Sarah Hutton - 2009 Program Participant
Shinto shrine in Miyajima, Japan
How did you decide to study abroad?
I knew I wanted to study abroad from the time I was in high school. I actually turned down acceptance to certain programs when I was applying to colleges because the curriculum was so strict that it left no room for taking a semester to study abroad. I wanted to see and learn different things and meet new people with different perspectives. I had lived in the same town my whole life and was ready to experience new things; although I was close to my family and chose a college within a few hours of driving distance from my hometown, I wanted the experience of really getting out into the world for at least a semester.
Why did you choose the unique adventure that Semester at Sea offers?
It seemed like a great opportunity to see places I might never visit on my own. My original (more on that below) itinerary was supposed to go to Spain, Italy, Egypt, Turkey, India, Vietnam, Thailand, China, Japan, Hawaii, and Costa Rica. I was not really exposed to international travel at the time, so most of those places aren't places I would have felt confident or comfortable going to by myself or with friends.
I remember my dad asking me what places I was most excited to visit a few months before I was supposed to leave. He seemed surprised when I said Egypt and India because most people don't think of those as highly desired destinations; but as I mentioned above I was really excited to be exposed to something completely different than what I was used to.
I also knew I might never have the time or money to go to some of these countries in the future. I try to tell college students that studying abroad, while it can seem expensive to a college student, is one of the most economical ways to travel because you are also getting college credit and the stuff that comes along with a full-time semester of college (a room, meals, etc).
What was your favorite part about spending a Semester at Sea?
The best part about Semester at Sea is seeing so many different places and really being able to customize each trip to make it exactly what you want it to be. I know some people who only saw big tourist sites and went to the major cities in each country. I know others who mostly did volunteer work and more local, personal travel in each location. Others, like me, tried to do a combination of the two.
Two people can go the same voyage with Semester at Sea and from talking to them, it can sound like they did completely different programs and I think that is really amazing. Everyone comes away with a more global mindset and a different sense of their place in the world, but how we all arrive at that point is very unique to each participant, and Semester at Sea allows it to be that way.
View of Cape Town, South Africa from a helicopter
What about Semester at Sea makes it so unique?
So many things! First of all, Semester at Sea can sometimes start teaching you to be adaptable before you even step foot on the ship. I named my original itinerary above, but 2008-2009 was actually around the time that the Somali pirates were making the Suez canal a dangerous area to travel through, so a few months before we were supposed to leave we got word that instead of going to Italy, Turkey, and Egypt, we were going around the other side of Africa and visiting Morocco, Namibia, South Africa, and Mauritius. At the time, I was really disappointed; as I mentioned in a previous question, Egypt was one of the places I was most excited to visit. Plus, I had to look up Namibia and Mauritius on a map when I got the letter! I was upset to be going places I didn't really know anything about or have any interest in going.
However, some of those new countries on the itinerary ended up being the most transformative for me personally. It really taught me a lesson about making the best of a situation and certain things happening for a reason. We also randomly got switched to Guatemala from Costa Rica without much explanation why, but I was happy about that because I felt Costa Rica is a destination I could visit at any time whereas Guatemala might not be a place I would otherwise go.
Secondly, just the fact that you go so many places and that you live on a ship in between makes the program very unique. It's a really mentally exhausting program; I of course mean that in the best way possible, but I think it probably took me a full year or maybe even two to completely process everything I experienced that semester. You don't have classes when you are in the countries so every day you are on the ship, you have class. There are no days off on Semester at Sea! It really makes you bond with your classmates in a way that I would guess other study abroad programs don't.
I wrote a blog post about a year after I returned from the trip, and I think this excerpt speaks to why the program is so unique:
I experienced the nightlife in Barcelona, Spain. I bargained at the souks in Morocco. I saw an African sunset in Namibia. I visited the townships in South Africa. I visited a school in Mauritius. I saw the Taj Mahal and Varanasi, the oldest holy city, in India. I canoed through caves in Thailand. I saw the presidential palace in Vietnam and the ancient ruins of Angkor Wat in Cambodia. I stood on the Great Wall of China. I visited Japan during cherry blossom season. I hiked in Hawaii and biked in Guatemala. I saw and did many wonderful things throughout my semester. But, I also saw some terrible things. I saw African children who had been orphaned due to AIDS. I visited the townships in South Africa. I witnessed the failure of Mauritius to educate all of its students. I went to Mother Teresa’s orphanage in India. I saw the prostitution issues in Thailand. It wasn’t all glamour, and it certainly wasn’t all “tourism,” and I wouldn’t have had it any other way.
How much support did you receive throughout your program?
