Studying on the high seas: Four sisters make Semester at Sea voyages a family affair

CINCINNATI - Laura, Kelly, and Katie Heinichen have spanned the globe through a program called Semester at Sea. Now their youngest sister Claire is about to set forth.

“It’s a kind of experience that once somebody in the family does it, they tell their whole family about it and it kind of attracts the others to go as well,” said Semester at Sea public affairs director, Lauren Judge. 

Semester at Sea allows students travel from country to country over the course of three to four months. Forget the casinos and bars, a Semester at Sea voyage no ordinary cruise. With about 600 students who board per semester, time is spent in the ship's classrooms, library, student union, and cabins.

Claire: Preparing to embark

Claire Heinichen, a junior at Vanderbilt University, starts her Semester at Sea voyage on Jan. 10, 2014 in San Diego.

The ship's itinerary includes Hawaii, Japan, China, Vietnam, Singapore, Burma, India, Mauritius, South Africa, Ghana, Morocco, and England.

“I wanted to do it since I was really young,” Claire  said. Already a seasoned traveler at age 21, the Cincinnati Country Day graduate has been Peru, Australia, and England.

“I’ve never been to Asia, so I’m excited about that,” she said.

Her sisters played a significant role in Claire’s decision to go on Semester at Sea.

Kelly: Inspired early 

Kelly, who lives in Columbus and graduated from Miami University, was influenced by her eldest sister, Laura, to go on the voyage. 

“My third grade class actually tracked her trip around the world and when she came back, because she’s so much older than me, she came to my class and presented to us a bunch of things and got us all presents and stuff,” said Kelly, 24. “So I always knew I wanted to do it and then I was really glad that my sister, Claire, is excited to do it too.”

Kelly went on her voyage in the fall of 2009. She walked the Great Wall of China and got to experience other mini-adventures throughout her trip.

“I went bungee jumping in South Africa at the world’s highest bungee jump,” she said. “That was really cool because it was something very out of my comfort zone, but after doing it I felt very accomplished.”

While in Hong Kong, Kelly took side trips to Beijing and the Great Wall of China with some of the friends from the ship.

While at ports of call, students are allowed to explore and take a break from the 12 credit hours they are required to take.

“They obviously knew that you weren’t going to study when you were at port. So they don’t really give you any homework or expect you to. Usually you had to be back on the ship by like 6 p.m. anyway, the day you were leaving,” Kelly said. “So, if you had something to do for a class the next day, but for a lot of us, they gave us the day off. Sometimes we would be at sea for two weeks without being on land.”

Kelly had plenty of time to study while at sea, with some legs of the journey lasting up to two weeks. She took an classes on intercultural communications, business rating operations management, and global studies.

WATCH: Semester at Sea Q&A with Archbishop Desmond Tutu, South Africa (story continues below)

Katie & Laura

Kelly and Claire’s older sister, Katie also sailed with Semester at Sea. Now 34, she boarded her ship in the summer of 2000, as a student at Hamilton College, and traveled throughout Europe. Even though she did not get to circle the globe, her experiences were similar to her sisters' later travels.

“You take a class, and then you will be able to see exactly what you just talked about--which I thought was really neat and it’s an experience that you don’t normally get in a college setting,” said Katie.

Laura, the eldest sister and graduate of Dartmouth University, went on the voyage in the late 1990s.
When Laura, now 36,  went on Semester at Sea, she got to visit Robbin Island (where Nelson Mandela was incarcerated) and Hiroshima.

Both Kelly and Laura took trips to Vietnam and were able to share their experiences with their father who came of age during the Vietnam War. Skeptical about Kelly and Laura visiting the area, Jeffery Heinichen was surprised when the girls told their father about the country's beauty.

Kelly even brought some of Vietnam home home with her.

“She took a group of pictures for me as a thank you gift," Jeffery Heinichen said. "She was in a cave in Vietnam. It was just an interesting way of just saying, 'Thanks, Dad for just showing me the world.''

More about Semester at Sea

  • Program fees differ depending on the semester and type of cabin
  • Financial aid is available
  • Semester at Sea academic credit is equivalent to academic credit from the University of Virginia.
  • Students are enrolled as visiting students of the University of Virginia, and courses on Semester at Sea appear as regular U.Va.
    • courses.
    • The ship is the MV Explorer
    • For more information: Tel. 800-854-0195, Email:

    WATCH: Semester at Sea LipDub Ship Tour

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