Why was Semester at Sea Banned?

Semester at Sea's spring of 2015 voyage pose on the back three decks of the MV Explorer as they close their trip around the world, finally docking in Southampton, England.
Semester at Sea's spring of 2015 voyage pose on the back three decks of the MV Explorer as they close their trip around the world, finally docking in Southampton, England.

Vanguard is no longer allowing students to participate in the Semester at Sea study abroad program. It’s removal marks the untimely end of an educational experience like none other. Cutting ties with a program that has been revered and loved by Vanguard students for decades demands a powerful and clear explanation. After speaking with the new Director of Global Education and Outreach, however, it remains unclear whether such a dogged decision is justified.

No other study abroad programs have been banned by the office. I received no help from the Office of Global Education and Outreach in doing Semester at Sea, yet they are the ones removing it. If their goal is to launch Vanguard students into the world, how does this decision tie in?

With this in effect, according to Kayli Hillebrand, Director of the Global Education and Outreach, the only way Vanguard students may partake in the program is by dropping out of our school. This means that students would subsequently lose their scholarship money at Vanguard, making it very difficult and discouraging to pursue the program altogether. Students would then have to reapply to Vanguard and pray that their units earned while abroad would transfer in.

Semester at Sea (popularly abbreviated as “SAS”) has allowed students from all across the world to embark on an academic adventure together since it’s founding in 1963. Students take college classes on a luxury cruise liner while they sail from port to port. Last spring, Vanguard Seniors Ridge Floria, Tyler Wheeland, Nicole Trueb and (yours truly) Thaddeus Brians sailed around the world with some 700 other students, docking in 15 international cities–11 countries–in the span of 4 months.

If you ask anyone who has embarked on a SAS voyage what the best part of their trip was, you will get varied answers (probably because of the wide range of experiences students enjoy while on the voyage) but one thing is the same; their sense of awe.

“Semester at Sea provided a cross cultural experience unlike any cultural anthropology, international relations or business course could ever provide” says Caroline Fichthorn (spring ‘15) of Memphis University, who got engaged while in Morocco to her sweetheart, Jordan Fichthorn. “It put a lifetime of experience into a semester and will be remembered unlike most things you learn in 8 semesters at a university” she says.

Semester at Sea applies real world experience and perspective to the classroom in a way that is unparalleled by any existing program. Students’ travels while in port are complemented by mandatory field labs in numerous countries, ship-wide workshops, and classroom discussions that accelerate and deepen the learning process. The classes are administered on the ship by professors with diverse backgrounds from Brigham Young to Yale.

“We are actively involved in what we are learning and experiencing together” says Senior Ridge Floria, (spring ‘15), “It is not like taking a class at your home school where you only get to talk about it, but you actually get to experience it, in the real world.”

The zeal for learning is reciprocated by Semester at Sea’s passionate staff.

“Of all my educational experiences, SAS was by far the most transformative” says alumna Catrina Funk who first sailed as a student in 1991. Since then she has earned an MBA from the University of Tennessee, completed residency in Obstetrics and Gynecology at Michigan State and has traveled to nearly 100 countries, most recently providing emergency obstetrics and newborn care in South Sudan.

Funk and her husband took a leave of absence to partake in the Semester at Sea’s spring voyage around the world in 2015. The Funks even chose to quit their jobs when they were given the rare opportunity to join the voyage this upcoming spring. “We believe in the program & it’s ability to expose students to such a unique educational experience that we have chose to quit our jobs to sail again” she says.

The Funks’ commitment to the program is not uncommon. I met several more professors and staffers who readily forfeited their jobs, such as my astronomy professor Cassie Fallshceer and my R.A. John Cahill, for the sake of the experience. For everyone who has had the joy to sail on a SAS voyage knows the immensity of such an unrivaled learning venture.

“Vanguard has helped me in ways that Semester at Sea never could” Floria says, “In the same way, Semester at Sea has helped me grow in ways that Vanguard never could.”

While aboard the ship, Floria stepped up as a worship leader in the Christian club, which met every Sunday while at sea. “It was a huge learning curve for me” he recalls since he had never lead worship before then. “I had to lay aside my insecurities of my singing or my guitar ability and let God do with me what He wanted” he says.

Some Christians may argue that living in a secular environment would detract from a Vanguard student’s spirituality, however, with Floria that is not the case. “I think it started out a little hard to live as a ‘good’ Christian” he admits, “but as the voyage went on everything seemed to solidify my connection to Christ. I feel like I definitely had a lot more divine encounters and intentional conversations about Christ while on voyage because I knew more and more who I was in Christ.”

Vanguard and SAS alumnus Craig Petrovich (summer ‘11) confirms that the voyage did not confuse his walk with God but acted as a catalyst for further growth. “I have a deeper understanding in what it means to live out my Christian faith on a ship with so many different worldviews” he says. Petrovich recalls In  a conversation with his Jewish roommate telling him how he had “never taken Christians seriously” prior to getting to know Petrovich, who got the chance to show him what an authentic walk really looks like.

When Petrovich heard that Vanguard is discontinuing its connection with Semester at Sea, he seemed alarmed and deeply saddened. Vanguard and SAS alumnus, David Foster, author of “The Coffee Snob” reciprocated the feeling. Our question was the same, why did Vanguard forbid Semester at Sea?

