Metro-East Living

College student from O’Fallon spends a semester at sea

College student Jon Hackmann is spending this semester touring the world.

“The farthest I had traveled from home (before) is when we went on a family vacation to Mexico,” Jon emailed from a stop in China.

The 21-year-old junior at Southern Illinois University Edwardsville learned about University of Virginia’s Semester at Sea program a couple years ago.

“His major is international business,” said mom Jo, of O’Fallon. “He knew he had to do a stint abroad. He had these big ideas. He moved back home to save money. We didn’t think he would go till it came down to him getting shots.”

She and husband Mark helped Jon with the $30,000 tuition and expenses. He contributed earnings from his job on the grounds crew with the St. Louis Cardinals.

“It was a little nerve-wracking from a parent’s point of view,” she said, “attending classes when they are on water. They do go to class seven days a week. When they’re not floating, they can do whatever they want.”

During the 3 1/2-month semester, the college students visit 12 countries, including Japan, China, Vietnam, India, South Africa and Ghana.

“The biggest surprise so far is just how incredibly different and unique these places are,” Jon said. “I think we tend to couple some of these Asian countries together and have a blended perspective about them. They are all so different.”

He ws on his way to India on Thursday.

“We’re going past Sri Lanka today,” he wrote.

His last stop will be London on May 3. The Hackmanns learned a neighbor’s sister and brother-in-law live in London and worked it out for Jon to stay with them.

“We’re so proud of him for having the (gumption) to just do this,” said Jo.

Here’s part of Jon’s “JHack” blog.

The beginning: On January 7, I boarded the MV Explorer along with 628 other students to embark on an incredible journey around the world. I am living on one of the fastest passenger vessels, which was built for Mediterranean cruises but is now a floating university. There are seven decks. The first four are for housing. I live on the fourth deck. I have an inside double room with a guy named Hunter who goes to TCU (Texas Christian University). We will probably end up traveling a lot together along with the girls that live across the hall. The ratio is 7:3 (girls to guys) brutal, right?

Favorite spot onboard: Deck 7 is the place where I have spent most of my time the last couple weeks it features basketball/volleyball courts, the pool, pool bar and workout areas.

A typical day: I usually wake up around 6 a.m. to work out and watch the sun rise out of the Pacific which is amazing. I didn’t know what it would be like to live in such close quarters with my professors and their families, but after a few weeks, I have found it to be a really cool experience. It’s not uncommon to have a meal with your prof right after class, play basketball with their kids or share a beer on the back deck later that night.

Communicating: Not having a phone or Internet access forces everyone to actually speak to each other. It isn’t uncommon to sit down with people you’ve never met and get up an hour or two later with friends from different countries.

On the move: We have crossed four time zones since boarding the ship and will completely skip January 19 due to us crossing the time line. I will go to bed Sunday night and wake up Tuesday morning pretty wild.

The food on ship: I think I’m going to turn into a noodle. With the exception of breakfast, every meal is pasta (they change the name, the sauce and the shape for each meal), bread, and some sort of pork. It's hard to complain when I walk through a line and pile food on my plate like it’s my last meal.

Classes: I am taking four courses this semester: International Marketing, Intro to the Global Economy, Personal Finance and Intro to Oceanography. (Why not, while I’m living on a ship?) It’s a little odd that I can wear swim trunks to class and go straight to the pool in January. I can’t complain.

Hawaii: On Jan. 14, we hit land for the first time in a week. I woke up at 5 a.m. to watch us pull into port. It was awesome. Four whales surrounded the ship as the sun rose over the Hawaiian Islands. We were in Hawaii 24 hours to refuel (a couple hundred THOUSAND gallons). Seven friends and I went to downtown Hilo for lunch and hit the black sand beach that was full of sea turtles and other neat stuff.

Six days in Japan: After 12 days at sea, my group and I navigated through Yokohama, Tokyo, Kyoto, Osaka and Kobe. Everywhere we went, people helped us out. In some cases, Japanese citizens walked more than a mile with us to make sure we got to where we were going.

Highlights: A 45-minute subway ride from Yokohama to Tokyo where a stop at Shibuya Station spit us out in the middle of Shibuya Crossing, the busiest intersection in the entire world. We ran into the coolest stores and people. My friend Brian and I tried out some Japanese Pachinko (an arcade-type game that involves gambling), lost 1,000 yen in 10 minutes and called it quits.

Authentic Japanese dining: I ordered something that had noodles and chicken with an egg on top, then enclosed in a pancake. It looked good on the menu and good while the guy cooked it in front of me. ... then he put fish skin ALL over the top. Not good. Later that night we went to a dinner at a place where we had to take our shoes off and sit on the floor to eat. I ordered chicken and french fries. I visited a Japanese McDonald’s seven times over the next five days. The teriyaki burger at McD’s is incredible. (He later had his best Japanese meal, shrimp tempura.)

Harujuku experience: (A center of Japanese youth culture and fashion, it was filled with people and tons of small shops). We interacted with as many people as possible. This was the day we figured out that the teen girls were extremely interested in all of us. Everywhere we went, girls dressed in school uniforms would come up, hold out their phones and motion that they wanted to take pictures with us. It was an extremely weird and cool experience.

Bullet train to Kyoto: It’s like being on an airplane that doesn’t leave the ground. We got some really cool views as we passed Mount Fuji and went through mountainous regions. We saw some really cool temples and their main street was full of shops and restaurants.

Best time so far: I would have to say that tobogganing down the Great Wall of China and wakeboarding through Ha Long Bay, Vietnam, are at the top of the list right now.

Follow Jon at

For information on Semester at Sea, call 800 854-0195 or go online info@semesteratsea.