Work Hard and Hope for the Best, or Stay Safe and Lose It All?
August 7, 2008 12:43 AM   Subscribe

Am I making a huge mistake? I'm deciding whether I should take a term off from my beloved college in order to work in the "real world", scraping together money for a study abroad program (Semester at Sea). My instincts say to do it, but I'm suddenly hesitant and wonder if others might have suggestions.

Here's where it stands. I planned on making tons of money this summer doing freelance work (in a job that in the past has made me quite a bit of money), but that didn't work out. Instead of having a wad of cash at the end of summer, I've basically broken even. Now I have to figure out what to do next-- and as senior year looms, things seem to be getting desperate.

I intend to go on Semester at Sea this spring (my final term)-- yes, I managed to convince the faculty to let me! SAS is literally the most important goal I have, and I desperately need to be on that boat, but I'm not sure how to make ends meet-- especially since the cheaper rooms all got snatched up and it now costs $5,000 more than it was "supposed" to.

I'm an entering senior in college, paying for the whole thing myself and have no family assistance whatsoever (thanks to a lot of financial aid, I have just enough cash to finish two terms there, but that isn't much). Semester at Sea costs $23,000 -- not including personal expenses or additional fees that might come up. Of that, roughly $12000 of my aid will transfer, and there is a $10k workstudy grant if all goes well. That pretty much means I could go-- though without a cent to spare (not even enough for things like plane tickets etc).

If I forego college for one term, it hinges on getting a full-time job (9-5) as well as supporting myself through my existing freelance work and bartending (which I haven't yet gotten a job in, but feel like I will if I give it some more time). I can stay at a friend's place for very little rent, and will have ultimate freedom (one of the things I seek most in life). I'll be running myself into the ground, but I really think I might be ready for the "real world": at least, I hope so. And at the end of it, I would be able to save up some money and have an amazing trip--potentially even able to buy a nice f/2.8 for my DSLR!

Things to consider: I would be leaving behind some people I care very much about and who I might not see again (including a long-term relationship that I'd pretty much have to give up on), I would need to graduate college a term late (and miss a whole year of watching my friends grow up), and I don't know how the job market is in NY (though I have an incredible amount of skills, I seem to have consistent trouble getting work normally). The advantage is that I would be applying for a fulltime position (with more than 4 months available to work) and I imagine there are certainly more opportunities for those than for part time/internship work. If it doesn't work, though, the whole thing is a bust.

If I stayed at college, I would be dirt-poor (just like always) and potentially miss out on being able to afford the trip (even if I got a gig bartending in the town, it wouldn't be enough to save up). Even things like visas, memory cards, or plane tickets might be more than I could handle. I have credit card bills that I would need to set money aside to pay over the 3 months I'm at sea, and I'm not sure how I could do that either. It would be so comforting, so easy, to go back-- but I'm not sure it's the right choice in the long run. I sense that I'll be changed a lot after SAS and I think being independent beforehand might be really important.

I'm pretty much at the max of my financial aid, though it's possible I might be able to take out a $5-7k loan. My credit's not great, so I'm not too sure of my chances of that.

I'm just trying to think this out-- what seems to you to be the sanest idea? Strike out and hope that a job will be waiting (I'm doing tons and tons and tons of research), or go back and be happy, finish school, and move on as best I can (my college is paradise on earth, and nothing else will ever be quite like it)? And what other options might I have for this kind of thing? Are there appropriate loans I might look into that are outside the normal structure of financial aid?

The whole thing is incredibly scary to me, but exhilarating... is it really just a question of courage, and working is obviously the right choice, or am I right to be cautious of abandoning ship in this economy?
posted by dmaterialized to Work & Money (38 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Go ahead and do the easy thing and stay in school. Get your 9-5 job in the big city, maybe work some over time. Then in a year or two, you can finally use your 5 days of vacation to take a little motorboat around the lake. Hopefully you wouldn't have spent it on being sick, going to other people's weddings, or graduations. Then you can marry that girl you are seeing, pop out a couple of kids, raise them, send them off to college, work some more, retire, and then finally take that boat trip. That is the safe and logical thing to do.

Just get on that boat already. Beg, borrow, -don't steal- to get the money you need.
posted by idiotfactory at 1:42 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: When you say things like:

I would be leaving behind some people I care very much about and who I might not see again (including a long-term relationship that I'd pretty much have to give up on), I would need to graduate college a term late (and miss a whole year of watching my friends grow up), and I don't know how the job market is

Even things like visas, memory cards, or plane tickets might be more than I could handle.

I'm pretty much at the max of my financial aid, though it's possible I might be able to take out a $5-7k loan. My credit's not great, so I'm not too sure of my chances of that.

...I physically lack the ability to say this is a good idea.

