SeaSkyIn the past couple of decades, spending a semester abroad has practically become a rite of passage for many American college students. For a young twenty-something, the simple of learning Italian in the heart of Rome or sampling bon bons under the Eiffel Tower can be a heady experience.

But what if you’re not ready to send them off to navigate the world on their own just yet?

Or what if your son or daughter is the adventurous type, and wants an even more dynamic travel experience? The answer could very well be a cruise ship university, better known as a semester at sea.

Before you send your child off to find his or her sea legs, there are some things you should know. Semester at Sea, probably the most well known of the floating universities, has been plagued with high-profile issues over the years that may have some parents concerned. In 2005, the University of Pittsburgh (aka Pitt) cut its 24-year academic sponsorship of the “floating college,” the MV Explorer, citing concerns over safety issues in the program (since Pitt’s withdrawal from the program, the University of Virginia has come on board as the program’s academic sponsor).

In January 2005, a 50-foot wave hit the vessel while it sailed through a storm in the Pacific, causing the electrical system to short out. Fortunately, there were no injuries, and the boat docked temporarily in Hawaii for repairs.

cruiseshipportHowever, the bigger issues arose back in 1996, when four students were killed while visiting India on their semester at sea. A scheduling mix up put the students on a plane from Varanasi to Delhi, rather than to Agra as planned. The students were put on buses from Delhi to Agra — about a six-hour ride on some rough terrain. One of the buses, carrying 27 Americans, swerved and careened into a ditch, killing four students along with three other passengers.

Just a few months later, the MV Explorer was being leased out for a summer cruise to Alaska (no Semester at Sea students were on board at this time), when a fire broke out on the ship. Five crewmembers died of smoke inhalation, and 55 crewmembers and one passenger were injured. The same ship set sail with 641 college students on board for four months. At the time, James Hall, the chairman of the National Transportation Safety, criticized the University of Pittsburgh and Semester at Sea for allowing the ship to “depart without installing a sprinkler system or individual smoke alarms.” Hall also expressed concerns over the program’s decision to visit Kenya on a past voyage, despite a travel advisory from the State Department. Our calls to Semester at Sea to comment on the University of Pittsburgh’s departure were not returned.

Does all of this mean you need to lock your child in his dorm room for four years? Probably not, but you should be aware of any risks and learn how to ask the right questions when arranging for a study abroad program, whether it’s by sea or by land.

Here are some tips to remember:

  • Ask about any relevant details on crime, illness, accidents and other issues that have occurred in the past.
  • Ask about the screening process for faculty, crewmembers and, if applicable, host families. Find out how you can get your child released from the program if necessary.
  • Know how to get in touch with the people who are in charge of the safety, health and security of students on a day-to-day basis.
  • Find out the exact itinerary for each stopping point, and don’t hesitate to ask questions if you’re concerned over the safety of a certain region.
  • Get all the information regarding student health, accident and/or travel insurance coverage abroad.

Despite some negative publicity, Semester at Sea has operated successfully since 1963, and is responsible for about 650 students each semester. In fact, some of its achievements have involved traveling to countries that were once considered dangerous for American travelers, including the first large-scale visit to Vietnam since the Vietnam war, and a 1999 visit to Cuba during which Fidel Castro actually lectured the students for several hours. For many college students, Semester at Sea remains an appealing alternative to traditional study abroad programs.

Semester At Sea

Back of cruise shipSemester at Sea sponsors sea-bound travel education for college students (in addition to law school students, teachers, non-students and seniors). In the Spring 2007 semester, it is scheduled to sail eastbound for 110 days from the Bahamas with likely stops including San Juan, Puerto Rico; Salvador, Brazil; Cape Town, South Africa; Port Louis, Mauritius; Chennai, India; Yangon, Myanmar; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Hong Kong; Qindao, China; Kobe, Japan and Seattle, Washington. While at sea, the program emulates a college campus environment as closely as possible: Classes average about 20-40 students and almost all areas of liberal arts study are available. There are also opportunities for intramural sports, dances, art shows, and religious life onboard. (Rates for the spring and fall semesters are approximately $16,975-$17,775, which includes tuition, accommodations and meals.

