If you think studying for finals is hard, try handling a grenade or commanding a platoon of soldiers.
Many international students have done just that. Mandatory conscription is implemented in dozens of countries around the world, such as Singapore, South Korea, Israel and Switzerland. Northwestern is home to over 2,000 international students, several of whom have served for their countries.
Take Hatim Thaker, for example. A Weinberg senior, Thaker was a sergeant in the Singapore Civil Defense Force and served from 2004 to 2006. At the Academy, he was a section commander and instructor for the military police. For Thaker, the intensive training was anything but easy.
“I’m not gonna lie, I cried,” he says. “They’re really cracking you down to the bare bones and building something they need. They break you down and rebuild your character.”
Though the physical aspect of basic military training is tough, the experience goes beyond just guns and tanks.
“We always have the impression that a soldier is like some Rambo, going around shooting bad guys but that’s totally false,” says Alvin Tan, a sophomore who served in Singapore from 2006 to 2008. “Soldiering is all about teamwork. You come to the point when you realize that you need the people in your team to get things done.”
In fact, being in uniform doesn’t only teach these soldiers how to fire weapons or command platoons; it teaches them discipline by placing them under pressure.
Jee Suk Kim, a former staff sergeant for the Korean Air Force, had to manage up to 32 officers. Unlike the army, Kim often had to do surveillance in the middle of the night, watching the skies over parts of Japan, China, North Korea and South Korea for signs of aircrafts and alerting his commanders of any suspicious sightings.
“When I was an airman, I was really nervous watching the North Korean territory,” Kim says. “I thought that if I made a single mistake, I could cause a war.”
As products of military experience, these students therefore learn to value their time and their life.
“I know for a fact it builds your character,” says Shawn Ang, who served as an officer in Singapore. “I had those two years to think about life. Not everyone goes through that. I definitely came out learning about time.”
In the long run, the lessons learned from their experiences motivate them to work harder towards their futures.
“The real world experience, the discipline, the drive, the motivation to keep going all stemmed from the military,” Thaker says. “The experiences you have there are never going to be available here at Northwestern.”