I am 25, recently out of college, and an expat; I'm someone who also loves traveling and new experiences, someone who was on financial aid, and someone who loved my college and thought it was the best ever - and I wouldn't go near this. I do not doubt that Semester at Sea is probably amazing. I do not doubt that going abroad is amazing. But there are other ways to see the world.

$23,000 is a lot of money. That's as much as a year at my non-seagoing college cost...with everything included: fees, tuition, plane tickets, gas and insurance for my car, clothes, books, pricey avocados, jokey t-shirts, spring break, the whole lot. And not to be gauche and opening my wallet for the world to see, but that's three times what I made just two years ago working for a year in Indonesia as an English teacher, which was one of the best things I have ever done and where I lived like a king, saving hundreds and hundreds of dollars a month.

So now I ask you to consider the unpleasant, the unthinkable, if you will permit me, only as a thought experiment: If you stopped having Semester at Sea as an option - if it went bankrupt, or if the ships vanished in the Bermuda Triangle, or if your professors or your mom or your astrologer forbade you from ever stepping aboard an ocean-going vessel, what would you do instead?

If the money and the worry and the time and the anxiety about ending your relationships all just...went away, where would you be?

I see you liaising with your college's career center to find an amazing job that fits your interests right off the starting line at the end of your senior year.

I see you building your relationship with your partner into something truly beautiful and valuable.

I see you feeling more secure - and more open-minded - about the world around you.

I see you leaving college with no debt - something which is amazingly empowering when you are 22, and something which virtually none of your peers save the extraordinarily affluent will have the pleasure of experiencing.

I see you planning a fantastic trip just a year after you would have returned from Semester at Sea, taking your partner along, using a break between the job you took after college and the better job you're getting after you return. Or maybe the first job you take has four weeks of paid vacation and is in somewhere way less expensive than New York City, so you get more value for your salary.

Overall, I see you happy. This trip, and you going or not going on it, is not you. You have a life here, an amazingly bountiful life from your description, and while everyone wants - and needs! - a break and a change of scenery and a porthole and a gangway, maybe this isn't your time to sail away yet. The numbers and the relationships and the stress just don't add up to anything other than steerage at best and a life-ring at worst.

And jobs are not destiny; colleges are not destiny. If you had looked the Almanac of Mdonley when I left college, you would not have me moving to Poland in a month to teach English in a 700-year-old town for a tenth or a twentieth of what my friends make. But there I'll be, happy as a lark. There are others like me; we don't see choices as either/or, but as either/or/or/or/or/or/or..., ad infinitum, because we, and no one else, decide where we want to go and if we can get there. And if we can: we go.

But if we can't: we just pick a new destination.
posted by mdonley at 1:58 AM on August 7, 2008 [4 favorites]

What's so great about Semester at Sea? Why not just finish up college and move on with your life? There are dozens of ways to travel cheaply (Peace Corps? Teaching English abroad?) and to be honest with you, Semester at Sea sounds like a rip off. You're living in a boat with a bunch of other Americans/English speakers and going to class. It doesn't even sound like as good of an experience as a semester abroad / year abroad where you live in a different culture, learn a language, get to know a big city.
posted by k8t at 2:09 AM on August 7, 2008

Best answer: As a sometime tutor in Higher Education, I have the following questions:

1. Will your work relate to your studies in some way?
2. Have you considered other (cheaper) semester or year out programmes?

If you're going straight through college from high school, a year or a semester out can have a remarkable effect on your studies. If students get a sandwich placement working in a related field, or go to another country and study there, it's not unrealistic to say that they often come back and get 5-10% higher marks than they did before they went. This is, I think, down to two factors - the additional maturity that 6 months or a year can bring, and the fact that by seeing life outside of their own HE institution, they get more of an understanding of the strategic nature of study and get better at the organisational and/or hoop jumping aspects of HE.

So if your work is relevant, and you can definitely afford it, I'd say go for it.

That said, 23k seems a fuck of a lot to pay for a semester.

What about JYA? What about going somewhere challenging and immersing yourself in a foreign culture? Talk to your study abroad office about doing a semester studying in the UK (if you don't have any languages) or in an American university somewhere interesting (Istanbul, Athens, Fez... they're all over the place), or somewhere else in Europe if you have some language skills, rather than hanging around on a boat with a bunch of rich Yanks, most of whom will have had their trip funded by their parents and who won't be stressing about how much an SD card costs.
posted by handee at 2:35 AM on August 7, 2008

What are you studying in college? It would be helpful to know that in order to assess your employment opportunity.
posted by joewandy at 2:40 AM on August 7, 2008

Another alternative to think about: 'junior year/study abroad' programs come in 2 flavors: 1, where you pay exactly what you would have if you would have been in your home university and 2, a lot more. (Sounds like Semester at Sea is in the 'lot more' category.)

