My STEP Signature Project was a study abroad program during my first semester of junior year called Semester at Sea. With the STEP money, I participated in the third party program that allowed me to travel to 12 different countries around Europe, Africa, and South America. While taking 12 credit hours aboard the ship, I was also able to immerse myself into many different cultures.
My world-view as well as my view of self completely changed during my semester abroad with Semester at Sea. Before studying abroad, I had only traveled to countries in Europe with very similar cultures to my own here in the United States. I didn’t exactly have the desire to branch out and experience widely different cultures until I participated in my program. I got to experience a variety of cultures throughout the four months of my voyage. I began to realize that the places I thrived most during my semester were in those countries with completely different cultures from my own. I loved being able to learn more about these cultures while also participating in some of their rituals.
Before attending Semester at Sea, I had many preconceived notions about the countries I was visiting. I had no idea what to expect when I arrived in Africa. Once I arrived in Morocco, my entire view on Africa was challenged as I immersed myself within its culture. As I moved on to Senegal, I witnessed another completely different culture, and was moved by the immense diversity between the two African countries. My previous preconceptions were abandoned as I realized that Africa was much different from what I might have heard as a child. As I traveled around the rest of the world, I could sense that I was changing and becoming more culturally aware. As I reflect back on who I was at the start of the semester versus who I am now, I’m very satisfied with the personal growth that occurred during my STEP Signature Project.
The way my program was set up helped me ease into the cultural changes I would experience during the semester. We started our voyage in Germany and proceeded to Greece, Italy and Spain. Although these countries have different cultures than here in the United States, they share a lot of familiar aspects. I easily adjusted to the differences and never felt out of my comfort zone. As we progressed to Africa, I witnessed my first big culture shock. Morocco is an Islamic country that adheres to most of Islamic law. We were instructed to dress modestly by keeping our legs and shoulders covered while also refraining from wearing any tight clothes. For the first time, I felt out of place and was slightly uncomfortable. This discomfort allowed me to open up and engage with the culture in a new way that I had never before experienced. I went on a camel trek in the Erg Chebbi Dunes of the Sahara and became good friends with my guide, Ahmed, who taught us about the Berber culture while also giving us pertinent life advice. It was the first time on my voyage that I could sense myself starting to change.
After Morocco, we headed to Senegal. During my time, I participated in many Semester at Sea field programs that allowed me to enjoy many different aspects of the Senegalese culture. I attended a local dinner and music show during my second night, as well as a safari during my last full day. The program that stuck out the most to me, however, was my trip to the famous Pink Lake. During this program, local guides brought us to Pink Lake before proceeding to a local village. The leader of the village showed us around as the local children swarmed our group ready to greet their newest guests. The buildings were made of cinderblocks with little to no furnishings inside, yet every person in the village, especially the children, seemed so happy. The next village we stopped at also consisted of simple, cinderblock dwellings. We were invited to a naming ceremony by the village people and got to interact with the locals and their children. I was overwhelmed as I experienced people with so few possessions lead the most fulfilling lives. This was the pivotal experience that led to my overall transformation during my voyage.
Finally, I was transformed by the interactions and relationships that I formed during my time spent on the ship. This was the first time I was truly disconnected from the outside world. Once we left our first port, our only source of communication with the outside world was through email. We were all forced to meet new people and actually have real conversations. During my time on the ship, I realized how much my generation depends on their cell phones. It was really rough at first, but I learned to love the disconnection. I became as close to my friends on the ship during the first 9 days of our voyage than I was with my friends back home. I was able to sit down with many people on the boat and have deep life discussions. Although I am back in the United States with full access to my phone and the Internet whenever I please, I long for the days on the ship where people would want to have those deep conversations. The ship is definitely one of the greatest factors in the amount of personal growth I achieved during my semester, and I am so thankful I was given the opportunity to experience this voyage.
This change and personal development matters a lot to me in relation to my future. I was able to learn so much about myself that I can now apply to my everyday life back here in the United States. This voyage has made me more aware of world situations and more culturally competent. I’ve also learned the importance of disconnecting from my devices. I think I’ve really made a point of trying to put down my phone whenever I’m with friends so that I can give my full attention to my conversations. My semester also created an intense desire to see the rest of the world. My STEP Signature Project has inspired me to want to work abroad at some point during my time as a professional. I was also inspired by the stories of many of the faculty and staff on the ship and hope to participate in some sort of service project either in Africa or Asia before graduating. I would most likely never have had the opportunity to experience everything I did without my semester abroad, and might have never reached the level of personal growth that occurred during my time away. In the end, Semester at Sea was the experience of a lifetime that has changed my life forever.