Why would any academic institution wish to omit such a unique and profound learning experience? Surely, such a strong decision to wipe out such an amazing opportunity would derive from an equally as strong reason why. However, when I inquired at the Office of Global Education and Outreach, I was both frustrated and dismayed with the lack thereof. According to Hillebrand, there is no primary reason for SAS’s dismissal, instead, there are a “several.”

She mentioned how the office of Global Education and Outreach was concerned with the safety of students who travel abroad. This begs the question, what places in particular is the office wanting to avoid? Hillebrand says that “the list [of places] kind of changes and flows with the climate of our world.” This concern seems a bit ambiguous considering that the Institute for Shipboard Education (ISE) which sponsors SAS have had over 50 years of experience safely taking more than 55,000 students abroad. She did admit that “there are a lot of places in Mexico that are safer than LA.” With this knowledge, why would it be any more unsafe for a student to travel on Semester at Sea than visit a friend in the city?

Finances were also brought up as a concern. It is true that Semester at Sea is expensive, but so is every study abroad program. If finances is enough of a reason to oust SAS, should the office discontinue all other abroad programs? Of course not, this line of logic would also induce the closure of the office since traveling is never cheap. Furthermore, ISE awards over $4 million in financial aid annually, with more than half of their students receiving aid. I was awarded two scholarships from ISE. These along with my Cal and Pell grants made the trip equally as affordable to me as a semester spent at Vanguard. Granted, it still took tons of hard work to make it happen, but it was worth every penny and late night.

The time spent abroad contributed to my education both with life skills and academic excellence. In lieu of Vanguard’s Empirical World class, I was allowed the opportunity to study Astronomy while traveling by ship through significant astronomical places such as the northern and southern hemispheres and the equator–twice. Unlike some students who travel abroad, my semester spent at sea did not delay my graduation whatsoever. Any talk, therefore, of canning SAS because it would slow students graduation is misinformed. Thanks to my advisor Krystal Komatsu, my study abroad advisor Kristie Gray and Dr. Cecil Miller, SAS was made academically possible.

Hillebrand says that their goal is for all of Vanguard’s study abroad affiliates is to line up with the “mission and vision” of our University, that is, “to pursue knowledge, cultivate character and deepen faith.” On all these accounts, Semester at Sea allows students to further develop these goals, just as VU students (both past and present) such as Floria and Petrovich have experienced. What better a place to pursue the knowledge of Astronomy than the open seas, where there is absolutely no light pollution, and a 180 degree view of the sky? A Christian’s character grows very little when he or she is surrounded by other Christians because there are few conflicting ideas within ‘the Vanguard bubble’ or any social bubble to challenge them.

A ship is not meant to spend all its waking time in the still waters of the harbor.

True character requires the courage to step out of one’s comfort zone in faith. To burst the bubble and thereby deepen one’s faith in a radical new way that cannot be done while at home.

Hillenbrand says that “not everybody is built for study abroad … just like not everybody is built to go to college.” But why not let Vanguard students (who have all visibly made it to college) make the decision to step out in faith on their own accord? If God places it on a student’s heart to apply for a program, should not the office of Global Education and Outreach help them achieve this goal?

The prohibition of Semester at Sea hurts Vanguard students opportunity to grow as faithful, academic and global citizens. It robs them of the a community of growth. Sure there are other good study abroad programs, but none with the height or depth of learning granted by ISE. By the same token, if enigmatic conclusions can forbid a program that has been enjoyed by outstanding Vanguard students for decades, how little of a reason does the office need to taboo future programs?

What is more, the removal of VU students from the program robs the community of Semester at Sea, and the various ports they visit around the world, from experiencing the light and authenticity of our community. As Christians, we are called to be the salt and light of the earth (Matthew 5:13-16).

If Vanguard is the heart-felt community we’ve come to know and love, why should we withhold from sharing it with the world?


Thaddeus Brians
graduated May 2016 with a B.A. in Communication and a minor in Religion.


  • Chelsea Hargrove

    So saddened by this news. I was never able to participate in SAS, but why would one want to take away the opportunity to travel the world and grow in your personal walk with God, while receive academic credit at the same time?

    It keeps making the “Vanguard Bubble” smaller and smaller; not being able to apply what we learn in the classrooms outside in the “real world”.

  • Follow the money. US schools charge full tuition and then sub contract their students out to foreign universities. The margin between US tuition rates and many “abroad” universities makes it more profitable to keep students in the core track. It be financially better to withdraw regardless of the program you choose u less your school holds your scholarship hostage.

  • Vanguards financial reasoning for banning the program isn’t that accurate or rooted in student testimonials. I paid a nominal amount for tuition that was mostly covered through federal aid, and had a generous amount of aid from SAS to make the trip a possibility.

    If they want to ban SAS for the secular exposure students may get I don’t need to engage in why this is rooted in a vacuum mentality. Not everything outside of vanguard is secular. Not everything at vanguard is Christian. There were plenty of faiths on the ship that allowed the student body to create an ecumenical church service as well as opportunities for students to create their own Christian worship/fellowship that was life giving to my faith.

    In this post modern PC culture we live in vanguard is sadly perpetuating this ideology structurally in their policies that ultimately hurt the student’s right to learn to think and come to their own conclusions on their faith and journey.

  • It’s all about the money. Study Abroad means less money for Vanguard. They love money more than they love anything else, including Jesus. Any students who complain will be told to transfer.

    Don’t believe their lies about “mission” and stuff like that. It’s all about keeping more of your money.

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