In addition to Semester at Sea, there are several other options for students interested in combining ocean travel with their formal education. The following programs have less of a “cruise ship-college” feel than Semester at Sea, as they are geared more toward marine and nautical research and studies. And while the risks of ocean travel are still a factor, these programs attempt to heighten the students’ levels of participation and responsibility, while developing the team building and leadership skills that may be crucial in their later careers.

SEA Education Association

Barge CanalSEA’s program offers a 12-week hands-on oceanography course for a semester credit from Boston University. Rather than study “abroad,” these students spend the first six weeks in Woods Hole, in Cape Cod, Massachusetts studying the chemistry, biology, physics, and geology of oceans, while designing the fundamentals of a research project. After this learning period, they sail on 134-foot vessels in the Atlantic/Caribbean or in the Pacific, depending on the season.

Although students from all courses of study can be accepted into the program, the bulk of their studies is on marine and nautical studies; their research is actually used by official nautical organizations, and the onboard laboratory is fully equipped with state-of-the-art research equipment that is funded by the National Science Equipment.

Along with ocean research and education, students also become involved with all aspects of shipboard life — there is a crew of 34 people that teach the operations of running a ship, including navigating equipment, cooking meals and troubleshooting on board. For the last two weeks of the program, the students are fully in charge of running the ship. Tuition for fall and spring programs is about $15,900.

Good news for mom and dad: you don’t have to be a college student to participate in this experience, as SEA offers programs for adults interested in continuing education. An expedition to French Polynesia runs January 21-30, which involves a cruise-like journey to the islands, along with hands-on experiences with the vessel’s oceanographic equipment and education about the islands’ natural history and ecology. This program costs $2,920, not including airfare.

Sea-mester Programs

Sea-mester also focuses on the shipboard experience for students who are interested in marine and nautical sciences. Their 80-day excursions begin with ten days in the British Virgin Islands, and then move south to the islands of Saba, St. Eustatius and Nevis, and then on to Grenada. Over the course of seven weeks, the vessel heads north to the Tobago Cays, the Grenadines, St. Vincent, St. Lucia, Martinique, Dominica, Guadeloupe and the Saints, Montserrat, Antigua, and St. Barts.

The available courses of study are oceanography, marine biology, basic seamanship and leadership skills. Along the way, students will collect data for official marine organizations, and also pick up non-accredited studies such as professional skipper and crew training, island conservation, scuba diving and sailing. Tuition for the fall and spring semesters is about $14,750, while shorter Caribbean excursions are $4,360 for 20 days, and $7,550 for 40 days.

The Scholar Ship

With its inaugural voyage in September, the Scholar Ship’s program is probably the most similar to Semester at Sea in terms of its focus on travel destinations, rather than the sea experience. However, the draw of this program is that it is accepting a significant number of international students and staff in order to enhance the global experience on board. And this might be the biggest difference between Semester at Sea and the Scholar Ship. On the latter, the emphasis is significantly more international in terms of both participants and curriculum, as opposed to the ship full of Americans on Semester at Sea.

The curriculum, designed with input from seven prestigious universities including UC-Berkeley, will also include leadership training and courses led by business leaders from organizations like HSBC Bank, Microsoft and Intercontinental Hotels. The expected itinerary for the fall semester starts in Greece and heads to Morocco, Argentina, Uruguay, South Africa, Australia, Singapore, India and Cyprus before returning to Greece. The Scholar Ship will make its maiden voyage in September 2007. Application deadline for the first sailing is April 30, 2007. Fees for the fall and spring semesters are $19,950.

For more on studying abroad, check out Rockin’ the Student Discount. Or check out College Tours for Students. Get more information for students in our Student Travel section.