It is not often that you get to have the same once-in-a-lifetime experience twice in your life. I am lucky enough to be reliving Semester at Sea again, giving me a chance to revisit 10 countries (and visit 1 new one!) that I explored nearly 9 years ago as a naive yet curious 21 year-old.
The amazingness of this opportunity is not lost on me.
To prepare for this voyage, I have spent some time reflecting on what was so special and transformative from my first voyage by reading old journals and postcards that I saved, in the hopes of inspiring some new and improved goals for voyage round 2. Basically what I learned from revisiting written records of my first voyage is that I knew that I was having an amazing time and that I was rapidly changing in fundamental ways, but I couldn’t fully articulate the transformation or what specifically was causing it.
Of course hindsight does funny things to the mind, but 9 years later, I think the in-country experiences I had were thrilling and nurtured my now lifelong passion for travel; but, the parts of the voyage that actually changed me were the moments on the ship and within the shipboard community, a realization that I have only fully grasped in the last few weeks.
I don’t look back on my previous experience with anything except awe, pride and happiness; but with the benefit of age and time, there are a few things that I want to do differently this time around. On my first voyage, I was (understandably) most excited about visiting the various port countries and learning in an unconventional classroom, thinking less about the people I would meet or what it would be like to live on the ocean.
I was thrilled to be traveling almost constantly for four months. Every day was exciting, there was something new to discover with each passing port. It was absolutely exhilarating. The in-country portions of the voyage are definitely some of the most memorable parts of the Semester at Sea experience, and rightfully so — it is incredible to visit such a diversity of countries and regions in such a short period of time.
But, this time around I am looking forward to some of the less flashy parts of the experience, like engaging with the diverse shipboard community, being immersed in the internet-free isolation of the ship, and admiring the deep and complex beauty of the ocean.
Does it sound a little crazy that I’m more excited about staring out at the ocean than traveling to 11 countries? Yeah, I get it. But let me explain why.
During my job interview process, Marti Fessenden, the executive dean of the voyage, said something to me that has stuck with me in the months since. She said “The Ship is the 12th country that you didn’t see coming”.
She is 100% correct in that statement.
The ship is your home over the course of the voyage, the comfortable retreat after long days exploring in port. It is the safe place that restores you, while providing the encouragement and support to challenge you. The community housed within the ship’s steel hull feels like a tiny world in itself, perfectly isolated from the outside while containing all the amenities and companionship to sustain fruitful lives within it. The classes open your mind to the world that you are exploring, giving you the nuanced and empathetic window into your unique place in the global community.
And like many things in life, the ship becomes commonplace after a few weeks as you become more and more accustomed to it. You forget to notice the special feeling of life on the ocean. You ignore the unique transformations that come from subtle day-to-day interactions with fellow voyagers. You get annoyed at the joyous yet challenging reprieve from daily Internet access. You stop going out for nightly sunsets on the back deck.
I didn’t appreciate life on the ship nearly enough on my first voyage, distracted by the excitement of visiting so many countries and the fun times I was having with my new friends that felt like family. I won’t make that mistake again.
Life on the ship really does change you and I want to be present for every second of that change.
While alumni straight out of the program might not be able to fully articulate the ways in which Semester at Sea changes them, with time many alumni come to understand, like I did, all the deep and often fundamental ways that the experience transforms you.
Skeptics often view Semester at Sea as an “easy” semester or not “academically rigorous”, which is a stereotype that I understand but not one that I agree with. The Semester at Sea academic experience is unlike any other, living and learning in the same place while surrounded by the world as your classroom, which brings a unique set of challenges to the academic experience.
It is unconventional, but not less powerful or educational. I feel as though I learned more practical and relevant subjects and skills during my semester on the MV Explorer than I would have back at my home institution, even if the tests and homework load weren’t as traditionally taxing as it might have been at home.
Semester at Sea teaches you how to adapt to a constantly changing routine, how to communicate without common language, and where you fit in a globally connected society. Semester at Sea teaches you that your choices in one corner of the world can have deep ramifications in the opposite corner of the world.
Are these traits traditionally taught in a classroom? No, but they are no less valuable to being a productive, empathetic and well-rounded adult, which at the end of the day, is what education should be providing, right?