Semester at Sea offers foreign learning experience

This past spring, 14 University of Miami students spent the semester cruising around the globe on the world’s largest floating university.

The Semester at Sea program has given 45,000 students the opportunity to travel the world since its inception in 1963. Last spring’s voyage took students to 12 countries on four continents in 100 days. Ports of call included San Juan, Puerto Rico; Capetown, South Africa; Kobe, Japan; and Port Louis, Mauritius.

Semester at Sea is academically sponsored by the University of Virginia and administered by the Institute for Shipboard Education, a non-profit organization.

Most students take four classes, which meet daily, while on board, including a required global studies class that aims to teach students about the countries they will be visiting.

Occasionally students are given assignments to complete while in port, said junior Tiffany Provenzano, who participated in the program in the spring.

“Classes were definitely no joke,” Provenzano said. “I had to pull several all-nighters.”

Each semester, the 700 participants are boarded in standard cruise ship-style rooms. Two students share a bedroom and a bathroom, and maid service is provided daily.

In port, students can participate in Semester at Sea sponsored programs and tours, or choose to venture out on their own.

Jonathan Atwood, a senior and spring participant, said students are given the freedom to travel throughout the countries but must be back on the ship in time to set sail.

Through Semester at Sea, students are also given the opportunity to participate in community service projects in port. Provenzano and others worked with mentally disabled children in Vietnam and in impoverished townships in South Africa.

Other noteworthy Semester at Sea sponsored programs included safaris in Africa, a visit to the Taj Mahal in India and the chance to march in a parade with musicians during Carnival in Brazil.
Students said they came away from the program with a broader understanding of the global community.

“We’re all connected,” said Jake Coley, a senior and spring participant. “Our decisions and actions affect the people around us. You realize how small the world really is and what you do could have an effect on someone halfway around the world.”

Safety of the participants in the program is a main concern for Semester at Sea faculty and staff. In 2005 a rogue wave hit the vessel, knocking out the ship’s navigation system and shutting down three of the engines. In 1996 four Semester at Sea students died when their tour bus crashed near Delhi, India.

“When you’re in these countries you’re going to run in to a lot of stuff that’s out of our hands,” said Christine Papandrea, assistant director of Communications and Public Relations for Semester at Sea. “We tell [the students] what they’ll be in contact with and to use their best judgment when traveling on their own.”

She also noted that the program has a strong safety policy.

“When you have a bunch of college students traveling for the first time there’s bound to be a bunch of people with accidents,” said Coley, adding that he never had any concern for his safety.

A semester’s tuition runs around $20,000 but financial assistance is available in the form of federal grants and loans, as well as Semester at Sea grants, scholarships and work study programs.

Provenzano and Atwood said their merit-based UM scholarships and grants were non-transferable.

“[Coming home] was kind of bittersweet,” Atwood said. “It made me really appreciate my life a lot because there are things we take for granted like running water or a toilet. The United States seems very different to me now.”

Stacey Weitz may be contacted at