I mentioned Peace Corps and teaching abroad as ways to travel, but also think about doing your MA abroad. Even though the dollar SUCKS, you can get an MA at a European university for $20k in tuition (and then maybe another $10k or so for housing/food/etc.) - that would be an entire year abroad, you'd get an MA out of it, student loans will cover it all, and you'll have a great adventure. That'll be a bit more than your SAS, but it'll cover a year and you'll get a lot out of it.
posted by k8t at 2:40 AM on August 7, 2008

PS, if you consider the MA in Europe route, you can also work while you're doing your MA. I worked while doing my MA in London and my paycheck covered all my expenses. Native English speakers are in demand.
posted by k8t at 2:56 AM on August 7, 2008

What are you studying? Can going to sea wait until you could do it as part of a graduate degree? My housemate is studying climate change and its effects in seawater, and was able to go to the Antarctic on a research boat - and got paid to go! $23,000 is a lot of money and you will be working for several years to pay that off. This doesn't sound like a good idea, frankly.

I'm also someone who has been very adventurous and have worked my way around the world, living in 4 different countries and visiting over 20 countries, always getting paid to go. I wouldn't think semester at sea is a good deal in terms of value for experience. I bet you would get bored on that boat, even.
posted by hazyjane at 3:28 AM on August 7, 2008

Semester at seas is a waste of money honest. Go on a cruise after you graduate.
posted by A189Nut at 4:12 AM on August 7, 2008

Best answer: Do the semester at sea, for all us guys who had a dream in college, said "Oh, I'll just work for a year or two, and then quit and follow my dream" and then didn't.

I was gonna ride across the country. Or hike the AT. Or head down the Mississippi in a johnboat. Then I got a job, bought a lot of things on credit, and spent a couple years as an underemployed barfly wallowing in debt. I want to go back and beat the shit out of the self that said "Oh, I'll just work for a couple years..."
posted by notsnot at 4:17 AM on August 7, 2008 [2 favorites]

OK, I wouldn't trade the traveling abroad I have done for the world. A lot of it put me in a world of debt, and it took 5 years to graduate from college because I spent a year abroad, I'm still paying off a trip from living abroad last year for my graduate research, but I feel most comfortable when I am exploring new places and making new friends, even though I have an amazing support network of people whom I love dearly and consider to be family right here in the US. Your friends (the ones that really want to invest in your friendship) will be your friends even after college. Not a problem. Working your ass off saving money? Annoying, but possible.

So it seems like I'm saying go for it and do the semester at sea, right? Not at all. For the pure and simple reason that $23,000 is an insane amount of money for a lousy semester. You could hit up all the countries that the boat will visit on your own or even with a study abroad program for less than half that price. I lived eleven months in Peru last year for about $9,000 including airfare (lots of it - I was in an area that you can only reach by plane), food, electronic equipment (recording technology, laptop, digital camera). I sold my car for $3500 and used financial aide and savings for the rest. I just went to India for three weeks for $1900. C'mon. You can totally find a stimulating study abroad program (if you need structure) and then you can travel on the weekends. Or you can apply to teach abroad (the JET program, TEFL programs, etc.). Or the Peace Corps. Or you could simply travel. You could do all of these things for less than $23,000 and I bet you would have a more complete experience than just being on a fancy boat with classes. Try this at half the price for lots of traveling between countries or this for hundreds of programs all over.

Good luck with whatever you choose.
posted by cachondeo45 at 4:23 AM on August 7, 2008 [3 favorites]

Best answer: I...will have ultimate freedom (one of the things I seek most in life)

Working 9-5, plus freelancing, plus bartending might not feel like ultimate freedom after 4 months. Mounting credit card debt also won't feel like freedom, more like indentured servitude if you're working not for you but just to pay off the cards. I only point this out because if "ultimate freedom" is your goal, there are some great other avenues mentioned above that might fit better than what (to me) sounds like a ghastly 4 months and an unsure payout.
posted by pants at 4:23 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

I looked into Semester at Sea when I was an undergrad and.... well, how can I say this? The amount of return on the investment required just didn't seem to be there. Let me put it this way: Do you really think that this is the best way to experience some of the world? I'm not saying that SAS is bad but consider the alternatives.

If it was me I would crank through the last of my coursework and try to save as much money as possible. I would then buy a decent touring bicycle and just set out to where-ever looked interesting. It's the perfect travel mechanism for this sort of thing: fast enough to actually get someplace, especially in a small country, but slow enough that you actually get to experience the stuff you're going through. Then, after six months or a year or however long I wanted, I'd head back home and start the job/grad school search.

