Setting sail: GVSU student reflects on ‘Semester at Sea’

Tylee Bush

Each college campus offers its own amenities, but have you ever heard of one that floats? “Semester at Sea” is a unique study-abroad experience where students live on a ship for one semester and visit more than 10 countries. Students choose from a variety of classes that are applicable to their major, and at the end of the program, they have 12 credits to transfer back to their home university. In addition to these four classes, students gain a global perspective from the cultures and countries they visit throughout their voyage.

Grand Valley State University student Spencer Rohatynski set sail for the fall 2016 semester. He joined a class of roughly 500 students from different universities around the globe. Along with the faculty and professors, these students made the ship their home for 100 days.

Rohatynski had the privilege of visiting Germany, Greece, Italy, Spain, Morocco, Senegal, Brazil, Peru, Ecuador and Costa Rica on his voyage. Rohatynski reflected on this experience, describing it as life-changing and unmatched by any other study-abroad program. 

“Life on a floating campus was incredible,” he said. “We had a small, close-knit community of about 500 students and 100 faculty. Between small class sizes, meals at the same time every day, no communication with the outside world and fun activities like the Sea Olympics, we quickly became one big family.”

Rohatynski shared that there were some oddities of going to school on a floating campus, too. Occasionally, class would be canceled if a professor was seasick or if the waves were too rough, causing things to knock over inside the ship. There would even been ship-wide announcements for dolphin or whale sightings. He said everyone would pause what they were doing, run to the top deck and take a look.

Aside from the knowledge gained in his degree-related classes, Rohatynski learned a lot from exploring these foreign countries. The languages and customs he was exposed to broadened his global perspective and taught him to embrace ambiguity.

In addition, Rohatynski took away a strengthened authority and independence from this trip. When he was growing up, his father would often travel for business, and occasionally Rohatynski and his brothers got to tag along. He considers himself very lucky to have spent time in France, Switzerland, Italy, Japan and Mexico during his childhood.

However, doing the Semester at Sea and taking on the world without his family by his side to navigate for him and maintain his safety was a whole new experience. 

“The biggest challenge I faced was not being able to rely on my family or friends for support or guidance,” Rohatynski said. “The four months I spent on this trip I was alone. I was forced to act independently and do things on my own, like research, plan, take appropriate safety precautions and cover costs. This was a huge challenge for me, but one that I’m glad I faced. 

“In a way, it changed my life.”

Rohatynski left this experience with an even stronger desire to explore the world. 

“My eagerness to learn about our world and its many cultures has grown immensely,” he said. “The world is huge, and there are so many amazing people that inhabit it. I want to meet them all.”

After his study-abroad trip, Rohatynski developed his own digital media company, R2-Digital. He is finishing up his degree in public relations and multimedia journalism at GVSU, and he hopes to continue traveling all throughout his life. 

“I’ve always had a passion for storytelling, film and video, and editing,” Rohatynski said. “Traveling has strengthened those passions and has shown me a glimpse of how incredible this world really is. I’d love to spend the rest of my life capturing that beauty and sharing it with others.”