Semester at Sea: GO!

Big boat on sea

[cbenjasuwan] / [iStock] / Thinkstock

On a drizzly, middle-of-winter Vancouver morning in 2005, myself and approximately 900 other individuals  – students, professors, administrators, and crewmembers from around the country and world – boarded a ship to cross the Pacific Ocean and begin one of the most adventurous phases of our lives. We were headed for Japan, the first of ten countries we’d visit over the semester, but we didn’t make it there. Instead, we became entrenched within a melting pot of eight separate storms complete with howling, 100-mile winds, nauseating jolting and rolling, 40-foot swells and 60-foot rogue waves. The ship rocked with such flamboyance that at one moment you’d see nothing but the miserable angry sky through the portholes, only to swing to the other side to witness the rush of encroaching water followed by the blackness of the ocean’s depths.

Furniture was shattered and strewn across the ground. TVs ripped free from walls. The waves smashed through the bridge windows. Three of the ship’s four engines were destroyed, along with all the navigational equipment save for a lone GPS unit.

Some of us felt like pirates crossing the savage seas. Others thought we’d die.

On the morning of the rogue waves, we donned orange life vests and huddled to the fifth floor, where outside the lifeboats waited – just in case the ship started to sink – and we wondered if this was it, if the beginning of a supreme adventure was really The End.

Why You Go On Semester At Sea
Semester at Sea is an intensive, head first dive into the culture, politics, history and religions of the world, a study-abroad program unlike any other in which you spend 100 days circumnavigating the globe to visit far-off destinations along the way. You go on Semester at Sea to witness life as it occurs in places completely unlike the one you’re accustomed to. It’s adventure, it’s love, laughter, exploration, misery, grief, tears. It’s soul-enriching, life-changing.

A professor once said, “You should not be able to go around the world and come back unchanged.” He was right. How can you volunteer at the Mother Teresa Orphanage in Chennai, India, hold hands with children with incurable diseases – and not change? What about dancing in a Dalit village? Climbing with locals in Lencois, Brazil? Sharing a meal with a shaman? Discussing the politics of Hugo Chavez in the ghettos of Caracas? Dancing in South African townships? You go on Semester at Sea because it takes your life and shakes it up, turns it around and forces you to consider the uncomfortable. It might shake you up for years. But it’ll be worth it. And if you open yourself up, it’ll change you forever. You should, anyways.

How It Works
Before every port of call you’ll attend classes. You explore, as mentioned above, the culture, politics, history, economics and religions of each country before you arrive. That way you’ll have a richer, deeper understanding of the things you witness. Students from those countries join the ship en route to that next destination to answer questions, demonstrate customs and provide friendship. You spend time devouring travel guides, playing music, performing skits, having debates, swimming in the ships pool, consuming Dramamine and sleeping under the stars, if you choose.

How To Pay For It
Semester at Sea costs a pretty penny, like tens of thousands 100-roll pennies, an amount many of us don’t have. Luckily there are ways around that for those of the lesser socioeconomic classes, like me. It all comes down to those grades, kiddies, and partaking in your education and life as if you’re actually interested in the world and those who inhabit it. For qualified applicants, Semester at Sea offers a variety of scholarships and work-study deals. Bake sales won’t really fly here, the expense is just too high. Aim for scholarships offering serious cash. If you do it right, you can join the ship for next to nothing. But you have to earn it.

We never made it to Japan on my trip, nor North Korea. The ship was docked for repairs after our Captain miraculously navigated us to safety in Hawaii. What ensued was a mad dash of flights to get us first to Shanghai during Chinese New Years, then on to Hong Kong, and down to Saigan, Vietnam, to meet back up with the ship. From there we traveled west to India, Kenya, South Africa, Brazil, Venezuela, finally returning to the U.S. 100 days after the beginning, all of us changed, with waves and waves of new experiences to cherish forever. My advice: Get your shit together, apply to those scholarships, and hop aboard. You won’t regret it.

By Bryan Schatz