Let me be honest: As an employer, I'd be more interested in somebody who showed some independence along the lines of "I spent a year washing dishes and learning throat singing in Tuva" than somebody who just coughed up $20k to live on a ship and take classes for a semester.
posted by LastOfHisKind at 4:38 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

From everything I have heard about it, SAS is like a frat party on a boat. Don't blow money on that.
posted by sweetkid at 4:54 AM on August 7, 2008

If you look for other loans, make sure you check the interest rates. Some can jump from 6 to 13 percent and those are a bitch to pay off.

As for doing something crazy, I agree that SAS may not be the best investment. I think a study abroad would be a better investment, it would give you great experience.

It seems romantic to just drop everything and go out to sea, but I'd stick with school. If you're looking for a 9-5 instead of finishing up, focus on finishing instead because the pay will be higher with the degree in hand and most companies have quicker hiring processes for upcoming graduates. That doesn't mean you shouldn't start applying though.

And look at it this way. If you truly want to see the world, why go somewhere else. I've often dreamed of getting in my car and driving around the coutnry. Eat in a dinner every day in a small town, see the sights, interact with real people, sit and smoke a cigar on a beach at both oceans and find people and hear their story. Adventure is not at sea or in Europe, but it is in a journey.

And such a road trip might take a few weeks, which you could always save up for and plan after graduation.
posted by thebreaks at 6:08 AM on August 7, 2008

Best answer: I'm going to join the chorus of urging you to skip the SAS, get your diploma, and then do your traveling. The students I know who have gone on SAS (and all of them loved it, by the way) were going through college with family support — they were not bearing the full cost of the program. If they were, they would not have gone, it's that simple. It's a big party boat, sort of a cross between one of those MTV shows and high school, and that can be a lot of fun. But it's not worth quitting school or going into huge debt to pay for — you can drink beer in tropical locations for a lot cheaper on your own.

It would be ok in my eyes to go on the SAS, taking out a few more loans (because you are getting most of the tuition cost covered, but you will need maybe $5000 for travel and incidentals, right?), but to drop out for a semester to work to pay for it? That seems like a particularly bad plan to me. People who drop out often don't finish, because real life intervenes; it can be a lot harder to save money than you assumed (as you found out this summer), leaving you worse off than before; and restarting school after a long break can be really hard, since you have to relearn your study skills, make new friends, and reconnect with professors, all in that last semester.

Get the BA, which will open doors, like being able to earn more, or to be able to travel and have someone else pay for it. I emphasize that last bit because getting paid to travel is a really great way to go. People have mentioned the Peace Corps a few times, and language teaching. If you go to graduate school, there will likely be lots of money for foreign travel available (I got at least four international trips paid for in grad school, all for months or weeks of traveling, at not a penny cost to myself).

My take on this, as someone who gets to watch undergrads make these choices every year, is that the expensive study abroad programs and SAS-type things are, while not quite scams, certainly not good value for money. What they are really good for is hand holding scared and uncertain people through a buffered "foreign" experience, and that is really important for a lot of students. But compared to just buying yourself a plane ticket and going, a lot of those programs don't offer very much of value, aside from the hand holding.
posted by Forktine at 6:12 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

$23,000 is huge amount of money for 10 weeks on a boat, especially if you have to bunk with a lot of people and do classwork. I don't know know what you are majoring in,but I don't think there are many majors that are best served by spending three months on a boat.

For $23,000 you could do a lot. For that , you could rent a farm in southern spain for a year, or take an awesome yearlong trip around the world, or even do nothing in the privacy of your own home for a year if you lived cheaply enough. Don't go on the boat. Even if you meet your soulmate there, the debt will still kill you.
posted by parmanparman at 6:21 AM on August 7, 2008

I forgot to add: before you make any decisions, ensure that you have exhausted both the formal and informal processes for asking for more financial aid from your school. Every school is different; but usually there is a form to submit or you write a letter saying "I need more money because XYZ." If that fails, or they offer too little for you to go ahead, you need to find out who the administrator is you go and beg from in person. At a small school it might be the dean of students or even the president directly; at a big school it might be someone in the dean of student's office, the financial aid structure, or someone else — find out, and practice making your pitch in a non-whiny, non-entitled way.

Your decision becomes a lot different if you are handed $5000 from the President's discretionary fund, you know?
posted by Forktine at 6:35 AM on August 7, 2008

I don't want to tell you what to do, but my understanding from friends and family who have been on SaS is that it's an enormous joke, sub-par education, and expensive to boot. 23,000 is an ASTOUNDING amount of money. Finish college and the take your 23 and go see the world. You could mpve to Morocco and survive for. More than a year.

Asia, Africa. You got your pick. Even with the lousy Euro to Dollar, 23 is a TON. My wife and I did 6 weeks all over Europe and Morrocco on about 2500$. We weren't always comfortable, but I don't have anything that isn't a good memory. Hell, for 23 you can bring your "long-term relationship" with you.

