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Study Abroad: Semester At Sea

by Amanda Throckmorton Apr 21, 2010
One Matador U student shares firsthand about her experience with Semester at Sea.

I looked up to see the M.V. Explorer about 300 yards away. Ignoring the dirt roads, I was running through wet fields to where she was docked. Having ditched my friends in Yangon for the comforts of my bed, I was alone and in a hurry to get through the dark shipyard and onto the dimly lit ship. Just then I heard bicycle pedals and men shouting in Burmese.

“Stop!” one of the three men screamed.

I stopped when I recognized the panic in his tone.

“Snakes! Snakes!”

I heard a rattling sound rise in a chorus around me; I was running through a field full of sleeping rattlesnakes. Before I could scream, my adrenaline kicked in and I sprinted toward the nearest road.

As I awkwardly stumbled to safety and waved in thanks, the Burmese men looked relieved and slightly amused.

Just one more thing I never expected from Semester at Sea.

Studying at Sea

Usually when you think of studying abroad, you think of living in one place for a semester or a whole academic year. If you sign up for Semester at Sea you will instead circumnavigate the globe aboard a ship for about 100 days. Once on board you will take classes, explore different countries, and likely to find yourself in some unexpected situations both on and offshore.

Voyages take place during the spring, fall and summer semesters, although while full-semester trips dock at 10-12 international ports, summer trips only stop at 8. During the spring or fall you can earn up to 15 transfer credits, and during the summer you can earn up to 12.

Students live on a 25,000-ton ship called the M.V. Explorer. The ship can cruise at up to 28 knots, has six decks, a pool, gym, and a salon. There are nine classrooms on the ship where students take classes, study, or simply lounge. There are two separate dining halls, along with outside decks that are popular with students for catching sunset views. On board you’ll also find a computer lab, library, and campus store.

You can choose cabin accommodations with inside or outside views, although different views are different prices. A porthole serves as your view to the outside world and can offer quite the show during rough waters. Furnishings in a double room consist of two beds, one shared wardrobe, two nightstands and a desk.

A steward does your laundry, makes your bed daily, and folds your clothes. These services and amenities can be a strange juxtaposition to the countries visited when off the ship.

You will come to see your professors as part of your community much more than you would in a traditional university setting.
The Classes

Classes run when the ship is at sea, and students are free to explore on the days the ship is docked. All students are required to take Global Studies, a class where you learn about the countries you will visit.

Students are also expected to take three or four additional classes. It’s best to research the class offerings beforehand and get the approval from your home university to make sure what you are taking is transferable. Many students save general education requirements such as art or science to complete while at sea.

Professors on the ship are selected for each voyage, so for them it may also be their first time living at sea and visiting international ports. As a student, you will come to see your professors as part of your community much more than you would in a traditional university setting.

Trips and Field activities

Field activities are organized by the ship staff and offer students cool and educational opportunities in each port. The type of trips that may be offered on a voyage include things like touring an orphanage in India, exploring a museum in Brazil, or visiting the townships of Cape Town, South Africa. Semester at Sea sets up flights, buses and accommodations for you. All you have to do is show up on time.

The ship docks at each country for three to seven days, and in that time you are free to explore at your own leisure. In some countries you may want to skip out on your own, other times you may want to sit back and have someone else do the planning.


The University of Virginia is the academic sponsor of Semester at Sea, so the credits you receive will be transferred from that university. To be eligible to apply, you must be enrolled full time at an accredited university, have completed at least one full term at post-secondary level, and have a cumulative G.P.A of 2.75 or higher.

In order to get credit for your semester abroad, your university may require additional applications. Each university has its own study abroad policies, so it’s best to find out these details early in the process.

Once accepted, you’ll need to get your vaccinations in line and research which classes offered by Semester at Sea will count for credit at your home university. When it comes time to pack for the trip, make sure you account for all the souvenirs, clothes and trinkets you’ll pick up along the way.

Many of my family members have participated in Semester at Sea, including my mother. I can remember looking back at pictures of my mom in Africa and counting down the years until I was in college and could experience for myself the places in the pictures she showed me.

And finally, I did – rattlesnakes and all.

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