Why Going On 'Semester At Sea' Was The Best Decision Of My Life

semester at seaJaclyn at the Cape of Good Hope

Photo: Courtesy of Jaclyn Bouchard

Study abroad programs have become increasingly popular for U.S. college students, but for those who can’t decide on just one foreign location, there’s another awesome—if expensive—alternative: Semester at Sea.Sponsored by the University of Virginia, the program takes several hundred students per semester on a four-month, round-the-world adventure on a cruise ship called the MV Explorer, where they take a full slate of courses and are given free reign to explore 15 or so scheduled ports of call.

Click here to see Jaclyn’s trip >
Jaclyn Bouchard, who now works at New York-based startup Recyclebank, attended Semester at Sea in 2009 when she was a student at Towson University. She says it was, without question, the best decision of her life. “You definitely have to be flexible and OK with a ‘fly by the seat of your pants’ atmosphere,” she wrote to us in an email. “You never knew what the next day would be like for 120 days straight.”

Even three years later, Jaclyn thinks about the experience every day. “It takes a certain person to be dropped into and pulled out of vastly different countries every other week,” she said. “Semester at Sea taught me how to to lead, think on my feet, be gracious and accept other people’s beliefs, customs and habits—whether it was because I was in their homeland or crammed on a ship with them.”

The experience isn’t cheap. Bouchard said that her four-month trip cost between $35,000 and $40,000 (including tuition, travel, and spending money), while a semester at Towson would have cost around $13,000.

The upcoming spring semester aboard the MV Explorer costs between $23,750 and $38,690, depending on room type. That figure excludes flights, textbooks, and visas. There are scholarships and financial aid available, and the program’s website says it awards $4 million in financial aid annually.

Bouchard shared some photos from her voyage with us, and told us what the experience was like.

Jaclyn's 4-month journey started in Nassau, Bahamas, where she boarded a cruise ship with 700 other students bound for Cadiz, Spain. The 8-day trip was crammed with classes, said Jaclyn (below).

The MV Explorer (with the blue hull) wouldn't be out of place in the Royal Caribbean fleet. But it's been specially outfitted for studying, with wireless internet, a 9,000-volume library, and student union.

Many days were spent at sea during the semester, and students had to find creative ways to entertain themselves. Here's the limbo event during the Ship Olympics.

Here, the ship refueled off the coast of Gibraltar. The 24,000-ton passenger ship can hold as many as 720 students.

Riding camels though Marrakesh, Morocco, one of the first ports of call.

Here's Jaclyn standing the Cape of Good Hope in South Africa, the southernmost tip of the continent. Every semester has a slightly different itinerary.

Then it was off to India, where Jaclyn spent five days travelling through Chennai, Delhi, New Delhi, Agra, and Jaipur. She said she was struck by the country's extremes, from poverty to the Taj Mahal.

Taking in the Taj Mahal.

One perk of living aboard a cruise ship? The pool. It's located on the top deck, not far from the lounge and workout centre.

Hanging with the elephants in Bangkok, Thailand.

After the ship docked in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, Jaclyn traveled to the Cu Chi tunnels, where the Viet Cong hit out during the Vietnam War.

Getting some shopping done in Hong Kong. Of course, the semester wasn't all fun: Jaclyn's course load included physics, biomedical ethics, and a global studies course.

In Japan, Jaclyn backpacked through Osaka, Kyoto, Kobe, Tokyo and Yokohama, taking cabs, subways, bullet trains, and even hitchhiking from one city to the next.

We know we said there was work involved but...Jaclyn said this was a typical day at sea. Hard to complain.

After a brief stop in Honolulu, the ship headed to Guatemala. At the Guatemala City dump she saw homeless families sifting through waste to scavenge for recyclables they could sell.

One of the final parts of the journey was a trip through the Panama Canal. Here's Jaclyn posing in front of a lock.

Don't want to wait until you're in college to travel the world?

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