Semester at Sea: Student Culture

To be 21-years old is to be unfinished, fearless, and hungry for experience. To be 21-years old is to overestimate yourself – but to be 21-years old on a ship in the middle of the ocean is to start from nothing. It is to heighten and expose every aspect of your personality, both the flattering and the unflattering sides of yourself. Semester at Sea, a study-abroad opportunity that encourages college students to sail around the world while taking university classes, fosters a culture unlike any community I have belonged. To be a voyager on Semester at Sea requires a mental strength I have not yet mastered and a sense of self-assurance I’ve unexpectedly found in myself.

My Semester at Sea journey started before I even set foot on the MV World Odyssey. Deciding to leave the University of Michigan for a semester wasn’t an easy choice. I cherish the time I spend in Ann Arbor with the people who have made me into the person I am now. Deciding to leave my family and friends for four months was to leave a sense of comfort and a sense of belonging.

Deciding to immerse myself in countries and cultures wildly different than my own was to open myself up to possible failure, discomfort, and inconvenience. Deciding to temporarily leave a life with which I was completely happy to expose myself to something more challenging required a love for change and a desire for growth that I wasn’t even sure I had. The first transformation of every Semester at Sea student is to simply apply to the program and to be willing to subject oneself to both unadulterated joy and crippling fear.

The months leading up to my world voyage were consumed with hefty visa applications, a slew of vaccinations, roommate searching, and listing each country off the top of my head to bewildered and concerned friends and family members. It was a time in my life marked by an unwavering anxiety around finding the balance between planning out the next four months and just winging it. Surprisingly, I ended up going (mostly) with the latter.

And by resisting the urge to book overland travel reservations in advance, I was unknowingly beginning to open myself up to a crucial component of the Semester at Sea student culture: spontaneity. The lack of Internet access aboard the MV World Odyssey lends itself to an incredibly inconvenient setting for any sort of pre-planning or schedule-building, but it also creates the ideal environment for impulse and authentic curiosity. We aren’t sure what exactly we’ll find before stepping off the ship at each port, but we’re ready for anything, accepting the unexpected with humility and optimism.

When I crossed the duct tape line on the floor in San Diego that separated myself from my family and stepped onto the ship in Enseñada, Mexico, I never looked back – there simply wasn’t time. Semester at Sea compels voyagers to welcome the future and to savor the present, to use homesickness, apprehension, and anxiety to our advantage. It’s easy to overthink when most of your day consists of self-reflection and daydreaming about the next port. But instead of retreating to our cabins, we emphasize togetherness. We cling to each other rather than to our discomfort, and we listen to each other’s stories and perspectives with open minds. Learning about each other and about the world is our entertainment.

Semester at Sea voyagers are the type of kids who gather on the top deck every single night to mourn the ending of another day as the sun splays itself out on the horizon. We are the type of kids who practice yoga and meditation at sunrise, who cherish our journals and cameras but treasure the present moment more. A semester on the open ocean fosters a community thirsty for experience, cultural interaction, and personal growth. It is a culture that excludes no one. The student culture onboard the MV World Odyssey isn’t characterized by our innumerable differences, but by our overwhelming sameness.

To be 21 years old is to feel as though you are on top of the world; but to be a Semester at Sea voyager is to contextualize yourself within the world, and to be content in your role. To be a voyager is to learn from the world rather than to learn about it and to rediscover yourself among strangers, perhaps even finding that the people with whom you’re surrounded aren’t really strangers at all. I’m looking forward to meeting myself all over again in April; after each country, each sunset, each person, and each wave has molded me into the global citizen that I set out to become.

Images courtesy of: Stephanie Harris