Since we were in different countries all the time, there wasn't necessarily the same set of local staff supporting you in each country. But, Semester at Sea is very well-connected and it only stops in countries where it has a good relationship with the government and where it feels like students will be safe. There are Semester at Sea-sponsored trips in each country if you feel more comfortable traveling with staff from the program. The ship also remains open in port so you can come back to the ship to sleep if you need.
However, if you would prefer to do your own thing, Semester at Sea offers a lot of freedom. You aren't allowed to leave the country you're docked in, but aside from that you are pretty much told you need to be back to the ship by a certain time on a certain day. If you need their assistance they are always only a phone call away, but if you want to be independent you definitely have the chance to do that.
Looking back on it, especially now that I work with college students, it is amazing how much responsibility the program gives 19 to 21 year olds. I think it really makes you grow and mature in a unique way, especially if (like me) you haven't done much international travel in the past.
Do you have any regrets?
I have very few regrets from this trip but I think there are two things worth mentioning that I might do differently if given the chance.
The first is, I wish I had done one homestay (where you stay with a local family). Semester at Sea only offers this as an option in certain countries, and I happened to already have other plans in those countries so I never did it but some of my friends did it and it seemed like a really valuable experience for them. I wouldn't say I necessarily regret not doing it because I loved what I ended up doing in those countries in place of a homestay, but I wish I had done a little bit more planning and tried to make it work at least once.
The second thing is, I wish I had made somewhat different decisions about money a few times along the way. It is important to stick to a budget, you don't want to run out of money in the middle of the semester. But there were certain times where, for example, maybe you would buy a small painting instead of a large painting to save money, when really the difference might have been $20 in USD. All my Semester at Sea art still hangs on my wall, so I wish I had thought long-term about the souvenirs I was buying and how much they would mean to me as an adult and made a few slightly different purchases.
As far as trips, an example of this would be my trip to Cambodia. Vietnam was one of very few countries where, as long as you traveled on a Semester at Sea-sponsored trip, you could leave the country and go to Cambodia if you wanted. I had heard this was really worth doing, and when I was looking at the trips ahead of time there were two options: one only went to one major Cambodian city and one went to two. I chose the trip that only went to one area because it was two or three hundred dollars cheaper. Looking back, my friends that did the other trip had such an amazing experience, and that's not to say I didn't have a great experience as well but again, I wish I had thought more long term.
If I was TRULY being money-conscious or frugal, I wouldn't have gone to Cambodia at all. Staying in Vietnam would have been much cheaper. But, if I was going to spend the money, I wish I had just spent a little bit more to have an even better experience. Budgeting is very, very important on Semester at Sea, especially since all the exchange rates are different. I'm not advocating that anyone be irresponsible or reckless with money, but I think my advice would be either spend money or don't. If you are going to save, there are many affordable, great options in each country. But if you're going to spend, go all in and get the most out of it because you will most likely never be in that place again.
What was a typical day like during your program?
This is a very difficult question for Semester at Sea because every day traveling is different! But as far as a day on the ship...you would wake up, have breakfast, and have classes on and off throughout the day. By the middle of the semester, we were all starting to get tired so mid-day naps were very important. At some point you would have lunch; if you just recently got back from a country you might spend mealtimes catching up with your friends on the ship about how everyone's trips were and what everyone did in each place.
Leading up to dinner you might do some homework while you sit outside on the deck or inside in the piano lounge. After dinner you usually get together with friends and play games or cards or watch movies on someone's laptop. The ship also offered various nighttime activities (open mic nights, movie nights on the big screen, etc.) The food on the ship got very repetitive after awhile so if you had been at sea for a few days, you might go to the upper deck and pay for a late-night snack just for the chance to eat something different.
If we were about to arrive in a new country, we would have lectures on the main lecture hall about the logistics of each country and different cultural nuances to be aware of. The night before arriving in a country, everyone would be trying their best to fit four or five days worth of stuff into a backpack.
As far as traveling in country, it's impossible to describe a typical day, which is one of the great things about the program.
What was your favorite activity outside the normal day-to-day schedule of your program?
Being in countries was obviously the best part of Semester at Sea, and there really wasn't a "normal day-to-day schedule," but life on the ship is what really tied all of the experiences together. I did this program in 2009, and back then we had access to free e-mail and a few search engines for school assignments on the ship, but we had to pay for most other forms of internet. This really forced you to actually spend time with people.
There were times where we got bored on the ship, but we were all in it together. Cramming way too many people in someone's room and playing cards was probably one of the best ways to pass the time on the ship. When you first got back from a country, everyone was so excited to talk about their experiences, so time passed quickly, but after a few days at sea you really had to be innovative! I am sure technology has improved on the ship since 2009 but I really hope they never give students full internet access. I think if we had had better access to Facebook, Skype, etc., we would have been too focused on keeping in touch with people back home and not focused enough on each other and our surroundings. E-mail and the occasional phone card were sufficient to keep in touch with friends and family back home.