Honestly, SaS sounds like an incredibly expensive vacation. Don't fall for it and give yourself the trip of a lifetime.
posted by GilloD at 6:40 AM on August 7, 2008

A close friend of mine went on Semester at Sea and HATED it. Have you spoken with people who have done the program and share your interests/goals? I'd ask around and see what others have to say about their experiences. I also agree with everyone else that 23k seems overpriced. I think there are much cheaper, and ultimately more rewarding, ways to see the world.

I taught English abroad for almost 3 years after I graduated college and it was an excellent way to travel. Many teaching jobs - particularly in places like Japan - pay quite well and will enable you to travel without incurring debt. Plus you get to experience living in another culture which is completely different from spending two-three days in a given place.
posted by anonymous78 at 6:43 AM on August 7, 2008

I studied abroad for my entire junior year and then, once I started working, took a foreign trip every year. After 5 years I had saved enough to go on not one, but two around the world trips (6.5 months and 14 months). My starting salary was $27k so it's not like I was pulling in the big bucks. Granted, study abroad tuition cost the same as a year at my home university. I managed this by making a decision not to waste money or buy expensive things. I lived with my parents, drove a 20 year-old car, didn't buy a fancy TV or other stuff I didn't need. I set my priorities on saving money for travel. I traveled for 14 months on around 23k! It's possible to do it cheaper.

Semester at sea also seems like a joke to me. You will see a little bit of the world (a semester isn't that long) on your shore leave. I don't see being stuck on a boat with similar people very freeing. In fact, I think the loss of freedom to do what I want, be on my own schedule and see what I want would drive me crazy on a boat like that. Can you go on a more traditional study abroad program? I understand that you might see this as free money to travel. Most of it is aid and grants so if you traveled later that 23k would come from your own pocket. Although I think semester at sea isn't great I think you have the financial means to do it if you don't agree that it's totally overpriced.

I suggest teaching English in Korea as the ultimate money maker, with Japan in second. Peace Corps does get you out in the world but you don't really get to travel during your stay and you'll probably be in a little village and only get to experience one culture. A lot of PC volunteers take their payment at the end and cash in the value of their ticket home to travel for a little while. The daily stipend isn't enough to even travel regularly around the region they're stationed in.
posted by Bunglegirl at 7:40 AM on August 7, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: If I forego college for one term, it hinges on getting a full-time job (9-5) as well as supporting myself through my existing freelance work and bartending (which I haven't yet gotten a job in, but feel like I will if I give it some more time). I can stay at a friend's place for very little rent, and will have ultimate freedom (one of the things I seek most in life).

I'm not sure how you define ultimate freedom and what you value about it-- but in a lot of ways I felt like I had much more freedom while at school than in the working world.

Things to consider: I would be leaving behind some people I care very much about and who I might not see again (including a long-term relationship that I'd pretty much have to give up on), I would need to graduate college a term late (and miss a whole year of watching my friends grow up), and I don't know how the job market is in NY (though I have an incredible amount of skills, I seem to have consistent trouble getting work normally). The advantage is that I would be applying for a fulltime position (with more than 4 months available to work) and I imagine there are certainly more opportunities for those than for part time/internship work. If it doesn't work, though, the whole thing is a bust.

Well, I think that at the very least it would be unwise for you to decide to take the semester off unless you have already locked down a full-time job. You have trouble getting work normally, you don't know what the job market is like, and I'm having trouble following your math on "more than 4 months available to work" (you'll have, what, 5 months?)-- looks to me like you are looking for a short-term full-time job that may be very hard to find. I'm imagining you deciding to take the semester off, failing to find a decent-paying full-time job, barely making enough to cover expenses, and ending up with all the downsides of both options.
posted by EmilyClimbs at 8:11 AM on August 7, 2008

Response by poster: Woah, woah, woah.

Thanks for all the responses, guys -- I really appreciate how (mostly) unanimous this all is!

A little more about my studies: I'm a liberal arts "major" (yeah, whoopie) interested in consciousness/psychology/anthropology-- which is a big part of why I wanted to go on SAS (with classes like "cross-cultural psychology"). Obviously, I've heard the classes aren't that great, but I've also heard nothing but good things about the actual experience.

It's true, $23,000 is a lot. Then again, my school is actually more (just has more of it covered). I'm going to be deep in debt for 30+ years no matter what.

It's certainly true that I don't need to go on SAS to be "happy" or "complete". As an aspiring photographer and travel writer I just wanted to see more of the world than I have!

I am finishing a massive project at school-- basically writing a book on consciousness/creativity/culture -- as prequalifier for study abroad in my final term. Obviously I imagined, too, that the project would be bolstered by the experience of studying abroad (so it would be interesting to leave school, go abroad, have a summer, THEN finish the project)... and to be quite honest I'm just really worried that I won't have this chance again after I'm in the working world. Life DOES intervene, sometimes horrifically. The rising fuel costs are another thing-- what if it's just too expensive to try to fly around the world in a year or two? As some of you have said, everyone thinks they'll do this later in life but few people actually do.

