MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

SEMESTER AT SEA Study Abroad: Ship Life


If you’ve never lived on a ship for nearly four months, you would think I’m crazy when I say I prefer “ship life” to “land life”, but it’s true.

They can’t keep me away. After sailing as a student on the Spring 2011 study abroad academic voyage, I then sailed again on the May 2013 Enrichment Voyage around Northern Europe last year!

I am a Semester at Sea fanatic and my hope is that by sharing my knowledge and experience with SAS, I can convince some of you to sail around the world too.

Ocean view from the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

A big part of the Semester at Sea experience is SHIP LIFE.

The MV Explorer, the current ship in use by the study abroad program known as Semester at Sea, has been transporting students around the world since 2004. The current ship is the fifth floating university since the program first began 50 years ago in 1963.

MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

While the ship is not the most massive cruise ship you’ll ever come across, it is a perfect size for international travel. For example, we were the largest ship ever able to enter the Amazon River, a milestone that occurred for the first time during my Spring 2011 voyage.

The ship is made up of six accessible decks (Deck 2 – Deck 7) with the bottom three decks being strictly residential.

A Deck 2 Outside Cabin on the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

View from a Deck 2 Porthole on the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

Here is a brief description of Decks 5-7.

Deck 5: Dining room (a large buffet dining setting with inside seating only); Tymitz Square (a good meeting area that is equivalent to a student center — with an activities desk and Purser’s desk); Staff offices (like the Executive and Academic Deans).

Deck 6: Garden Lounge (a casual buffet dining setting with inside and outside seating); Two campus stores (one with SAS-themed attire and the other with school supplies and hygiene products); Library; Computer lounge; Piano lounge (a hang-out spot for students); the Union (a large lecture hall); and a dozen or so classrooms.

Deck 7: Pool and recreation deck; outside fitness center with free weight machines; inside fitness center with treadmills, bikes, and ellipticals; wellness center that offers (for a fee) hair & nail services, massages, waxing, a sauna, and more; Glazer lounge (the faculty lounge off-limits to students during academic voyages).

MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

The ship itself is impeccably clean both inside and out. It is taken care of by the incredible crew, which is managed by V.Ships, the largest supplier of ship management in the world.

I truly have nothing but praise for the endless hard work that is showcased by the MV Explorer’s crew, who are usually seen with a big genuine smile. Shout-out to my favorites — the Jamaicans, Peter and Jerry!

My favorite crew member, Jamaican Peter, on the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

Extracurricular Activities include…

– Intramural sports (like basketball and volleyball)

– Group exercise (like yoga, zumba, P90x, and more)

– Musical groups, dance groups, theater groups

– Spiritual and religious services

– Model UN

– Greek clubs (fraternities and sororities)

– LGBTQA club

– and a LOT more…

Basically if you have a skill or interest you would like to share with others, you can create a club or meeting. For example, Cherie King of the Travel Bee, was a deaf student from Idaho during my voyage and she taught American Sign Language to students interested in learning.

Students onboard the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from the Spring 2011 Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

There are always many things going on around the ship. Daily announcements are made by…

“The Voice”: a selected staff-member that reminds the shipboard community of activities and usually with a corny joke thrown in there for good measure. I can’t believe I actually miss being woken up by the ding-ding-ding-ding each morning.

Preport: A meeting held in the Union (and also broadcasted on the TVs in each cabin and some public areas like the Piano Lounge) that covers useful information for each port the evening before arrival. An example of what pre-port covers would include: helpful phrases in the local language, currency exchange, location of highlights to see and explore, cultural norms, history as well as recent news in the country, etc.

A world map from the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

Sea Olympics: This fun day takes place during a day-off from classes usually taking place around the time the ship crosses the equator. The residential areas of the ship are split into seas — Aegean Sea (the best), Mediterranean Sea, Baltic Sea, Red Sea, and so on.

The Aegean Sea at the Spring 2011 Sea Olympics of Semester at Sea via

A committee, which you can join early on in the semester, organizes the variety of competitions to be held throughout the day. Some students even choose to shave their heads in celebration of crossing the equator, a tradition established by the Navy.

I participated in the Synchronized Swimming event and had a total blast making a fool of myself with 5 of my friends as we choreographed a dance to 90s hits like Britney and N’Sync. Our 6am practice for over a week paid off and we came in 2nd place.

SAS Sea Olympics onboard the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

Extended Families: Nearly the entire ship community signs up to be placed into dozens of “families”. The groups organize events like family dinners, in-port activities, after-port reflection and discussion, etc.

Part of Bonnie Fletcher's Extended Family on the Spring 2011 Semester at Sea voyage in Stellenbosch, South Africa via

I have remained close with my “SAS-mom”, Bonnie. We have gone to see the Backstreet Boys in concert, to Disneyland, to Semester at Sea events toether and more. The Extended Families program introduces you to new shipmates you may have never met otherwise and I definitely appreciate the relationships I formed through participating.

Education: Oh yeah, that thing we all came here for. The academic opportunities offered by Semester at Sea are incomparable. Being that SAS is sponsored by the University of Virginia, the academic aspect is top-knotch.

Classroom on the MV Explorer Cruise Ship from Semester at Sea Study Abroad via

Classes are intimate, with most containing less than 40 students. Class is only held when the ship is at-sea, never when the ship is in-port. Time in each country is reserved for field-practicum, Semester at Sea trips, and independent travel. You literally never stop learning from the moment you step on the ship.

Highlights of my academic journey…

I experienced an overnight with a South African family in their township home.

I learned about the history of China while standing ON the Great Wall.

Alexa Rae Johnson on the Great Wall of China during the Spring 2011 Semester at Sea voyage via

One afternoon I stared up in disbelief at the Taj Mahal. The next morning I watched the sun rise from a boat on the Ganges in Varanasi, where I observed Hindu pilgrims bathe themselves in their holy water.

A boy rowing on the River Ganges in Varanasi, India taken during Spring 2011 Semester at Sea voyage by Alexa Rae Johnson via

I waved back and forth with tribal locals on the Amazon, rowing in their canoe-like boats while trying to keep up with the speed of the MV.

I held the hands of Ghanian orphans while we taught each other games and songs.

I learned how to barter at Cambodian and Vietnamese markets.

You simply cannot beat the education you will receive on Semester at Sea. It provides knowledge that is just not accessible through a textbook or hour-long PowerPoint in a classroom at your home campus.


Lastly, you need to know the official RULES to being a member of the shipboard community:

1) It’s a VOYAGE, not a cruise.

2) It’s a SHIP, not a boat.


If you’re a Semester at Sea alumni, what was YOUR favorite thing about ship life?

And if you’re a prospective student and have any questions about ship life, feel free to ask them below!

One thought on “SEMESTER AT SEA Study Abroad: Ship Life”

  1. During my 1975 semester at Sea, I left Piraeus Greece to travel to Delphi via Greek buses. A gorgeous Greek man walked me to the bus station, helped me purchase my ticket, and wrote a note for me to show the driver. I sat next to the driver, who nodded at me when it was time to depart the bus. I made it to Delphi. There I fell in love with a $300 piece of batik art. I bought it, and was out of cash.
    I hitched rides back to Piraeus. My rides took me to side trips off the beaten path. The Greek postal carriers stopped for me, and I traveled an extended ride atop sacks of mail in the back of the mail truck. I eventually made it back to Athens, where there were other familiar students. SS Universe Afloat was docked just where she was when I strode alone to the bus station 2 days earlier. The only regret I had in cruising away from the dock, having walked the Parthenon while in port, was to have missed Mykonos and other Greek islands.

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