In this post, English student Sarah Chaney takes a look back on her Semester at Sea study abroad program in which she embarked on a three-month learning expedition through eight countries in the Mediterranean. Sarah recounts several of her experiences and even goes on to discuss how her experience allowed for personal growth as a writer and learner. See what Sarah thought of her unique learning experience below.
I thought the Semester at Sea study abroad program was a scam up until the moment I shuffled tentatively aboard the ship in Canada. I couldn’t believe I would be able to visit eight countries in the span of two months on a cruise liner for college credit. As we puttered across the ocean toward the Mediterranean, our classes started right away. In addition to our 2 to 3 elective classes, everyone was required to take Global History. Global history is a lot more fun when you visit the countries shortly after learning about them in class and you can say “Hey, I learned that in class!” The opportunity for me to study important political situations, history, and current news en route to the locations enhanced the classroom learning environment and fixed itself more permanently in my mind.
We, as writers, tend to write about the familiar, which usually happens to be within the United States and even within a certain state or city. What happens when you make the rest of the world just as familiar? As a part of an educational study abroad with an effective system of using time on the ocean for class days and having every day in the countries off from school, I entered those eight countries with more knowledge about the history of the country in addition to current events.
For my trip abroad during the summer of 2010, I bought a Flipcam (a portable video camera) in order to document the people, environment, and specific places in these countries so they wouldn’t fade from my mind if I decided to write about them in the years to come. My friends rolled their eyes as I videotaped us walking down a backstreet in Rome. Who knows, maybe my character will run down the same street, bumping into the small water fountain set on each corner of the intersection.
My biggest worry about the trip was not making any friends in the eleven days between Nova Scotia and our first country, Spain. With over seven hundred students who also boarded the ship without knowing anyone else, I had nothing to worry about. By the time we reached Spain, everyone had met their friends for the rest of the two month experience. In two months, my two friends, Chrissy and Gina, became lifelong friends in whom I would trust my life. There is something special about exploring unknown and potentially dangerous countries with friends you’ve known for what would be half of a school semester. A year later, Chrissy, Gina, and I reunited again in Florida at Disney World. Over Thanksgiving break, I’m visiting one of them in New Jersey. For our next reunion we plan on meeting up in Australia.
From Canada to Spain, Italy, Croatia, Greece, Turkey, Egypt, and Morocco, I had the opportunity to interact with different people and learn—as an 18-year-old sophomore university student—to navigate by myself in countries where I spoke a minimal amount, if any, of the language. By the time I returned to Virginia two months later, I had seen the famous La Sagrada Mi Familia in Spain, traveled to a popular island in Greece and learned how to barter in Turkey, Egypt, and Morocco. In Greece I learned how to avoid getting pick pocketed; I stripped naked in front of an elderly lady for a popular Turkish bath in Turkey; and I fainted from dehydration in front of King Tut’s throne at the Egyptian Museum (I never actually saw the rest of the treasures, unfortunately). In Egypt, my friends and I got lost and wandered into the local part of city, passing through alleyways full of barefoot children splashing through dirty puddles filled with trash and past loose chickens and goats. I was surprised at myself when I cried for days about the way I had treated an Egyptian local who had tried to scam us out of money to help feed his children while I had remained dry-eyed for losing a papyrus painting I had paid $70 for and only regretted wasting my money on something so useless.
My stories could go on forever.
With my own personal experiences aside, I gleaned even more story ideas from other students who shared their insights, stories, and experiences at a special event the evening we embarked from every country. I wrote pages and pages in my journal about the settings and places I had been in the country so I could write about those countries from personal experience rather than from pictures or Internet research.
When my friends found out where I was going to be for two months of summer, they called it a vacation, not school. Even now, a year later, I can’t dispute that argument, but it was the most educational and momentous event of my life. I’m no stranger to traveling, but Semester at Sea has significantly impacted my lifestyle. From listening to the Diplomats who boarded our ship in every country to talk about politics, to volunteer opportunities in each country for orphanages or psychiatric centers, there are endless opportunities to inspire your own life in addition to your writing.
Semester At Sea is a study abroad opportunity that everyone should experience, whether or not you plan on being a writer. Even if you can’t afford something so extravagant (there are scholarships available!), take every opportunity to write outside of your comfort zone, even if it’s just doing something local that you haven’t done before. From volunteering at soup kitchens to volunteering at Habit for Humanity, you can turn anything into inspiration for your writing. As an English major, the more you know about the world, the more variety you can write!
To learn more about the Semester at Sea study abroad program, see their link at http://www.semesteratsea.org/