It's scary to imagine going back for a term, banging out this project, then sitting around for the second half of senior year with nothing to do, wishing I was in Japan. I suppose I could take a year to complete it, but even then it seems like an unnaturally long time to twiddle my thumbs.

Enough extra info. Keep it coming-- thanks again for all this!
posted by dmaterialized at 8:25 AM on August 7, 2008

If your goal is to be a travel writer/photographer, you're going to need to get out there more than SAS will allow you to.

Like we've all said - look into other exchange programs! SAS is a rip off, you're locked on a boat, and will offer sub-par courses. Google 'journalism' and 'study abroad' as a start.
posted by k8t at 8:49 AM on August 7, 2008

I don't know anything about SaS, but if you're particularly keen on going to sea, could you learn to sail when you graduate (for much less than 23k) and go and work crewing yachts for a while before you settle down? Another way to get paid to have adventures rather than the other way round. If you're not that bothered specifically about being at sea, why bother with SaS? There are lots of other great suggestions above for other ways to find adventure.
If you're worried about falling into the trap of just working when you graduate, start researching and planning alternatives now and enjoy the whole anticipation - you'll be less likely to drop plans you've been working on for months.
And finally.. The 'I might as well be 50k in debt as 30k' argument will look a lot different when you're in your 30s, want to buy property and still have that last 20k to pay off.Good luck!
posted by penguin pie at 8:50 AM on August 7, 2008

Best answer: I hate to say it, but you seem to be working on two assumptions that are horribly wrong:

1) You need to go on SAS to see the world.
2) You can't learn without being in school.

I don't want to disparage SAS, since I've never been on it (or interested in it), but you should be evaluating why you're so interested in it. If you're interested in an experience, try this: spend $2k to get you to Hong Kong, Singapore, or Bangkok with a return ticket 20 weeks later from London or Paris. You'll now have $21k to spend in 20 weeks, which happens to be $150/day. Even inexperienced travelers can manage that if you don't stay in a hotel. By the way, even cheap hostels will be better than staying in a cruise ship cabin for 20 weeks.

I know you're going to say that SAS is better planned and requires less work on your point. That's exactly the reason you should consider other options! For all the money you've spent on education, you haven't seen the world. More classes, especially sub-par ones at SAS, won't help that. If you're really interested in deep thought, you're going to have to develop your own deep thought. I think you're convinced SAS will help you with that. I'd disagree, but I won't convince you of that. Instead, I'd like you tell why SAS alone will help you with that. I think there have been many alternatives suggested here that will help you better than SAS will.
posted by saeculorum at 8:59 AM on August 7, 2008

I hate to say it, but I'd be nervous reading a travel journalism piece written by someone who wanted to go on SaS. (But I also prefer traveling in/living in developing countries, hate going on guided tours, hate being with a group of tourists, etc.) No offense, everyone needs to start somewhere, but as we're all telling you, there are a lot better places to start.
posted by k8t at 9:11 AM on August 7, 2008

Oh, and if this tsunami of stuff can't convince you not to go, here's a little tidbit from the Wikipedia page:

Whenever the ship is in a port, no classes are held. Students are then able to travel on Semester at Sea sponsored trips or independently within the country. Travel outside the country of port is usually strictly prohibited, resulting in dismissal from the program.

So what if you dock in, say, Belgium and you want to go on your own to Luxembourg or France or the Netherlands? Apparently, nothing good.

Also, how long are the stops? Are talking, like, 9 hours in Sri Lanka? Or a week?
posted by mdonley at 9:17 AM on August 7, 2008

I agree with those who suggest going ahead with your plan, but doing your own thing rather than SAS. Paying $23,000 to spend one semester studying a set program on a cruise ship is, quite frankly, completely insane.

It's not worth that much. It's not even worth half that much. Don't think of it in comparison with tuition (which also tends to be completely insane), think of it in terms of travel costs... and in terms of travel costs, $23,000 is a kingly sum. There are rich people who don't even manage to spend that much on a solo trip, much less you or me. For example, it's enough to pay for any of the following: "a year (or two, or three, or maybe even four) in X affordable country, including airfare", "buying a used motorcycle and camp-touring the US, Canada, and/or South America", "getting a pilot's license, buying a used plane or an airplane kit, and then flying it to Alaska", etc. Seriously, it's enough to pay for almost any travel experience you can possibly think of. This is a life-changing amount of money, and it would buy you a real, unmediated, no-holds-barred adventure with a capital A. We're talking the sort of thing people write novels about, not travel articles. Please do NOT blow it on a single over-supervised college boat trip, especially a boat trip which has a reputation for being sort of lame.