Also, back when I went on the trip, smart phones were just starting to become popular. When I was traveling in Japan, there were five of us total and only one person from the group had an iPhone (which came in handy when we became extremely lost). Most people brought flip phones or no phone at all, so there was no such thing as 3G or 4G service for most people and we couldn't text each other on the ship or anything like that. The ship had phones in your room but if the person you were trying to reach wasn't in the room there was nothing you could do except leave a note on their door or explore the ship trying to find them.
It was really nice to take a break from texting being the main form of communication between friends. It could sometimes get frustrating to not be able to find someone you needed, but leaving creative or funny notes on people's doors was a fun way to pass the time. My roommate and I would leave notes on people's doors written in Spanish just to give them a challenge...like I said, you really needed to come up with your own way to pass the time sometimes!
What was your room like on the ship?
When you enroll in Semester at Sea, you can choose from a variety of room options. I chose what I thought was the cheapest option (a double room on the inside, with no window) but I actually learned later that a few people got triple rooms which made it even cheaper. I know I said earlier that I wish I had been more comfortable spending money on the trip, but this is one area where that does not apply. I would absolutely recommend you go for the cheapest room possible. The rooms really aren't THAT different, and it's not worth the extra hundreds or even thousands of dollars for a nicer room because you spend so little time there.
I had a great roommate and I consider her one of my best friends to this day, so I got lucky in that way, but even if you and your roommate aren't a perfect match, you really don't need to spend much time in your room if you don't want to. However, I feel lucky that my roommate and I did get along well so our tiny room became like home to us. People would say they didn't know how we lived there, but everything is really what you make it and I honestly wouldn't have done it another way if I had the chance.
It was weird at first to not have a window, but we soon learned that this really gave us the best nap time. As I mentioned in a previous, resting between countries is really important because visiting so many different places and having so much culture shock is really hard to process, and without a window we could make our room pitch black and get great rest.
Our room was also smaller than most, so our beds were kind of wedged in nooks between the walls. Some of the outside rooms with windows were laid out a little differently and had a little bit more space, so their beds were in more open areas. One day we hit a really big wave and the ship rocked a lot. When we got back to our rooms, everyone with the open layout came back to their mattress halfway across the floor, drawers open, basically everything in disarray. Our room had minimal damage because everything was so tightly crammed in. It became a joke among our friends, like “who has the better room now?!"
Honestly though, go for the cheapest option. You will make plenty of friends with windows and more space if you need a break from your room, plus you have an entire ship deck to go sit on if you need to get out into the fresh air. The more expensive rooms are really not worth the money. When you first see the rooms you might wonder how you will live in them for a whole semester, but moving from country to country all the time really makes the ship kind of like a home base. By the middle of the semester, getting to sleep in your tiny ship room after a five day trip felt like coming home after a year long trip would feel back in our regular lives.
Sunset in Etosha National Park, Namibia
Did you experience reverse culture shock? Were you surprised how difficult re-entry was?
Studying abroad through any program, especially one as comprehensive and transformative a Semester at Sea, is a lot to mentally process. You come home a very different person than you were when you left, but often times the lifestyles you had at home and at your college are largely unchanged. Your study abroad experience is all you want to talk about, but after the second or third mention of it, most people aren't really that interested anymore, and you can sense that. You might come back with different goals in terms of what you want to do for a career, or different values and interests, and sometimes the people in your life don't understand why you don't just want to immediately settle into your old habits and your old lifestyle.
Also, being on a trip like Semester at Sea, with limited access to technology while I was on the ship, really showed me who my true friends were at home and school. I have a friend from college who uses the TimeHop App to show her what she posted on social media accounts in previous years. She has been sending me a lot of screenshots over the past few months of things she posted six years ago about being so excited to get an email from me or about writing an email to me, and it has been funny to see that now because I didn't have access to things like Facebook and Twitter while I was gone so I really didn't know how happy communicating with me was making her. But it’s worth noting that she remains one of my closest friends today. People like that, who make an effort to stay in touch with you and who understand that you're going through something very important and that slowly you're becoming somewhat of a different person, but who still want to support you and be friends with you through your growth; those are the people that end up staying in your life long-term.
Unfortunately, not every person in your life will be like that. When my shipmates and I all got back from Semester at Sea, we used to joke about how “depressing” it was to be back home in the real world, but looking back on it I really think that I may have had some short-term depression or anxiety issues for a few months after returning home.
