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Q&A: The truth about Semester at Sea

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QuestionHi Lindsay, I have just been accepted by SAS for the Spring 2011 voyage, and I randomly chanced upon your website. I am currently having a hard time trying to decide between a Semester at Sea program and a study abroad program in Berlin. I know they sound very different, but I think they appeal to different parts of me, which makes it even harder to decide. Hence, I have some questions about your experience if you don’t mind answering:

When you were traveling around the ports, did you feel they were too touristy? I don’t want to limit myself to only exploring typical tourist destinations.

How strong were the academics? I know that the main experience comes from the ports, but I still want to learn and enjoy my classes. Did most people take classes seriously?

I wanted to clarify this with you. I heard that SAS had a reputation of being a “booze cruise” or a “party boat” in the past. How did you feel about that from your experience?

I just thought that it would be good to consult with someone who has been through the experience. Best, Alyssa

AnswerAlyssa, there are few things I like more than talking about Semester at Sea, and they include peace and the end of world hunger. Actually, Semester at Sea often makes me feel more hopeful for the world the more people get this kind of experiential learning opportunity. I’d love to answer your questions and hopefully make your decision a little easier.

The MV Explorer is a passenger maritime vessel, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to feel like a cruise-goer. Especially aboard a full semester voyage, the majority of destinations will reveal a less glorified coastal presence. Cape Town’s VA Waterfront feels a little touristy. Chennai’s maritime port does not. In some places, you will find that the existence of a cruise ship makes rickshaw drivers and vendors flock like moths to a profit-tempting flame. Regardless of the port, if you’re looking for the grittier or more authentic option, it’s always there.

Saigon's Maritime Port

As Semester at Sea will tell you, you’re allowed to travel anywhere within that country while the ship is docked, as long as you can return to the ship on time. So when you note the port of call, don’t see that city as a limitation to what you can discover in that country. Sometimes it will be more expensive to stay close, sometimes you’re saving money by getting out of the city.

If you choose to go on the Spring 2011 voyage, your itinerary will allow you plenty of travel options to the heart of that culture.

There are a couple destinations that overlap with my itinerary in 2007. Not all of them are off-road, gritty options, but they’re amazing, which is all they really need to be.

Cape Town, South Africa
Hike Table Mountain up and take the cable car down
If you like wine and vineyard visits, allow yourself just one tour to see Stellenbosch
Venture to Gansbaai for a Great White Shark Dive. You won’t be sorry you did.
Start in Cape Town and make your way along the southern coast on the Garden Route
While venturing down the Garden Route, hit up Plettenberg Bay and do the world’s most beautiful skydive!
Go on safari in Kruger Park or one of the many nature reserves around the country

Port Louis, Mauritius
Board a bus to Mahebourg/Blue Bay and stay at the Chantemer on a private beach near great snorkeling

Chennai, India
Travel within the south of India to maximize experience and minimize travel time (try Tamil Nadu and Kerala)
Take advantage of the village homestays offered in the International Field Programs, like this one

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam
If you feel like busting out of the norm at this point, hop on a flight to Hanoi and bus it to Ha Long Bay

Hong Kong, China
Here’s where you can bust loose. Fly somewhere. Fly anywhere. How about the Yunnan province?

Kobe, Japan
Get a J-Rail pass before arriving, venture to Tokyo, and try your hand at sleeping in a Manga cafe

I had the same fear. Being around others who are inspired and fueled by knowledge is exciting, and I know it pushes me to be the best version of myself. I also didn’t want to waste valuable time in my academic career by not getting the right credits. Well, Alyssa, rest assured, because the faculty aboard Semester at Sea is incredibly strong, oftentimes intimidatingly so.

Hectic and whirlwind are two words to adequately describe the academic experience during SAS. Not only are the teachers skilled and specialized, but the slew of other factors bombarding the academic experience all make SAS a difficult program to cruise through. A semester of classes is crammed into much less time, thanks to dock time. Teachers are under pressure to compact their topic into your travel-hungry brains, amidst the pre-existing sea of anticipated activities and debunked world views. It’s stressful, but classes also seem to offer more compelling content than the normal setting would facilitate.

An added benefit to the SAS academic curricula is the opportunity to take a class you wouldn’t otherwise take. On top of my art and education focuses, I tacked on a little oceanography in order to learn about my new school setting. Thankfully, I needed another science credit for my undergrad requirements, so take comfort in knowing liberal arts degrees will be easily accommodated.

Nope. Not for me. Well, not entirely.

There are opportunities to have a glass of wine or beer on the ship (including beers from the recent ports of call), and you have ample freedom to take in a cocktail on land; however, you’ll find the emphasis of Semester at Sea isn’t on binge drinking but binge learning. While a select few treat SAS like a traveling fraternity party, the vast majority of students have other priorities in mind.

The cost of the program and the infinite opportunities it offers cause most people to make best use of their time. Someone’s always reading on deck, planning in the library, studying in the Union, conferencing with friends on the next destination’s activities. People are moving at light speed in port, trying to experience as much as humanly possible in five days, four days, seven days.

To use Semester at Sea like a booze cruise is like sucking on a mint during an expensive wine tasting, ordering plain lettuce at the world’s best restaurant, or going to Woodstock at never leaving the Port-o-Potty. Most people are smart enough not to piss away a prime opportunity.

I researched like a mad woman before SAS, assuming there would be some element of this lovely experience that I would hate. As a skeptic, I can assure you I’ve had all the same worries about this study abroad as you have, and I’m here to tell you they can all be overlooked. Aside from the obvious ones, here are some of my favorite points about SAS.