Even if aid and grants will pay for 90% of what you'll spend doing SAS, it's still not really worth it. If you're really interested in travel, you should get that full-time job, live on your friend's couch for a year, and save up everything you can to pay for an amazing trip of your own. Even if you can only get together $2000, that'll pay for a much better trip than SAS, if you're frugal about it.

Alternatively, if you really want to be stuck doing busywork on a boat with a bunch of people you probably won't like, join the Navy, the Coast Guard, or the merchant marine. You'll see much more of the world than you will in SAS (unless you go Coast Guard), and they'll pay you the $23,000. I think the opportunities for writing and for making interesting observations in "consciousness/psychology/anthropology" are probably a lot better than in SAS, too.
posted by vorfeed at 9:22 AM on August 7, 2008

And finally.. The 'I might as well be 50k in debt as 30k' argument will look a lot different when you're in your 30s, want to buy property and still have that last 20k to pay off.

Truer words have never been written. I am constantly horrified by the casualness with which people take on student loan debt. Yes, a degree is a good thing, and is worth borrowing money to get. But that does not excuse taking on a penny more debt than is necessary.

and to be quite honest I'm just really worried that I won't have this chance again after I'm in the working world. Life DOES intervene, sometimes horrifically. The rising fuel costs are another thing-- what if it's just too expensive to try to fly around the world in a year or two? As some of you have said, everyone thinks they'll do this later in life but few people actually do.

It's about choices. I've traveled a lot, and lived in other countries, and will do so again. Someone else will make other choices, and won't go abroad. The airfare issue is a red herring — you could take buses or hitchhike (well, and a flight or boat ride around the Darien Gap) all the way from your front door down to the bottom of South America. There's always a way to do it, if you care enough to do it.

Really, I'm not beating up on options like SAS. It's like going on group bus tours or taking a cruise — some people don't mind paying to have the details taken care of, and aren't happy unless they are moving along with a group. If that's you, that's ok, but your proposal to quit school to pay for SAS is getting the cart and horse in the wrong order. Get that diploma, earn the big bucks, and then sign up for the group travel experiences.
posted by Forktine at 9:23 AM on August 7, 2008

You say "As an aspiring photographer and travel writer I just wanted to see more of the world than I have!" There's no better way to do this than to actually go live somewhere. Breezing through countries for a short time while you're in port probably won't be enough for you: you'll have a short amount of time to visit the touristy stuff, but just as you start to really find all the cool, out of the way, really unique bits of a given city/country, off you'll be to somewhere else. If you're interested in culture, anthropology, cultural psychology, the best way to learn about it is to live it.

Plus, there's the price: that's something like what I planned on spending per year when I decided to move to Munich, the most expensive city in Germany. You could live _anywhere_ for a semester on that kind of money, and get a chance to really get to know another country and another culture - and probably still have money left over for travelling in the region.

There are a zillion ways to do this. You mention Japan - JET and similar programs might allow you to go over after graduation as an English teacher. You'd earn money and get to travel! Similarly, you could try to find scholarships, fellowships, etc. that might allow you to do a Master's or a 5th year abroad. I ended up finding a place in Munich partly by looking for post-graduation funding from the DAAD. In that situation, you get the experience of living (and travelling) abroad, plus you can still take cool anthro classes. Alternately, yeah, you can work a year or two post-graduation, save up money, and take the hostel/bus/hitchhiking route across whatever parts of the world interest you. Sure, you'll have to do the organizing, rather than SAS people, but you'll be much, much closer to your ideal of "ultimate freedom" than you will be going to admittedly mediocre classes while stuck in the middle of the ocean on a ship.

I'm not knocking taking time off: I did it myself, working and attending art classes before heading back to my university. However, as you found out this summer, income is unpredictable. And while I did make it back in to my university and finish up my degree, there's always the risk you won't. Meanwhile, there are so many great options for travelling that'll be much cheaper (and probably closer to the experience you say you want), both during or after school... as long as you really want to, you can do it. Good luck!
posted by ubersturm at 10:15 AM on August 7, 2008

Best answer: I want to make a comment about "ultimate freedom".

Right now you are in college. That is the ultimate freedom. I have taken a total of two years off of college now, working full-time both times--once in a year-and-a-half stint, the other in a semester-and-summer stint. For about four months in the year-and-a-half stint I worked 20 hours at a restaurant on top of the 40-50 hours I spent at my regular, Monday through Friday job. It is comparable to what you want to do. Actually, it's probably less than what you'd be doing.

And the fact is, even when attending a competitive university with a full courseload I still had more freedom at college than when working the 9-5.