Semester at Sea made me unsure of what I wanted to do in my career; I didn't know if I wanted to stay at the same college or transfer. The way people treated me while I was gone and after I returned made me unsure about whether some of my friends from back home were truly my friends, and I was also facing some changing dynamics in my family and getting caught up on things that had happened while I was gone. On top of all that, I was trying to process everything I had seen and learned the previous semester. The first year or so back was kind of rough; and I want to be clear that it wasn’t just study abroad re-entry, it was some personal issues too, but it was hard. It did resolve itself in time, but at the time it wasn't necessarily something I was prepared for.
Semester at Sea tried really to prepare us for re-entry; there were workshops about it on the ship and things like that, but you really can't prepare for it until you're living it. I had friends who later did different study abroad programs, and even though they were very different from Semester at Sea, they would tell me that they sometimes felt like I was the only person they could talk to you about their experiences once they got home, because they felt like most of their friends didn't understand or didn't want to hear it. It's a very weird feeling to feel like no one really understands you and what you've gone through.
How has participating in Semester at Sea impacted your life?
On a personal level, my friends I made on Semester at Sea are still some of my best friends six years later. I can't imagine not having these people in my life. I'm lucky enough to live within an hour of one of them, but even the ones that live halfway or all the way across the country are still a major part of my life. I've been to several different areas of the United States to visit them, so having friends so spread out has really increased my U.S. travel. It's been really cool to meet some of their parents, and to be welcomed into their “real lives.”
My roommate from the trip and I have stayed in touch very well, and we try to see each other at least once a year. She has been to the East Coast to visit me several times, and I have also gone to Texas several times to see her; and each time I go I am welcomed into her parents’ home and even the home of some of her extended family, as though they were my family.
I have also been in a relationship for over three years with someone that I met through a friend from Semester at Sea, so on top of all of the great friendships I made, the trip also impacted my romantic relationships (just not exactly in the way I anticipated – ladies, I hate to tell you but you most likely won’t meet your future husband on Semester at Sea. It does happen occasionally but don’t get your hopes up!). I don't know if everyone's experience on Semester at Sea is like this or if I just got really lucky and met some really great people, but I can't imagine not having these people in my life.
From a professional standpoint, I can definitely say I would not have the career I have right now if it weren't for Semester at Sea.
After returning home, I kind of wanted the experience of living in another country for at least a couple of months, because that is the one thing that Semester at Sea is not able to offer. A year after I returned from Semester at Sea, I interned abroad at a magazine in China for the summer. I definitely wouldn’t have felt comfortable doing this without having done Semester at Sea first. The combination of the semester abroad and this internship taught me so many cultural competencies and I have since been hired in several organizations where this has been a major factor in the decision to hire me.
One of my first professional positions after graduating was at a local nonprofit that was predominantly staffed by Latinos and predominantly served the local Latino community. Although I am not Latino and did not necessarily have a ton of experience with that culture, I was hired because I could prove that I was adaptable and respectful within a variety of cultures. One of the questions on that job interview asked about a time that you have had to change your actions to accommodate someone with different beliefs. I told a story about a time that I was yelled that in a restaurant in India for trying to ask a question about the menu because I'm a woman.
When people say studying abroad helps you get a job, it can sometimes sound cliché, but I am living proof that it really does help.
What components of Semester at Sea affected you the most?
Visiting so many other countries and seeing people speak in multiple languages also made me really interested in language acquisition and education. One of the trips that probably had the biggest impact on my career was a visit to a local school in Mauritius. Children in this country have to take strict entrance exams to move on to middle and high school, and if they can't pass them in English or French, most people end up dropping out of school in middle school.
The local school we visited was run entirely on donations and small grants, and made an effort to educate children in their native Creole language. Mornings were devoted to typical subjects, like reading and writing and math, and afternoons were devoted to learning different trades, like art or music. They wanted to give the students a way to make a living after graduating, because it was hard to make a living in the country without full English or French proficiency.
This made me think a lot about the importance of language in education and how language relates to identity. I ended up getting a master’s degree in global and international education, and my graduate thesis was focused on a dual language pre-K program, and how this environment affected the teaching methods and the identity of teachers who were a mix of native English and native Spanish speakers.
I now work at a local university with first-year students helping them with the transition from high school and trying to prepare them for an increasingly globalized world. I don't think I would even be in this line of work if it wasn't for Semester at Sea, and if I was I definitely would not have taken the same path to get here.
A lot of us come back from Semester at Sea with dreams of working internationally and "changing the world," and some people do you go on to do those things but that is not a realistic career path for everyone. I am really proud of myself that I was able to take all of the cultural knowledge and awareness that I gained on the trip and apply it towards a job that really makes a difference locally in the United States.
I'm starting my doctorate in educational leadership this fall, and I hope to eventually work with a study abroad program, possibly one day focusing on the reentry process that I mentioned above that is so difficult for many people.