Cultural Experience | Portugal

Semester at Sea: How I Saw the World

8 Countries in 9 Weeks Plus 9 College Credits – Beautiful



One of the first things you consider once you’ve decided to study abroad is what country you want to explore. Italy? England? Australia? Maybe even somewhere out of the ordinary like Kenya or India? For me, this first, elementary step was the hardest. There were so many places I wanted to see (I had never been to Europe before!), I had trouble making this decision – not to mention the countless number of study abroad programs there are out there. Seriously, now I understand why there are study abroad advisors at nearly every college these days. After hours of browsing the web, I remembered the name of a one-of-a-kind study abroad program that one of my sorority sisters had done: Semester at Sea. What made it stand out? You travel to 8 to 11 countries. On a renovated cruise ship. With 500 other university students from around the globe.

View from my room

View from my room

When I flew into the Bahamas, where I would embark on the MV Explorer (my new home for the next 66 day!) I had this eerie feeling that my summer was about to fly by. And here I am, one year from that day in Freeport, left with huge ziploc bags of postcards and ticket stubs (I keep telling myself that I’ll craft…), crazy memories to last me the next few decades, and four, best friends from all over the United States. They say 98% of Semester at Sea alumni claim that their voyage was THE most significant experience during their time at college, and I can safely say I’m in that ridiculous majority.

Where do I even begin? There’s so much that makes up The SAS Experience (and each one is entirely unique), I know I won’t be able to get it all in this single blog post. But, as I’ve had many of my own sorority sisters considering their own stint on the MV Explorer, I’ll throw in some of the questions I keep getting.

What is Semester at Sea? 

Life-changing. A study abroad experience unlike any other, where you can walk across your campus in less than a minute and you never know what language they’re speaking in “the field”. A Semester at Sea is entirely out of your comfort zone and the beginning of your new life.

During my trip to Essaouira, Morocco

During my trip to Essaouira, Morocco

Where countries did you go to? 

I began in Freeport, Bahamas – sailed across the Atlantic Ocean (talk about H2O as scenery for ~10 days), and traveled to Barcelona (Spain), Rome & Naples (Italy), Dubrovnik (Croatia), Athens & Paros (Greece), Istanbul (Turkey), Casablanca & Marrakech (Morocco), and Lisbon (Portugal). Who gets to say they’ve been to all those in just one summer?

At the Alumni Ball, one of the final nights on the MV Explorer

At the Alumni Ball, one of the final nights on the MV Explorer

What classes did you take?

So, mine wasn’t technically a semester, but I did take 9 credits – more than any other study abroad program I was looking at. You could take up to 12 credits on the summer voyages, but no one on the faculty recommended it. I didn’t come into college with 12+ credits like a lot of my W&M peers, so finding a study abroad program that helped in that department was really important to me. While I may have taken more credits than friends who spent only a month in Italy, I never felt like the academics took over my life (…we never had class while in port!). I took Global Studies, an overview of each port’s history, complete with map quizzes we all crammed for last minute, as well as Advanced Creative Writing and Food, Gender, and Culture, which had field work at Les4Gats, one of the absolute best restaurants I’ve ever been to. Not too shabby.

What did you do on the ship?

So, for the 10 days across the Atlantic and the 10 days back, you learn quickly how to swap music and movies with everyone on your hall (USB flash drives are crucial). But really, there’s a ton of other activities; students start interest groups and clubs (I remember there was a ballroom dancing club!) and various speakers are hosted each night (one of my favorites was when Captain Jeremy and his right-hand men spoke to us on what it’s like to be a captain of the MV Explorer) – there’s always opportunities to learn outside of the classroom. One of the fan-favorite extracurriculars is the Extended Family program, where students are paired with Life Long Learners (older adults who audit classes and explore the countries as well) who act as their “mom and dad”. Throughout the voyage, families meet up (typically for meals) and share stories from their time in port. My “dad” was Semester at Sea’s professional photographer, which means we had access to some of the most amazing pictures I’ve seen.

What did you do in port? 

This was probably the reason why I decided to Semester at Sea. We like to say there’s only one real rule on Semester at Sea: you can’t leave the country (basically, you can go anywhere by train, plane, ferry, etc. but you can’t visit another country while in port). After this, there’s pretty much two routes you can take: sign up for Semester at Sea’s sponsored trips (some are just day trips, others last the span of the MV’s stay) or arrange your own independent travel. I think most of us agreed that a combination of the two is your best bet. Independent travel saves a lot of money, but for countries like Italy, where there’s so much to see in just four days, a SAS-sponsored trip is a good way to go (they have everything planned from rooming, food, sight-seeing, etc.). I found it quite freeing to explore these countries as I wanted to and became an expert on all forms of public transportation and how to read a map. I only did one pre-planned trip to Marrakech and loved organizing my own trips to Ibiza and the Greek islands.

What was your favorite country/experience?

I always say Barcelona stole my heart, but I also have to remember it was our first port after much waiting and anticipation. Dubrovnik was stunning; Istanbul was a whole new world. One of my favorite moments was when my best friend, Emily (UVA ’14), and I decided to participate in one of the five prayers at the New Mosque – during Ramandan. After making sure we were dressed appropriately, we took our places in the separate women’s section, located all the way in the back of the mosque. I was extremely nervous that we would come off as immature Americans assuming we could do whatever we wanted, but the Turkish women accepted us graciously, teaching the poses and how to use the prayer beads. While neither of us spoke the other’s language, I will always remember their kindness.

This is only a small sampling of everything that Semester at Sea has to offer. Read my SASsy blog here. You can also learn more about Semester at Sea on their website. Take a big risk – take a Semester at Sea.

The New Mosque, Istanbul

The New Mosque, Istanbul

Jessica Smith

College of William & Mary | 7 stories

Jessica is a rising senior at the College of William & Mary (Williamsburg, VA), studying English and Film Studies. In addition to writing for The College Tourist, she is interning in NYC for Rent The Runway. In 2012, she studied abroad with Semester at Sea, traveling to eight, different countries along the Mediterranean on the MV Explorer. Her favorites include iced coffee, live music, all forms of social media, and Mexican food.

3 responses to “Semester at Sea: How I Saw the World”

  1. […] about study abroad is exciting. Exciting and new. Before embarking on Semester at Sea, I had actually done a bit of traveling (Colombia, South Africa, and China), but I had never been […]

  2. […] most study abroad programs, Semester at Sea‘s campus floats. But actually. We have the largest floating library in the world and the most […]

  3. Val says:

    Hi Jessica,

    Semester at sea looks awesome! I am leaving for the fall SAS in 2 weeks and am so excited to go! From your experience on the ship, is it feasible to be in a relationship during SAS? My boyfriend and I have been dating for about a year and are pretty serious. We don’t know what to do regarding dating/going on a break while I’m away. How often will I be able to talk/email him? Also, do people hook up often on the ship or is it more of one big family?

    Thanks so much!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You Might Also Like

Products We Love