One year ago, I was trapped in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea.
I was sailing from Italy to Spain on Semester at Sea’s Fall 2016 voyage. The study abroad program is easily marketed as a once-in-a-lifetime experience—my fellow voyagers and I traveled through four continents while earning 15 hours of college credit.
I can’t complain about spending four months gorging on unique foods, seeing new landscapes, and meeting people in every corner of the world. I had the time of my life in port, but living aboard the MV World Odyssey made Semester at Sea the most miserable semester of my life.
Take the Suite Life on Deck, nix the Sprouse twins and Ashley Tisdale, and clone London Tipton 550 times. That’s Semester at Sea in a nutshell.
Why was it so terrible?
One of my peers asked me if I “spoke Jewish.” I once overheard a girl ask if our westbound voyage was in the Indian Ocean while the ship sailed through the Mediterranean. My peers were easily able to distinguish between Italy, Germany, and Spain, but once we docked in Senegal, the country was only referred to as Africa in captions and conversation. I heard more rape jokes during one shuttle bus ride than I did during my entire time in college.
The on-ship aspect was the most isolating. The ship culture was overwhelmingly fratty and cliquey. The ship’s platonic cuffing season occurred within the first five days aboard. If you didn’t find your crew by then, you were inevitably alone for the rest of the voyage. And by you, I mean me.
I wanted to seek refuge in my friends back home, but we could only communicate with the outside world via email. Consequently, I spent most of my time on the ship alone. I wrote and binge-watched all of Friends to pass the time.
I chose Semester at Sea over immersive study abroad programs because the glossy brochures promised a cross-comparative global education with peers who cared about creating change and learning about politics, history, and other cultures. While there were plenty of students who genuinely wanted to explore the world around us, I found that most applied to Semester at Sea because of its reputation as a booze cruise. An overwhelming majority of my classmates were culturally apathetic at best, even after sailing to 12 countries.
In port, our stays ranged from two days to seven days. Going in, I knew a few days wouldn’t be enough to steep myself in every country’s unique culture and history. However, the program and the professors drilled it into our heads and reminded us in every class that we were “travelers, not tourists.” Taking that objective seriously was difficult when we parachuted into countries, including some in the Global South, and engaged in typical volun-tourism—we painted some houses, took pictures with Senegalese kids for Instagram, and headed back to our luxurious ship for the night. America’s role in exploiting these countries was only acknowledged by my International Relations professor, who went above and beyond to ensure we received the comparative global education we had been promised. If it wasn’t for him, I’m not sure I would’ve learned anything in the classroom.
December 22 will mark one year since I disembarked the MV World Odyssey for the final time. Sometimes, I find myself craving gelato or tangine. When I’m stressed, I long for a mind-clearing hike through Peru’s Andes Mountains. But I haven’t missed the ship once. I don’t miss the cliqueness, or the rape jokes, or the classes that didn’t really teach me anything. Instead, I find myself grateful that my once-in-a-lifetime voyage is something I will only experience once.