Semester at Sea -- Not Just for the College Kids

| June 6, 2008

Semester at Sea is known as a seafaring program for college kids, but did you realize that lots of adults take advantage of this unique cruising option too?

"My friends couldn't understand why I would want to spend several months on a "cruise ship" with a bunch of kids, but that's only because they're nowhere near as adventuresome as me."

This quote came from an acquaintance I met onboard a traditional cruise ship. "Bud" was close to 80 and very, very well traveled. Among his fondest travel experiences was the 108-day Semester at Sea sailing he had taken a few years back.

I had long been interested in the Semester at Sea concept, especially as it applied to adult learners, but Bud was the first person I met who had ever actually sailed one of their voyages. Also surprising -- at least to me -- was the fact that he had actually enjoyed it and wanted to maybe go again one day.

Take a Cruise to go to School? For the uninitiated, Semester at Sea is a unique program that offers college students the opportunity to travel the world by cruise ship for a semester, while learning about the different cultures of both their fellow students onboard as well as those they meet on land at the various port calls. The Semester at Sea program is supported by a host of colleges and universities, many of whom participate in voyages themselves by sending their professors and other support personnel to assist with providing the program offerings.

Probably the most unique thing about Semester at Sea, though, is their willingness to incorporate what they call "lifelong learners" into their programs. Lifelong learners are adults, many of them well into their retirement years, who join various Semester at Sea Voyages for the opportunity to learn as well as mentor the many college-aged students on a typical voyage. This is the experience that was related to me by my somewhat "adventuresome" friend, Bud.

"Don't confuse the Semester at Sea experience with that of a more traditional cruise," he cautioned me. "Semester at Sea is nothing like a "real" cruise, especially during the regular semester voyages. Where on a cruise ship, you'll have nice sit-down dinners every night, on this ship you'll take all of your meals "cafeteria style." The food will be good, but the presentation will be no-frills. The staterooms too are nowhere near as elaborate as what you'd find on a regular cruise ship. First of all, this ship is older, and as such, it doesn't have staterooms with balconies. So, the best you can get are oceanview accommodations. The price, too, won't be much less than what you would pay for a voyage of similar length on a modern cruise ship, though what you will get for your money on Semester at Sea's ship is far more.

You'll Get to be a Kid Again! "You'll get the chance to be a kid again" is how my friend described it. "Lifelong learners are encouraged to develop friendships and mentoring relationships with the students. We, in effect, become their surrogate grandparents, and that really eases a lot of the homesickness these kids may feel, especially since, for many of them, this is their first time being so far away from home."

Lifelong learners with Semester at Sea also get a few other benefits that you would never find on a more traditional cruise. First off, they are welcome to sit in on any class that may interest them. Classes are held everyday at sea, and all regular students enrolled in the program generally carry a full load of classes. This would amount to generally no more than five courses, including a mandatory global studies course that every program participant must take.

Lifelong learners enjoy the best of both worlds in this regard. Since they're not getting college credit for the courses, they can pick and choose from among those offerings that appeal to them. They are also under no requirements to turn in homework assignments or take tests, since grades are not a consideration with them.

There are about 700 full-time students enrolled in the Semester at Sea program on each full semester voyage, and half that on summer trips. They also share their classrooms with any number of lifelong learners, usually between ten and 50 on a full semester voyage, and find that they learn almost as much from them as they do from their professors. In fact, the professors often rely upon the lifelong learners to help students who may be struggling since many of the lifelong learners are themselves highly educated college graduates.

Extensive Field Program In addition, Semester at Sea students participate in an extensive field program. This field program would be similar to a shore excursion program on a regular cruise ship, with the exception that Semester at Sea's "shore excursion" program is designed to immerse the student in the local culture of the areas visited. Some involve participating in various service projects, while others provide cultural experiences that no way could be provided by reading a book about the locale. Some of these, such as overnight homestays immerse the students into the daily lives of the people living in the countries where the ship makes stops.

Lifelong learners are also welcomed into the field program activities, and they often choose to participate in various service projects right alongside the younger learners, even though they are under no obligation to do so.

The ship that serves as home to the Semester at Sea program is the MV Explorer. You may remember reading about this ship in the news a couple of years back when it was hit by a rouge wave that caused some damage. Following that incident, the ship was described by the Maritime Telecommunications Network as "one of the safest ships afloat," especially since not one person onboard suffered even the slightest injury as a result of the incident.

The ship was built in 2002 and it has six passenger decks (minuscule by today's standards). It has a passenger capacity of 836 (double occupancy) and a gross tonnage of 25,000 tons. Adult learners have their cabins in areas that are segregated from the kids, and it should be noted that the single supplements for these cabins are very, very reasonable.

The MV Explorer offers two full semester voyages (spring and fall) and one summer voyage under the Semester at Sea program. The fall and spring semester sailings last approximately 108 days and usually visit about ten different countries. The summer voyage visits about eight countries, and lasts 67 days. Port stops are generally for multiple days so that the students can participate in field service projects and activities.

