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Saint Mary’s students reflect on Semester at Sea

| Monday, September 4, 2017

Saint Mary’s seniors Madison Marshall and Clare Theisen, along with junior Maura Newell, made waves when they participated in the Semester at Sea program, which is not directly offered through Saint Mary’s, but which the students managed to incorporate into their experiences at the College.

Semester at Sea is a 100-day program that allows students to experience the cultures of ten or more countries in only one semester of school. Students travel on a boat that is slightly smaller than a cruise ship to get from international destination to destination — the destinations change slightly each semester. Newell, who studied abroad last semester, said she attended classes with fellow students from around the world while on the boat.

“We would have class every day we were at sea, so we didn’t really didn’t have weekends,” she said. “The longest we were sailing was 12 days when we went from Hawaii to Japan, and the shortest was two days when we went from Japan to China.”

Newell said as long as students discuss their plans to study abroad with the Registrar Office, their classes can count toward Saint Mary’s credits. Classes cover a range of topics, such as economics, art history, world diplomacy, photography, literature, anthropology, oceanography and religion, she said.

“When we’re on the ship, we study what country we’re going to,” she said. “So in my business economics class, we would talk about the economy of whichever country we were traveling to.”

Students have the option to either pay extra to take classes once the boat docks in a country or to travel independently. However, even if the students opt to travel independently, they must attend at least one field lab while they’re visiting a country. Newell said her art history class met with an artist in Vietnam.

Professors, like students, must also apply to teach for a semester on the ship. Marshall, a marketing major who studied abroad in the fall of 2015, said most of the professors were from the U.S., but some were from other countries.

“All of the professors were from prestigious schools,” she said. “I had professors from Yale and Harvard, which is something I wouldn’t be able to experience anywhere else.”

Newell said the community feeling on the ship was unique because of how close the students live to the faculty.

“When you’re living in close quarters with everyone, you get to know everyone really well,”  Newell said. “You don’t just see your teachers in a professional setting. You see them all over the ship, even walking down the hall in their PJs.”

The ship was equipped with a gym, pool, a theater where students could attend talks or performances and multiple dining halls. Marshall said the ship was similar to the one in the movie Titanic.

“We were lucky that our boat was a new boat,” Marshall said. “It had a Titanic vibe. Everything was elegant and decorative and kind of old-fashioned.”

The ship also had no phone service and no internet for the students. Theisen, who studied abroad with Marshall, said this aspect of the ship made the experience more authentic.

“Because you couldn’t rely on your phone, you were forced to listen and learn.” Theisen said. “When we went abroad, it was around the time of the Paris attacks, so it was interesting to see people’s perspectives from around the world. I grew and learned so much from the people around me.”

Marshall said she made some of her best friends on the ship.

“The relationships I made with other students on the ship aren’t even comparable with any of my other relationships,” Marshall said. “You build this inseparable bond with the people you travel with, even though they start out to be complete strangers.”

Newell was the only Saint Mary’s student on her voyage, but she said it was worth pushing herself outside of her comfort zone for the experience. One of the greatest experiences she had was on her trip to Myanmar, she said.

“We took a hot air balloon and flew over a bunch of pagodas and temples at sunrise,” Newell said. “I went to a little town that most tourists don’t go to. We met a family while we were there, and we stayed with them over night. It was such a different experience.”

Students are able to travel to places such as the United Kingdom, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Spain, Morocco, Senegal, Brazil, Panama, Costa Rica, Japan, Hawaii, Vietnam, Burma, India, Malaysia and Myanmar, Marshall said.

Marshall said one of the highlights from her trip was riding on camels in the Sahara Desert and sleeping in hammocks on the Amazon River.

“Semester at Sea offers you the option to explore so many different places,” Marshall said. “I would have never chosen to go to Senegal, but that was probably one of my favorite places to go to. Every country was so amazing.”

Theisen said one of the biggest advantages of studying abroad on the ship was the personal growth it offered.

“It was a huge learning experience,” Theisen said. “In some places, you were surrounded by poverty, and a lot of people chose not to get off the ship.

“There were times when people would swarm you begging for money, and I had never experienced anything like that. Those situations can be uncomfortable, but that’s when you grow.”

Marshall said she would recommend Semester at Sea to anyone.

“It pushes you to go outside of your comfort zone by spending time on a boat with a bunch of strangers and traveling to different parts of the world I could have never imagined going to,” Marshall said. “It has definitely helped to shape me into the better person I am today.”

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