Semester abroad teaches lifelong lessons

By , Director  |  Wednesday, June 18, 2014 11:32 PM
Two friends and I wait for the subway in Tokyo. Japan was the first international port of my Semester at Sea voyage. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Ratty)

Two friends and I wait for the subway in Tokyo. Japan was the first international port of my Semester at Sea voyage. (Photo courtesy of Samantha Ratty)

Minnesota is flat. Like, really flat. That is one of the first things I learned spending a semester abroad. I think I learned that on the plane ride west, actually.

I don’t know anyone who has spent a semester abroad and doesn’t rave about it, sighing with nostalgia while recounting all the places they visited and things they learned.

In May, I returned from my own study abroad experience after sailing the world on Semester at Sea. I visited 12 countries and twice as many cities. I only got seasick three times in four months. And yes, I can still walk on land just fine.

But some side effects outlasted my final days on the ship. I still only wear purses with cross-body straps to protect against theft. When my family went out to dinner at a hibachi restaurant, I thanked the chef in Japanese instead of English. I had a moment of panic while I was driving when I suddenly couldn’t remember which side of the road I was supposed to turn onto.

SAS’s favorite statistic, or so it seemed, was that 98 percent of past voyagers reported it was their single most significant semester of college. It’s obvious to me why.

Yes, you take four classes as you would at your home school and have the opportunity to soak up the knowledge of well-traveled professors from colleges and universities across the United States. But the learning goes far, far beyond that.

I learned more by quietly observing Chinese people as they worshipped at Buddhist temples than I did in my Religions of the World lectures. I learned more about how marketing techniques differ by shopping in Japan and comparing it to India than by reading my International Marketing textbook. And I never could have written an eight-page travel writing essay without getting out in the world and having a story to tell first.

I heard plenty of tales about people who sailed with SAS and changed their career path afterward. I just finished reading an autobiography of a SAS alumnus, Adam Braun, who gave up a promising Wall Street career to launch an international nonprofit that builds schools in the poorest rural areas of developing countries.

Nothing quite that drastic happened with my journalism career path after I stepped off the ship for the last time, but I believe smaller changes manifested themselves in me and will continue to be revealed in my life as time goes on.

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The biggest difference between ship life and life on land was the availability of technology. As I wrote while I was away, “phones don’t work in the middle of the sea.” And boy, did I grow to love that.

The pace of life was much slower, much simpler. I grabbed a book and looked out at the sea rather than catching up on Instagram or burying my face in unanswered emails.

Now that I am back in Minnesota, it has been all too easy to slip into my old ways of never letting my iPhone leave my sight. In the moments when I realize I am forgetting who is in front of me and instead worrying about what is in front of me, I remind myself of a quote from Braun’s book that reads, “It’s important to allow yourself to be a human being, rather than a human doing.”

That’s not an easy motto to keep in this day and age. We are applauded for having busy, fast-paced existences, rather than living intentional, present lives.

I know I’m a lot happier when I take some time to ignore the buzzing phone (or better yet, leave it in a different room), and slow down to read or spend time with people I love. I imagine others are like me. And I bet if more people adopted this motto, we’d find a lot happier human beings on this earth.

As I look around the flat Minnesota plains, my mind often wanders to the winding roads of Morocco’s Atlas Mountains or the sight of Table Mountain sheltering Cape Town, South Africa from the choppy waters of the ocean.

I learned so much traveling in these foreign places. But I will never forget that no matter where you are, the most important lessons are those learned not living as a human doing, but as a human being.

Baihly Warfield can be reached at

This item was posted in Featured News, Opinions and has 1 comment so far.

1 Comment

  1. Leah Miller
    Jun. 20, 2014 1:08 PM

    Awesome article Baihly! I just got back from a semester in Rome with Catholic Studies and what you touched on here resonates with me greatly!
    Thanks for writing, and for studying abroad as well!

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