Special Enrichment Voyages Perhaps you think you'd like to do a Semester at Sea voyage as a lifelong learner, but just don't have this amount of free time as of yet. Or, maybe you're concerned about spending so much time onboard surrounded by a bunch of "rowdy" kids. Well, not to worry! When the MV Explorer is not sailing for Semester at Sea, a variety of "enrichment voyages" are offered onboard strictly for adult learners. For these special voyages, the amenities are kicked up a notch, to give adults more of what they would expect in a traditional cruise experience, plus a whole lot more. For example, the ship boasts the amenities of a full-service spa on these more "adult" voyages, and there is generally table service for the dinner meal, as well as limited room service. A limited children's program is also available on these trips. Unlike a traditional cruise, a full program of enrichment classes and sessions are included in each voyage. These are a series of in-depth classes that cover a wide range of topics including current events related to the places visited, as well as a variety of cultural-type class offerings. These special voyages also include "Circles of Interest," a unique series of lectures that could include anything from technology issues to cruise ship operations. As with all of the regular Semester at Sea sailings, these special Enrichment Voyages also include a variety of field experiences that can be had on shore for minimal cost.

Upcoming Enrichment Voyages include an Amazon Expedition of 21 days sailing in December of this year, and a "Passage Through Panama" voyage of 14 days being offered in May of 2009.

Another unique feature of the MV Explorer is its 8,000 volume onboard library. This facility is also open to those taking the Enrichment Voyages, as well as free use of a complete onboard computer lab, with FREE internet access. The ship is also Wi-Fi enabled to provide wireless access throughout the vessel.

These shorter, more adult-oriented Enrichment Voyages would seem to be the perfect option for those adult learners who really wanted something more than a traditional cruise experience, but didn't have the amount of time necessary to do one of the Semester at Sea sailings. I asked my friend, Bud, if he would ever consider taking one of Semester at Sea's "Enrichment Voyages," geared specifically for adult learners.

"No," he replied. "For me, it just wouldn't be the same. The kids wouldn't be there and it was the kids that made Semester at Sea so much fun. Without them, it would probably just be another run-of-the-mill cruise, despite the special enrichment programs offered."

A Typical Day on a Semester at Sea Voyage? I asked Bud what a typical day was like for him with Semester at Sea.

"Oh, there really was no 'typical' day," he assured me. "There were only schedule type days. The kids had two different schedule days -� either A or B -- and which one it was would determine what two classes they had on their agenda that day, along with their Global Studies class. I'd typically stay with a class for a few weeks, moving along to something else then if I started getting bored. But most of the time I kept the same schedule of classes not so much because the class was interesting, but because of the friendships I was building with the kids in that class. They'd come to me for advice on homework assignments or projects, and even sometimes for personal advice. We developed a mutual sense of trust and even affection, and I really, really hated to lose some of them at the end of the trip."

Bud also told me about the field projects he worked on. "Some of the kids asked me to help them on one of their service projects. They were going into a school to do a culture exchange sort of thing, playing music, singing and otherwise swapping cultural experiences with the children at this particular school. They wanted to build some life-sized puppets and since I had worked for many years in the theater, they asked me to help them. We probably went over the top, these puppets were so elaborate, but the kids at the school were thrilled with them, so it was worth it. Our presentation was even videotaped and is used today in the promo materials for Semester at Sea."

Just as Bud said, it is experiences such as these that change you for the better and so enrich your life.

I asked Bud if he would ever take another Semester at Sea voyage. "In a heartbeat," he responded without hesitation. The only problem with these voyages is the steep price tag. They cost almost as much as a regular world cruise, though you get so much more for the money. "How can you put a monetary value on the relationships that develop between you and those kids?" Bud asked. "But I would surely go again, just as soon as I save up some money."

This brings up another interesting twist to the whole Semester at Sea program. While the University of Virginia is currently Semester at Sea's academic sponsor, and provides many of the professors who travel on the program's voyages, they also seek professors from other institutions via a link on their website. So, if you have any experience teaching on the college or university level, this could be your chance to travel with Semester at Sea without it costing you a dime. You can apply for various professorships right on Semester at Sea's website.

But, what if you're not a college professor? Well, you're not out of the running yet. Semester at Sea also recruits for a host of administrative and support positions onboard the ship. These range from administrative assistants who work with the various faculty members, to onboard photographers, and just about everything in between -- including something called a "conduct officer." (Sound like your high school disciplinarian?) These positions too can be applied for right from Semester at Sea's website.

Interested in More Information? I remember when I was a little kid so many years ago. I always wondered what it would be like to live on a large ship, just going from country to country and learning about the people who lived there. I guess I imagined myself a modern day explorer, seeking to share cultural traits and customs. Semester at Sea would seem to be the realization of that dream, not to mention just a great way for college-aged kids to see a bit of the world before they graduated and became burdened down with normal adult responsibilities. I only wish I had been so lucky those so many years ago when I was a student. I only pray that a program like Lifelong Learners is still available when I am old enough to take advantage of it.

For more information about Semester at Sea or Enrichment Voyages (for adult learners), just go to Semester at Sea's website and click on the various links that interest you. There's a wealth of information there, and one could keep themselves busy for days just wading through it all.

And then, who knows, maybe I'll see you onboard a Semester at Sea voyage one day in the not too distant future. We can always hope, right?

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