Semester at Sea: 50 years of global education

Teaching psychology while traveling the world.

By Charles Morris, PhD, and Bill von Hippel, PhD

In 2013, the Semester at Sea (SAS) program is celebrating its fiftieth year as a global educational program that has touched the lives of more than 55,000 college students. Administered by the nonprofit Institute for Shipboard Education, with the University of Virginia as its academic sponsor, SAS offers a fall and spring semesterlong program along with a two-month summer semester. Unlike study abroad programs with a focus on immersion within a specific country, the SAS experience has a comparative global emphasis that introduces students to issues, challenges and problems that cut across many countries and cultures. We think of it as global immersion rather than a focus on one particular country and culture.

Our current voyage embarked from San Diego in early January, stopped briefly in Ensenada, Mexico, and then set sail for Hawaii, Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Myanmar (Burma), Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Morocco, finally ending in late April in Barcelona, Spain. A total of 627 students representing 65 academic majors from 273 colleges and universities are on board, along with 43 faculty members, 25 student life staff members, 42 lifelong learners who seek an educational experience on a trip around the world, plus a number of spouses/partners and their children. About 100 courses are offered each semester. Our students are predominantly American, but SAS has attracted more and more international students with each passing year. Thirty-two countries are represented on our current voyage, the highest in the program’s history. We also hear from various inter-port lecturers along the way. We have been especially privileged on this voyage to have Archbishop Desmond Tutu with us until we reach Cape Town, South Africa. He has been a joy to know and has added enormously to the quality of our SAS experience. Other dignitaries in the past have included Anwar Sadat, Indira Gandhi, Mikail Gorbachev, Mother Teresa and Fidel Castro.

Semester at Sea shipOur ship, built in 2002, is 590 feet long, has 418 cabins and a crew of about 200. It has been described as the fastest (up to about 30 knots) and safest passenger ship of its kind in the world. Our voyage will last 109 days, about half of which will be at sea (when we teach) and half in the various countries we visit. Our stay in a given country ranges from a few days to about a week. While in port, our students (as well as faculty and others) experience that country in multiple ways, including service projects, field labs that are part of every course, cross-cultural experiences, SAS-sponsored excursions and independent travel.

Students typically take four courses and earn 12 credit hours during the regular semesters and three courses for nine credits in the summer term. Twenty percent of the grade in each course is based on a field project designed by the instructor and conducted in port.

We are the two academic psychologists on the spring 2013 voyage. One of us has taught previously in the SAS program on two separate occasions, and the other has taught on one earlier voyage and sailed as a student in the 1980s. Our courses include "Social Psychology," "Cognition and Complex Problems" and "Human Nature: Evolutionary, Psychological and Cultural Perspectives." This latter course is one of eight so-called LENS courses, which have an explicit cross-cultural component. The course focuses on both our common humanity and cultural influences. Each student is required to take one of the LENS classes offered and has a choice among courses in the sciences, social sciences and humanities. Psychology courses on recent voyages have included "Introductory Psychology," "Human Sexuality," "Controversial Issues in Psychology" and "Cross-Cultural Psychology." All courses and faculty must be approved by the appropriate academic department at the University of Virginia.

The cost to students of the semesterlong program is about $25,000 to $30,000 plus additional expenses for visas, inoculations and travel excursions within each country. However, a number of colleges and universities have an affiliation with SAS and thus allow students to apply the financial aid they receive from their home university to the program. Additional financial and scholarship aid is available as well. Quite a few students help pay for their experience through a work-study program. 

Based on surveys of SAS participants, the program has been a resounding success. Almost all (97 percent) regard SAS as their most important college semester, and the vast majority feel the program has transformed them into global citizens, with a deeper understanding of their interconnectedness to the world. Many later pursue careers that take them beyond the borders of their home country. 

Having now collectively taught on SAS on several different voyages, we can say with confidence that it is a great educational experience for students and faculty alike. The voyage has the “feel” of a small liberal arts college where students and faculty are immersed in a living-learning environment. We see our students in the classroom every day at sea, but we also see them at every meal, as we enter and exit our cabins (we live in the same long hallways as the students) and as we travel in port cities and countries. The experience is quite different from teaching at a large public university where one barely gets to know most of one’s students, a refreshing change for most faculty members. 

Course planning on an SAS voyage requires more flexibility than it typically does ashore. Disruptions come in many forms — from a lack of continuity due to frequent four to six days visits in the various countries we visit, to seasick students bolting out of the classroom and even cancellations or delays due to political turmoil or threats of terrorist attacks. But along with this disruption comes opportunity, as our students complete field assignments that would be impossible in a usual campus setting. For example, our students have collected data in an orphanage in Vietnam, engaged in guided meditation and interviews with a Buddhist and interacted with other college students from very different cultures. Students report that these experiences are life-changing, and we feel the same way.

Finally, we must report that some of the conveniences we take for granted at home are limited when we are at sea. Internet access is very slow during most of the day due to limited bandwidth and heavy volume, and downloading large amounts of information is usually not possible, so planning ahead for courses is essential. But sitting on the deck as we write this, gazing out over the Indian Ocean in anticipation of our next port, we find it difficult to feel sorry for ourselves because our e-mail isn’t coming in today.

When all is said and done, we obviously find the experience rewarding or we wouldn’t keep returning. The opportunity to do something we love while traveling around the world is simply hard to beat. Clearly, our time with SAS has been one of the highlights of our professional lives.

This article originally appeared in the International Psychology Bulletin (Morris & von Hippel, 2013). Reprinted with permission.


Morris, C. J., & von Hippel, B. (2013). Semester at Sea: 50 years of global education. International Psychology Bulletin, 17(2), 51-52.

About the Authors

Charles Morris, PhD, (right) and Bill von Hippel, PhD (left)Bill von Hippel (pictured on the left) is professor and head of psychology at the University of Queensland, in Brisbane, Australia. Bill received his BA in psychology from Yale University and his PhD in social psychology from the University of Michigan. He then taught at Ohio State University for a dozen years (where he received the Alumni Distinguished Teaching Award) before moving to Australia. Bill had the good fortune to be a student on Semester at Sea on the Spring ‘84 voyage and a faculty member on the Fall ‘97 voyage. Bill has published over eighty articles and chapters on stereotyping and prejudice, social cognitive changes with aging, and evolutionary psychology. 

Charles Morris (pictured on the right) is an emeritus professor of psychology and provost from Denison University. He received his BS from Denison and his MA and PhD from the University of Missouri. He currently lives in Florida where he teaches a course on “Aging, Memory & Alzheimer’s” to senior citizens in the community. He also is involved in an ongoing research project on the influence of socioeconomic factors on standardized test scores of Florida students. His earlier research focused on learning and memory and the application of learning principles to the classroom. Professor Morris taught on two previous Semester at Sea Voyages, Fall '09 and Summer 2011. He will be teaching two courses on the Spring 2013 Voyage, “Introduction to Cognition,” and “Human Nature: Biological, Psychological and Cultural Perspectives.”