The ship is the floating campus of Semester at Sea of the Institute of Shipboard Education, where, each semester, over 500 students spend four months abroad in nearly a dozen countries.
It is both an immersive and a comparative experience, as participants explore the similarities and differences between countries and cultures within the intergenerational SAS community.
Semester at Sea has a storied history that began with its maiden voyage in 1963. On past programs, learners have met heads of state, Nobel Laureates, and other notable figures in politics, academia, and entertainment.
Over the past 60 years and 100 plus voyages, more than 74,000 voyagers have become SAS alumni.
This unique community is composed of university students from across the globe who receive college credit from SAS/ISE academic partner Colorado State University. Faculty offer over 70 rigorous academic courses and lead in-country field classes and programs.
There are also gap year students and high school seniors who have enough credits to graduate early and study abroad. And there is even a cohort of lifelong learners who audit courses and participate in classes, excursions, and activities, right alongside the students.
They, along with the many staff onboard, compose the “staculty,” many of whom also bring their families aboard, including their young children, known as “ship kids.”
Each semester, voyagers aged 3 to 87 bring varied experiences, knowledge, perspectives, languages, and traditions aboard, and are what makes this unique community truly dynamic.
Stakeholders as Storytellers
“You are the storytellers,” professor Kelly Long asserted during one of her Global Studies classes. “Every one of you has a story to tell about this journey, about your experience, and about your lives.”
I had the opportunity to listen to the stories of a myriad of voyagers. While each was markedly different, there were several overarching themes that emerged, regardless of one’s age or role on the ship.
The themes of curiosity, sense of belonging, and a call to action were resounding.
When this triad of concepts was further triangulated with the SAS model, the outcomes were powerful – and the potential for change limitless.
In an interview with The PIE, SAS/ISE CEO Scott Marshall reflected upon the program’s impact on students as “the optimal type of experience that transforms how young adults see the world – a truly deep learning experience.”
The nuanced lens through which to view was a theme resonated with all of the students on board who spoke with The PIE.
Jenna McMahon, a journalism major at Chico State University, spoke about stereotypes and how they can propel the divisive conversation in the US about race and ethnicity.
“Having this [SAS] experience will help me teach others that they can change their mindset. With accurate information, they can change the way they think about other people and places.”
Julia Carino of Clemson University spoke about meeting an international student from an area impacted by conflict.
She said their friendship helped her grasp a better understanding of the struggles of people in war-torn nations, as well as of her own privilege, and fuelled a desire to reconcile the two.
“Meeting her and being able to hear her stories and how the [war in Ukraine] has affected her are things that are far from me, and I didn’t fully understand. It has really enlightened me on the American privilege I have,” Carino said.
“Through my time abroad, my mind has been opened to the power of communication”
Gap year student Reagan Driggers spoke about the power of intercultural communication as a way of helping her connect with others.
“Traveling the world amongst others who are also passionate and curious about differing cultures, people, and countries is quite special. Through my time abroad, my mind has been opened to the power of communication.
“Communication is vital to developing, maintaining, and transmitting culture and can be seen in both verbal and nonverbal ways,” Driggers explained.
Lifelong learner and four-time SAS voyager Becky Hitchcock begins each morning by greeting fellow travellers at breakfast with intention cards, for those who wish to select a word of the day.
These cards have become a mainstay of the voyage with travellers seeking out Becky to draw their daily card. “They have identified with the cards very strongly,” said Becky.
“When you’re on a ship like this, there are so many unknowns. But each morning there was a connection with a person and a card, and it gave them something to look forward to.
“There were meaningful and tender stories that emerged from conversations students shared about the word on their card. It was very powerful. It formed a closeness, even within a big community.
“Lifelong learners enhance the voyage tremendously. When everyone can come together in an authentic, genuine, way, it creates room for creativity, which is vital in creating positive change,” Driggers concluded.
12-year-old Lars Horhager is a ship kid, whose parents are both SAS professors.
Lars quickly became immersed in the shipboard community. He audits the global studies course and said that course, along with his standing afternoon card games with older students, are the best parts of his day.
Summing up his experience on program, Lars referenced a quote from his father, “Expectation minus reality equals happiness”. He said for him this means people enter experiences with certain expectations and once they are placed in the situation, they are met with the realities of it. When one can reconcile the two, he pointed out, it allows room for joy to enter.
“Lifelong learners enhance the voyage tremendously”
Lars also shared his intention to keep in touch with the students he has met and hopes to reconnect with professor Scott Denning.
Lars relished Denning’s slide decks about each country and said he has kept each deck and looks forward to revisiting them once he has returned home, as a way of reflecting upon his journey.
Denning’s first SAS voyage began in January 2020 – a historic and short-lived voyage upended by the pandemic. Coming back in 2023, he was immensely grateful for the unique opportunities and experiences each voyage brought.
“[SAS] is a life-changing, transformational experience,” said Denning. “It’s one of the best educational things I have ever done in my life.
“We are all part of this shared experience that allows us to form bonds, to trust one another, and to get to know each other as human beings who embark on a big adventure together – and that facilitates a different, powerful level of teaching and learning that I’ve never encountered before.”
In reflecting upon what he will take away from the experience, Denning said he not only brings back the experiences of being out in the world.
“More importantly, I bring back the sure knowledge of building connections with students and colleagues as people.”
Reflections upon Disembarkation
Before my own voyage, something I had heard repeatedly about Semester at Sea from alumni, faculty, and leadership is that SAS is a welcoming community in which there is room for everyone.
“I bring back the sure knowledge of building connections with students”
Having just arrived at the second to last port on Voyage 131, those on board had long since formed strong bonds as they travelled from Dubai to Morocco, with seven countries in between and only two ports remaining.
Yet despite my late arrival, this community of staculty, students, and lifelong learners welcomed me with open arms, minds, and hearts.
They were curious to learn about my career in international education and about my experiences abroad, and eager to share stories of their own journeys.
At the final lecture of the semester, passing around a giant globe and a Sharpie, professor Scott Denning, chair of the global studies department challenged students of all ages to sign their name on the globe.
“As you prepare to leave this voyage,” he said, “I ask each of you to pledge to make the world a better place.”
As voyagers of all ages signed the globe, they reflected about the countries they visited on the voyage and the memories they made.
Their pledges were both those silent and spoken, and many were overcome by the journey’s deep significance on their life.
Voyagers shared that their response to this call to action was to rise to the occasion, and apply the knowledge they co-created together on this voyage – the academic, the experiential and the intergenerational – to enact change, inspire others, and help solve the world’s most pressing issues.