The Alumni Network
There’s no close-knit cameraderie between those who have studied abroad in Florence, Beijing, or Sydney. Because SAS is such a rare and monumental experience, those who have shared it really honor this bond that unites them. You’d be amazed at the vast list of prominent SASers. Check out who I shared the fold with in this SAS alumni newsletter (pages 6 and 7).

Life at Sea
It’s incredible. Who else can say they’ve sailed through ever time zone in the world, over the Equator and Prime Meridian, spent 100 days at sea? And it’s not even about bragging rights. It’s a priceless experience, especially along with 700 other people your age.

The Friendships Solidified
I’ve maintained zero close friendship from my two Italian study abroads, but here is a list of outings, visits, trips, experiences I’ve had with SAS friends since we disembarked in May of 2007.

March 2011: Alexis visits New York City during law school spring break.
August 2010: Alexis visits Indianapolis after her year teaching in China.
May 2010: Garrett and I meet in New York City prior to his departure for Africa and mine for Mexico.
December 2009 – February 2010: Garrett and I create The Nakavika Project and travel throughout Fiji.
April 2009: Garrett and I visit Alexis in Des Moines for a weekend of hilarity.
January 2009: Garrett, Alexis, and I go on a ski trip in Colorado together.
May 2008: Garrett, Alexis, and I travel for three weeks throughout Europe.
April 2008: Alexis and Karron visit Bloomington for Little 500.
October 2007: Alexis, Karron, Anna, Laura, Mary, and I reunite in Madison, Wisconsin just for fun.
August 2007: Alexis and Garrett visit Indianapolis for our first reunion since San Diego.

And to top off my list of SAS favorites, here’s one of my earliest travel videos highlighting the best moments from my voyage.

I’ve turned tens of people to the program simply by listing the prime and exhilarating life opportunities open to everyone and happily extinguishing any and all skepticism. My best advice to you would be to join the ranks of thousands who have sailed around the world, felt the palpable excitement of a new country off the gangway, and reaped the innumerable benefits years afterward. No one ever regrets Semester at Sea.

Was this post helpful? Have any more questions about Semester at Sea? Any questions period? Send a video or message to me with your queries, and I’ll be sure to get back to you!

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  • Samantha

    I am applying for the Summer 2011 voyage, but I had a few questions. I know that you are required to go on certain trips at port with staff and faculty. I also know that you can travel independently but that you have to seek approval to do any “independent research travel.” Is it hard to gain this approval from them, and do you have to give them a lot of notice? Anything would help, thanks!

    • http://nomadderwhere.com Lindsay Clark

      Hey Samantha,

      I believe things have changed a bit since my voyage in terms of FDPs (Field Directed Practica) and class credit. In my classes, it was asked of us to participate in port activities that related to class but was not required of us due to the element of cost. I believe the more recent voyages are starting to offer free FDPs relating to class work, which makes it easier to require such experience.

      If you want to do your own thing and get credit for class, that’s when you seek faculty approval, but merely traveling on your own in port doesn’t require any of that. The basic rules of not leaving the country, not doing anything illegal, and not driving a car are the standard SAS rules that apply to independent travel. I don’t remember ever asking for approval for class credit, but I also did plenty of small activities for class and sought out conversations locally pertaining to what I was learning.

      Hopefully, I just described the situation as it stands today, but that may be something you ask current voyagers or employees. Was that helpful?

      Bottom line, APPLY and GO!

  • Samantha

    Hi Lindsay,
    Thank you for the advice. I def plan on applying by the end of the week. I had one other question though… were going to be in Italy for 8 days.. would you suggest getting a eurorail pass while im there? I want to see a few different cites and there on complete different ends. Its like $350 just for Italy unlimited, it goes up to $420 if I add spain, and $550 if I get croatia (all three countries unlimited)… I know Im only going to be in the other countries for about 3 days, but I want to do travel around while Im in port.

  • Sarah

    @ Samantha–

    I traveled extensively throughout Croatia this past summer and you would be better off by NOT getting a Eurorail pass for Croatia, as the trains are limited. Dubrovnik is at the southern tip of Crotia and is the main destination spot. It is located about 6-8 hours south of Split, the other main city. There are no train lines connecting these and the buses are cheap, coach-like with A/C, and very comfortable. The other main city is Zagreb (capital), which is not on the coast but the northern more central part of the country. Trains run regularly between Zagreb and Split, but as do buses. Also, trains are not that much quicker than the buses. I would suggest definitely trying to visit Dubrovnik (its beautiful), and definitely visiting Plitvice Lakes- it’s part of the national park in Croatia located near Zagar, a coastal city just North of Split. Have fun!

    As for Spain, the trains are pretty much on schedule. Italy they are a bit spotty, but the best way to get around.

    I hope this helps. :)

  • Sarah

    Actually, the bus time between Split and Dubrovnik may be more like 4 hours. I can’t quite remember. I used the time to nap :)

  • Jena

    Hi! I’m not sure how often you check this but I’m hoping you can give some insight. I’m going on the Fall 2011 voyage and I was wondering if downsizing to Economy is worth the cost?
    Thank you very much!

    • http://nomadderwhere.com Lindsay Clark

      Hey Jena, I don’t remember speaking to anyone who had an economy cabin, but I imagine if you’re really in need of those couple hundred or thousand dollars in savings, it’s worth it. The cabin isn’t anywhere near a focus on the trip. I spent time in there sleeping and occasionally hanging with my roommate. If that’s what it takes to get you on the voyage, do it! Thanks for writing!