, the thought appealed to me. I could go to Europe and live in the same streets my great-grandparents grew up in. I could go to South America and finally conquer Spanish. I had too many notions of where to go and what to do. One day, sitting in an Art History lecture, I saw my ticket. Instead of spending all my months in one place, why not see as much as possible in that same amount of time? Why not study on one continuous journey? Why not do a semester at sea?
A semester at sea, for the uninitiated, is exactly as it sounds. Ships, often small cruise ships or converted cargo ships, become floating universities. Students, professors and staff all live, work and study aboard the ship. Instead of seeing a slideshow about Japanese culture, you can sit in on lectures about Japanese history, culture, language and food, and then the next day actually find yourself in Japan.
Most trips are a four-month circumnavigation of the globe, and they generally make between ten and twelve stops, with dock time about a week for each. It's the world in a dozen sample-sized bites.
There are several programs available, ranging from concentrating on a specific discipline like marine sciences to covering a wider range of disciplines, like my voyage, Semester at Sea. Semester at Sea is a fully accredited program, backed by the University of Virginia. My trip was in 2006, and I spent the first half of my second year of university going to eleven countries (Mexico, Hawaii, Japan, China, Vietnam, Burma, India, Egypt, Turkey, Croatia, Spain…and back to the U.S.)
It was intoxicating, even maddening, to spend a week learning about the Taj Mahal and suddenly find yourself standing in front of it. Or to spend an embarrassing amount of time trying to find Burma on a map, then spend a summer reading about it, and finally getting a chance to traipse through its muddy mountains during monsoon season and feeling firsthand that rampant destruction and isolationism the Burmese junta has wrought. And of course, karaoke never quite feels the same after a bunch of Japanese hosts get you as drunk as possible and make you sing American pop songs.
For me, it was a great way to get my general education classes out of the way, and to consider what I wanted to study in my last two years of school. The courses available on board the ship were surprisingly diverse; pretty much every field was covered, from science and math to the humanities, and each class has a broad, global focus.
It's easy to make friends while traveling, and the sense of community on board the ship was something I really enjoyed. Living on a ship with 500 people all working and studying and eating together really leant itself to an entirely different academic feeling. We were a great big, floating organism. It was class during the day, meals provided for you, and study time on the top deck, next to sunbathing professors, with the salty tropical air blowing through your hair and a fruit smoothie in your hand.
Then when we'd dock and it was freedom, “be back in a week.” You don't have enough time to get bored of going to the same bars or the same coffee shops at port, but just when you finally get the hang of crossing traffic in Ho Chi Minh, or mailing a postcard from Burma (a surprisingly tricky prospect), it's off to somewhere new; the place just behind you barely remembered, and the next place, the goal ahead, always just over the horizon.
The trip eventually evolves into a constant blur. There were moments I'd wake up in the middle of the night and literally not know where on the globe I was. Was my bed swaying? Was it not? What does it smell like?
Even when things were bad, it was still worth writing home about. I only got food poisoning once (and I predicted it before it even happened, although that didn't really help anything); there was plenty of motion sickness medicine available; my classes were engaging; my shipmates were warm and genial; I experienced firsthand how a tropical storm differs at sea than on land.
If you go, you'll hear this so many times it'll go past being even a cliché, but such a trip is truly a once in a lifetime experience. You'll make friends— best friends, even— and you'll see parts of the world you never thought you'd see, and some you didn't even know existed. When you return to your home country, or your hometown, or to your bedroom, you may be shocked. You may be confused. You may be wondering what the hell just happened. And when people ask you how it was, and you'll be asked that a lot, so many words may want to come out at once that you may be at a complete loss. And that's when you realize just how different a semester at sea is from a semester at stasis.