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Mantim Lee, All-American Swimmer Finishes University of Chicago Degree at Sea: The Ship

Mantim Lee, All-American Swimmer Finishes University of Chicago Degree at Sea: The Ship

Four-time swimming All-American and economics major Mantim Lee finished his academic career at University of Chicago on the water as part of the Semester at Sea® program this spring.

He was part of the Maroons’ NCAA title-winning 400-yard freestyle relay in his sophomore season and finished his junior year as part of the school-record 400- and 800-yard freestyle relays. However, he battled lingering ankle injuries throughout his college career and elected to sit out his senior season after undergoing two major surgeries.

Lee joined Semester at Sea to continue the global education he had received from Li Po Chun United World College of Hong Kong, a two-year boarding high school program that studies International Baccalaureate®. United World College has 10+ campuses around the world. “Only 40 percent of the students are locals from Hong Kong, while the other 60 percent are from different countries with the purpose of fostering broadened cultural knowledge and understanding,” Lee said. “Throughout the two years, I roomed with friends from Nepal, the U.S., Thailand, and Nigeria.”

University of Chicago turned out to be a perfect fit for his background and high school experiences. “I had represented Hong Kong in international swim meets since the age of 9, and was looking for a college that could give me a balance between swimming and schoolwork,” he recalled. “UChicago, with its top-notch economics program and rising swimming program, could provide me with well-rounded experiences. Talking to the UC team really convinced me to go there. The coaches talked about strong team bonding and not having a star culture. A collaborative atmosphere was what I wanted because I have never been to the U.S. before college.”

“Jason (Weber, head swimming and diving coach of UC team) is a great swim coach who really cares about us — the swimmers. He was actually the one who drove me back from the hospital after my first surgery, when all my friends were back home during spring break. And the team was super-friendly back when I was a freshman to help me get used to living in the U.S.” Lee recalled. He finished his UChicago degree with a 3.9 out of 4.0 cumulative GPA, won a national swimming title in the process, and set off to start his career in investment banking in Hong Kong.


The spring 2017 voyage began on Jan. 5, 2017 in San Diego and lasted for 105 days. The ship went across the Pacific Ocean to reach Asia, sailed to India and Africa, and finally disembarked in Germany, making stops at 10 countries. Students took classes while the ship was sailing, and either joined tours or traveled independently in ports. It took three weeks to sail across the Pacific with only a day trip in Hawaii. “That left a lot of time for mingling and socializing,” Lee said. “There is basically no Wi-Fi in the middle of the ocean. Geographically and socially, we are closed to being cut off from the world, other than access to slow, word-only email. Even communication on the ship with friends is not that easy, since it’s a nine-deck ship. We would often put sticky notes on each others’ door to communicate. To meet up, we came up with a time and location, and hoped our friends will show up on time.”

“Life on the ship without technology is interesting; in our daily lives, we are constantly checking our phones and social media. On the ship, we spend time with people the entire time, and bonding develops very quickly. Three-hour meals are not that unusual, when we just sit at the restaurants to socialize with friends coming in and out. In this environment with people from various backgrounds, we would often find ourselves engaging in fun meaningful conversations, learning about the cultures and personal stories of people from different parts of the world.” Lee said. “Some of my friends also brought hard discs that contained 200+ movies to kill time.” 

Mantim Lee Semester at Sea photo gallery

Follow Mantim Lee's Instagram for more travel photographs

Onboard were 600 college students and about 50 lifelong learners, who include mentors or instructors in their field and retired individuals who are also attending classes. Together with faculty members, their families, and crewmembers, the ship carried nearly 1,000 passengers.

Photo: Ordering birthday cakes for dinner was a regular occurence.

Each student was required to take four classes with Global Studies required for all. “It was fascinating to learn the history, culture, and social practices of the ports before we visited them,” Lee commented. “The lectures were closely tailored to the countries we were going next.”

Lee also noted that there was a lot of academic support on the ship, including a writing center. Professors lived and dined on the ship as well so students could almost speak and make friends with them any time.

The day before arriving in a port, there was a pre-port meeting with all the logistical information discussed, including what is culturally acceptable. “What you may wear and gesture in the U.S. could be offensive in another country,” Lee relayed. “They would also inform us on medical and safety precautions, highlight interesting cultural facts, suggest good food and places to visit, and teach us some simple sentences in local languages.”

Classes were often held in restaurants or even movie theatre on the ship. There were two sets of class days, labeled A and B. “We would forget what day of the week it was,” Lee laughed. “To us, it was just A or B day. It was also very interesting to wake up in different parts of the world every day, walk out on the ship and see nothing but water. It was a weird yet one-of-a-kind feeling.”

Another unique experience for Lee was losing sense of time. “It is very fun moving across time zones. Not only did we not know the day of the week, sometimes we didn’t know what time it was,” he said. “We switched time zones around every two or three days. Moving from east to west, we were gaining time, so sometimes the clock would go one hour backward at night and we would have 25-hour days. Because of all these hours we gained, we lost an entire day, Jan. 16. It went from 23:59 Jan. 15 to 00:00 Jan. 17.”

There was a lot to do on the ship. Every night there was an optional one-hour forum about a topic, including talks about a specific culture, environmental issues, and LGBT sessions. Movies and documentaries were often shown, and the community organized a cultural show and talent show. “It was incredible how many opportunities there are to learn and absorb knowledge of different disciplines outside the classroom,” Lee remarked. 

Mantim Lee playing piano on the ship

Photo: The sunset from the deck of the ship.

Some of the highlights on the ship was the sunrises, sunsets, and stars. “I was raised in Hong Kong, a densely populated city with skyscrapers everywhere. It is not easy to see stars with all the light pollution,” he said. “On the ship it was the exact opposite. We watched the sun rise above and set below the horizon with nothing blocking the view. The feeling of vastness being in the middle of the ocean magnified itself even more at night. On a good day we got to see stars surrounding us like a hemisphere visible even very far away almost lying on the horizon.”

One night the ship was in the middle of a storm, and Lee and his friends went up to observe the lightning. “We were on the top deck at the very front of the ship, and it felt like that well-known Titanic scene. Everything was completely dark, until the lightning brightened the entire sky and turned it all purple. We could see the lightning strikes, the waves and clouds with all the bright light. Nature makes one look small.”

Video of lightning as viewed from the ship

“In terms of travelling, the trip was very fast-paced and hectic. Typically, we would stay in a port for four to six days and go back to the ship for another five days, and the cycle repeated,” Lee said. “With no Wi-Fi on the ship, we needed to do our trip planning in one port for the upcoming port(s). It was very important to research ahead of time and have things booked in order to maximize our time on land. At the end of the voyage, I was happy to say I became decently good at trip planning and bargaining.”