Leigh Uffelman is a rising senior majoring in Communication Studies. She is interested in pursuing a career in Advertising after graduation. Last semester, she had the opportunity to spend a semester studying at sea.
I knew I wanted to go on Semester at Sea (SAS) when I was a freshman in college. My sister had gone years before and came back with the most incredible stories and memories. The voyage that I was interested in traveled around Southeast Asia and Africa, finishing in London. We visited 15 cities in 11 different countries. When I signed up, I did not know that this semester would ultimately be the best four months of my entire life.
The University of Virginia is the host institution of Semester at Sea, so it was very easy to get all of my classes to transfer to my University of Michigan transcript. I took two 300-level Communication Studies classes while abroad: Development Communication and Media Ethics. These classes were a lighter workload than what I am used to taking at U-M; however, when coupled with fieldwork, I was continually challenged.
For my fieldwork, each class on Semester at Sea was required to have one field lab in the country of the professor's choosing. For example, my Media Ethics class toured the NPR station in Honolulu and met with several journalists there. We learned about the issues unique to Hawaii and used it as a basis of comparison for other media systems we encountered in other ports. The field labs were all very hands-on and provided us with knowledge that cannot be taught in a classroom.
My favorite class was Development Communication where we examined the different communication strategies used in developing nations to promote social change. It was interesting because we studied the various challenges each country on our voyage faced, and then we were able to see those challenges first-hand while in port. The classes I took on Semester at Sea not only fulfilled my degree requirements, but also showed me how communication can improve the lives of people all around the world.
The Semester at Sea experience is definitely a challenge in the beginning. You are living on a very large ship with 600 other students you do not know and are traveling to numerous foreign countries with little knowledge of their culture or language. You eventually learn to overcome these challenges and become an expert traveler, mostly through trial and error. Our first port in Japan was the most difficult because everything was new and we were all really unsure of what we were doing. Over time, I became a better traveler by learning what was and wasn't culturally acceptable before visiting each country. I learned the most important phrases through contact with the locals, which was enough to get by for the short time we were in each place. I also found how important it is to be respectful of different country's cultures even if they are very different from ours. For example, it is not in our culture to touch and hug strangers, but in Ghana that is the norm and we had to learn that through our interactions with the local people. In the beginning, the idea of traveling into each of these countries on my own seemed daunting, but I learned how to easily navigate myself around the countries with preparation and through a lot of practice
The highlights of Semester at Sea (besides being able to travel to so many incredible countries, of course) were the other students onboard with me. Semester at Sea brought others into my life who were also seeking adventure and they encouraged me to try new things. If someone told me a year ago I would go skydiving in Cape Town or ride a hot air balloon in Myanmar, I would have laughed. I am so thankful for the hilarious and humble new friends I met on the ship who pushed me out of my comfort zone and were always by my side throughout every country. After four short months, my friends became my family and the ship became my home.
Semester at Sea changed my life. It opened my eyes to so many different cultures and experiences outside of the Michigan bubble in which I grew up. After traveling to 11 different countries and making lifelong friends, I cannot think of a better way to spend a semester abroad as there is no other program quite like this. I feel very privileged to be a SAS alumni.