All of your friends are college students right now, yes? I found out the hard way that college students do not hang out the way full-time workers do. College students stay up until two, hit up class, go out for a couple of hours at lunch, study a bit, hang out some more . . . Your friends are off hitting up an awesome brunch they heard about, or taking a three-day weekend, and you aren't going because you're working. It's a Tuesday, they wake up from that mid-afternoon nap around 8:00pm and aren't really ready to start watching movies or drinking until 10:00pm--at which point you gotta start thinking about going to bed. And then you've got a job on the weekends, which eats even more time. It's not freedom, man, and it's definitely nowhere near the "ultimate freedom".
posted by Anonymous at 10:25 AM on August 7, 2008

and to be quite honest I'm just really worried that I won't have this chance again after I'm in the working world. Life DOES intervene, sometimes horrifically. ... As some of you have said, everyone thinks they'll do this later in life but few people actually do.

You have to make it happen. If you want it you can make it happen by not making choices that derail your dream. It requires sacrifice. Most people who really want it do it. It's the people that whine to me "I wish I was that rich/had that much time" that have expensive cars, big TVs and expensive hobbies, got married and had kids. They are not willing to make the sacrifice to do it.

I'll nth that you won't get the kind of experience you're looking for to be a travel writer or photographer. You will not have the time to discover the interesting aspects of cultures or explore any in depth on the SAS.
posted by Bunglegirl at 10:26 AM on August 7, 2008

Do it or I will.
posted by Green Eyed Monster at 11:41 AM on August 7, 2008

Response by poster: This has been such a great thread, everyone-- thanks for the continuing suggestions and fantastic ideas.

What no one is realizing is that I'm not paying 23 grand. I'm talking about paying a little over 2000, on a total payout (including loans) of $13,000. And I can't ever, ever see the entire world like this for $2000 in any other situation (10k work grant, same loans as college, etc.) This trip would be heavily subsidized, both by SAS and by the government (with repayment).

A couple of things have rather-miraculously cleared up. One, that a family member I would NEVER have expected is willing to put up enough for me to cover my costs. This means that the cost, to me personally, will be about the same as if I stayed at college and did nothing exciting or unusual. It also means I don't have to take the term off, miss out on school, and potentially lose more than I made. Under that condition it seems silly not to go (my loans/debts etc will remain the same either way).

I know this isn't the perfect solution; I know it's touristy and lame in a lot of ways, but it also means seeing a tremendous amount of diverse and beautiful places in a single semester for the same price (now) as being in school. I may not get the hardcore exposure to a city that I might want to, but I'll be getting college credit, working towards my degree (which will let me graduate as soon as I come home) and I'll know where I want to travel back to in the future. Having gone to China after high school has changed me so much (even though, again, it was quite touristy)--just the simple knowledge that Shanghai and Hong Kong are still out there, still waiting, has done wonders to "reset" my worldview.

Given that I can actually do this now, my choices seem much clearer... :)

Thank you all so much for your ideas, and believe me, I'll be "traveling rough" soon enough anyway-- that much I'm sure of!

Still open to ideas of a better way to use $2,000 to travel, though ;)
posted by dmaterialized at 12:55 PM on August 7, 2008

You may have come to a decision now, but I would echo other suggestions to consider exchange programs. Not study abroad, which costs additional money, but exchange programs where you pay your usual tuition (via your usual means). Your choices are wider than just the UK or Australia (English speaking countries) - many exchange programs will offer the chance to take classes in English elsewhere in Europe or Asia.

The $23,000 (no matter where you get it from, it still costs that much, you should know the value of it as you obviously realise how hard it is to even get $2000 together) is enormous.

I did a semester on exchange. I got funding from my university which basically covered the airfare, I paid tuition as normal through my home university, and was able to cover my own living/travel costs with a combination of savings and other income. This was in a relatively expensive Northern European country. Some of these will even offer housing bursaries or similar, particularly if they are trying to balance the number of students that exchange between that place and your own university. Even with a bit of travel through Europe, it probably cost me around $1000/month (student housing is very subsidised in Northern Europe).
posted by AnnaRat at 7:53 PM on August 7, 2008

Ah ... knowing that it would cost you $2,000 instead of $23,000 changes a lot of things that were taken into consideration.

I say, go for it! $2,000 is dirt cheap for the amount of travelling involved. While you won't get enough immersions in the local culture (since you'd be hoping from ports to ports so fast), it would give you a sufficient exposure on the superficial level. Hopefully this would help you decide where to go next when you're ready to 'travel rough'.
posted by joewandy at 8:02 PM on August 7, 2008

Slightly off-topic, but ... I still can't wrap my head around the fact that tertiary-level education is so fricking expensive in the USA. It's terrifying to consider how much debt an American graduate would have when they leave school.
posted by joewandy at 8:13 PM on August 7, 2008

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