I first heard of Semester at Sea (SAS) from my friend Alyssa who attended the University of Virginia, the official sponsor of the program. SAS is a study abroad program for college students. They live on a ship that circumnavigates the globe while they take courses and visit various regions. It attracts both youth struck by wanderlust and affluent collegiate party-goers alike.
I was envious that I didn’t spend an entire college semester partying aboard a luxurious ship that docked in exotic locations throughout the world. What was I doing drifting around Manhattan’s Morningside Heights when I could’ve explored Mauritius, Malaysia, and Malta? But as I asked Alyssa about her experience, I learned the cruise wasn’t always luxurious and while partying at sea was an allure for many students, it wasn’t the only one.
SAS’ website states the program offers up to 75 courses ranging from “International Financial Management” to “Drawing at Sea”. Alyssa said two of her favorite courses were oceanography and UN human rights law.
“Every day wherever we ended up sailing, our professor would do a review of what’s happening over this region of the ocean, the trenches, what the currents are like. It was fun.”
The professor for her human rights law class had practiced human rights law and helped design the Khmer Rouge Tribunal.
“Every country that we went to, we’ll cover the human rights issues in the country and the UN laws pertaining to those human rights violations.”
Students didn’t just study; they also partied. How can they not on a 112 day voyage that brings you to 15 cities and 12 countries while you’re surrounded by 720 other students? Some partied more than others. Some even got married.
According to Alyssa, one girl named met a boy from a different school, they dated, and a month into the semester when the SAS ship docked in Ghana, they got married using a traditional Ghanaian wedding ceremony. When the ship arrived in India, the couple flew to Dubai on their own despite a rule that mandated students stay in the port of call. Their flight from Dubai back to India was delayed so they called the crew to ask if the ship could wait for them. They claimed they were in a neighboring city. The captain had caller ID and knew they were calling from Dubai; he summarily expelled them.
There were rumors that another couple got married in Vietnam.
Any college student can attend SAS as long as their school approves of the program and they can afford it. Costs vary depending on the type of room one books aboard the ship and how much one spends at destination cities. An inside double or outside triple room costs $23,950. An outside double is listed at $29,950.
Alyssa and Stephani suggested a hint of socioeconomic stratification. There were the tanners and party-loving rich kids on the upper decks. The lower decks were the favelas whose small cabins lacked windows.
If there were class differences between students, the gap between passengers and the locals of developing countries was even wider. Stephani said it was “grotesque” to dock at poor countries during the day and return at night to a boat with amenities the locals could only dream of. During the last few days of the voyage, the staff auctioned off the privilege of bring the first and second to disembark. The winning bidders paid thousands of dollars. Oddly enough, the third person off the ship got to walk didn’t have to pay anything.