Semester at Sea teaches valuable lesson in an untraditional environment

This August, 574 other college students and I walked up the gangway and aboard the MV Explorer for the very first time – the ship that we would call home for the next four months. We were about to enter the world of Semester at Sea as well as begin the experience of a lifetime.

In celebration of sailing with the program on its 50th anniversary voyage, students, faculty and staff crowded the top decks and blew farewell bubbles out to the Port of Southampton in England. By 20:00 that day, we were officially on our way to explore 15 countries and 17 cities of Europe, Africa and South America.

I chose the Semester at Sea program because of my interest in traveling. I am the type of person who likes to see and do as much as I possibly can. Waking up with a view of the ocean every morning isn’t too shabby either. As one of seven students from the University of Miami, we are adapting well to meeting all types of people and engaging in all aspects of shipboard life, from classes to social functions.

A global study abroad program operated by the Institute for Shipboard Education (an educational nonprofit organization) and academically sponsored by the University of Virginia, Semester at Sea is a one-of-a-kind study abroad program that transports its passengers to countries all over the world via a 836 passenger, 25,000-ton, 590-foot-long ship – the MV Explorer. The Fall 2013 voyage, entitled “Atlantic Exploration,” will take 115 days – a typical college semester – to complete.

Semester at Sea’s motto is, “The world is our classroom.” After embarkation in Southampton, England, the MV Explorer docked in Russia, Germany, Belgium and France. We are now on our way to Ireland, Portugal, Spain, Morocco, Ghana, South Africa, Argentina, Brazil and, for the first time in nine years, Cuba. On Dec. 16, students will disembark in Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

For many of these ports, we students have the opportunity to stay overland and meet the MV Explorer at its next port of call in order to immerse ourselves in the cultures of these countries even further. Our last ports of call, Belgium and France, were an example. After disembarking in Antwerp, Belgium, I traveled to Paris to stay with another University of Miami student who is studying abroad there. Five days later, I met the MV Explorer in Le Havre, France.

The MV Explorer serves as Semester at Sea’s floating campus. Students attend classes as they would at their home universities, except that there are only nine classrooms, one computer lab and one library to navigate; not to mention a constant view of the vast ocean from every direction. Classes cover myriad subjects to accommodate interests as well as the credit needs of students’ home institutions. Most students take four classes, ranging from international economies to sustainable communities.

Students come from all over to embark on the voyage and represent more than 247 colleges and universities across the United States and abroad. Lifelong learners, faculty, staff and their families and crew comprise the rest of the shipboard community, with a population totaling 759.

Equipped with a fitness center, weight-lifting area, spa, recreational decks, a student union and even a swimming pool that could easily be mistaken for a hot tub, the MV Explorer serves as much more than an academic institution, as it clearly encompasses many aspects of a traditional college campus.

In addition, students can form and join student clubs, and enroll in programs such as “Extended Families,” where five to seven students get matched up with faculty, staff, or a lifelong learner to become a family away from home. Lifelong learners are any passengers aged 40 or above who want to sail on the voyage. They can sit in on classes and participate in all of the other facets of shipboard life. My extended family often gathers around to hear stories from our faculty member, a former astronaut, who tells us about his three missions to outer space.

Much has changed since Semester at Sea first began as “The University of the Seven Seas” in 1963, but 50 years later, the program continues to offer its students the same things: A one-of-a-kind global learning experience that prepares them to function as citizens in a global economy and creates awareness through real-world opportunities in addition to classroom learning. For me and the other 573 students on board, these are experiences that will shape us. They are also what we will apply to our lives at home and back at our own universities.

For more information about the Institute for Shipboard Education, and Semester at Sea visit