During the first year of college, everything is new and unfamiliar. Walking into a dorm room with plain white walls, a couple of empty desks, and chairs is not the most familiar feeling for a lot of us. However, as we slowly get used to dragging ourselves to 8:40 a.m. classes, our bonds between classmates strengthen, and we gradually integrate ourselves into the Morningside Heights community. Soon, spring comes, and after relishing the youth of Bacchanal, the first year flies by.
However, that’s about it for male Korean students. When people are packing their belongings for summer storages, we send all our bags back home. Right when we are about to adapt to Morningside, we are once again asked to take a daunting step of uncertainty. After the first year, we head back home to fulfill our civic duty: enlistment to the Republic of Korea Armed Forces. Depending on the branch of the military, the amount of time we are required to serve varies. Generally, enlisted Korean soldiers serve two years to fully answer the call.
Walking into a training camp is just another first day of college. There are more unfamiliar, plain white walls, but this time there are 20 people sharing this new space instead of two. Rather than going to 8:40 a.m. classes, all 20 people wake up at 6:30 a.m. and live through every day together. Instead of rising to a higher grade, you rise to a higher rank. You meet numerous lifelong friends like the first year in college, they just all happen to be men this time.
I served my two years at an intelligence unit directly under the Ministry of Defense called Defense Security Command. To be honest, I was assigned to a relatively lenient base. It was located in the middle of Seoul, and people in my base were allowed to wear casual clothes instead of the uniform to disguise our statuses as soldiers. My friends still make fun of me by joking that I went to a “fake military” for relishing such privileges during my service. However, most of the other aspects were pretty much the same. No cell phone or personal computer was allowed, and I had to strictly maintain my position inside the base for most of my service period.
At the end of the day, wherever we were, the first tastes of the military were pretty much the same.
Serving your country can definitely be seen as an act of valor. Moreover, it is an honorable and meaningful experience. But being forced to devote two years of our prime time—time which most students devote to education, internships, and career advancement—often comes as a harsh reality for most Koreans. We are forced to focus on group rather than individual growth. Instead of an opportunity to delve into our majors, we are put in a class where patience and sacrifice is required. With the majority of our privacy and freedom stripped, most soldiers simply long for the next vacation to leave the base until our watch is finally done.
After coming back from the military, I was left with both social and academic problems. All of my friends were about to graduate, forcing me to start making new friends. On top of this, I lost all touch with academics. Most students join the military after their first year. Some others wait extra semesters before joining the military, taking a couple more core classes with friends. Depending on which year you decide to return, the problems mentioned above could become even more consequential. Even though most students in Columbia spend every semester rigorously working to prevail and get good grades, the real game doesn’t begin until the three-thousand and four-thousand level courses. The weight of our lives start to get heavier and more cumbersome as we slip into junior year and begin to face the inevitability of life after college. If it’s inevitable to take a gap at some point, I believe it would be wise to take care of it early in the road before the stakes get too big.
Losing my social connections and academic touch on top of two previous years was a huge loss, but there definitely were some major gains as well. In retrospect, I believe the military served me as a boot camp for postgraduate jobs. During my service, I lived with my boss nearly 24/7 for 600 days, but it was illegal for them to fire me no matter how many times I screwed up. As I rose in rank, I also became leader of a squadron giving orders to a certain group of people. 600 days is definitely not a short period of time. It would be pretty irrational for me to believe that I didn’t learn anything from those two years.
Many of the students who come back from the military still continue to manage both their academic and career path successfully, but I can guarantee that not all students are like that. I definitely took a while readapting to school, on top of the jet lag that has become a stranger to me. However, currently I am spending my greatest semester in Columbia. The overwhelming youth of Ferris and John Jay makes me to forget about my age and also gradually realize how much of a privilege and how fun it is to be back in school. I honestly believe this is not my unique reflection but how most students who have experienced the military feel after their return. The military was something that we all started reluctantly, but it definitely turned out to be irreplaceable. For the fellow students who have not yet joined the forces, I would like to give two suggestions. Utilize that interaction skills grasped in the military as your edge to make up the loss as much as possible. And most importantly, don’t be scared of it and hesitate. You can always laugh at your friends if you are done with it early.
Sunny Kim is a senior in Columbia School of Engineering and Applied Sciences studying operations research. Even though he will be graduating in couple months, he is still looking forward to make new friends who are willing to enjoy the spring together and tank through the finals period in Butler. Thinking of joining the tank unit? Let him know! firstname.lastname@example.org.
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