When I think of a traditional study abroad experience, there is generally only one thing that comes to mind: approximately four months in a locale of choice, living there, breathing there, and soaking up all of the culture one can while attending a local university.
So when a friend informed me of a study abroad program that actually travels by ship, to eleven different countries, in a four-month span of time — literally circumnavigating the globe … Well, I was absolutely intrigued.
Choosing the Right Program
I knew that Semester at Sea was the right choice for me as soon as I visited its website. The program, whose academic sponsor is the University of Virginia, consists of a study abroad experience that travels completely by ship (hence, “at Sea”), called the MV Explorer.
Classes are taken on the ship, and when in port, students are allowed to travel as they please — possibly on SAS-sponsored trips, independently, or for field-practice for classes. Four months, one semester, four continents, eleven countries.
I had always known that I wanted to study abroad, but I did not know where or what even to look for — that’s why this program was perfect.
Applying … and Getting In!
I applied in November 2008 for the voyage that I hoped to sail on — Fall 2009. Within two weeks of applying, just a few days before Thanksgiving, I heard the good news: I was accepted!
From there came almost a year of some of the most intense planning of my life: applying for scholarships, figuring out what classes I should take that would count for credit at my home university and, probably the most important, figuring out what the heck I was going to do in each country!
August 25, 2009, came a lot sooner than I ever imagined, and I was off. Leaving port from Halifax, Nova Scotia, I then spent the next four months arriving in and extensively traveling Spain, Morocco, Ghana, South Africa, Mauritius, India, Vietnam, China, Japan, and two islands of Hawaii before coming back to San Diego, California.
I saw and did some of the most incredible things of my life, from enjoying the nightlife of Barcelona, Spain, until 5 a.m., to exploring the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, to gazing at the Taj Mahal at sunset and a boat ride on the River Ganges at sunrise in Agra and Varanasi, India, to climbing the Great Wall of China in 10 degree Fahrenheit weather (with an almost unheard of thing there — snow!), to skydiving from 14,000 feet in Honolulu, Hawaii.
Finding a New Home
The ship became home. It was a safe haven after days of non-stop traveling in a country. It was always such a relief to come back to our floating home. It rocked us to sleep every night (sometimes a little roughly) and offered us water on all sides while we sailed to our next destination. One of the saddest parts of the entire voyage was moving off of the ship in San Diego, and knowing that the majority of us would never see it again.
I honestly do not think it’s possible to say how I really feel about the trip. When people ask me my favorite country or my favorite part of the trip or how the entire thing was … there’s simply no one, straight answer.
It was amazing. Incredible. Eye-opening. All of it. It definitely changed me. I’m more aware. More informed. It was not just a time to travel for fun; I learned so much about so many cultures — more than I would have ever done in a traditional study abroad. I was forced to adapt to cultures unlike my own in a very short amount of time, as we were only in each country for 3 to 6 days.
Myself and the 530 other students on my voyage all became world travelers in four months. We circumnavigated the globe! This past December 14 marked exactly one year since the experience of a lifetime ended … and there isn’t one day that passes that I don’t wish I could do it all over again.
About Juliana Zipay: Julia is a 2011 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh with a BA in Communication and minors in Theatre Arts and Film Studies as well as a certificate in Children’s Literature. Her interests include, but are definitely not limited to, social networking, coffee, traveling, learning and sleeping (whenever she can).