Before college, some students serve

Alexandra Finkel

As a senior in high school, Hatim Thaker got something else in the mail along with all the acceptance letters he received – a draft letter. While everyone else went off to college, Thaker, now a Weinberg junior, joined the Singaporean army.

It wasn’t his choice: Two years of mandatory military service is required of all Singaporean male citizens when they graduate from high school.

“I was put in this platoon of 47 men,” he said. “They strip you down to nothing, shave you down and put you in a group and those men are going to be your best friends whether you like them or not. You grow up like that.”

At first, Thaker said he tried to get out of it. He played up his college acceptances and recent knee surgery, he said. But it didn’t work, and he was sent to basic training. After that, Thaker moved up to sergeant of the military police and was then transferred to the Civil Defense Force, where he trained other recruits.

Two and a half years later, with his requirement fulfilled, Thaker was able to go to college. He had written to colleges about his situation, and Northwestern was one of only a few that allowed him to defer his enrollment.

“I think it’s because they have a good international background and they’re familiar with this,” he said. “Plus, it adds to the diversity of their freshman class, and I think NU strives for that.”

Thaker estimates that only a few other students on campus were part of the Singaporean armed forces, but other Asian countries, including Taiwan and South Korea, have similar requirements. Students from South Korea, for example, are allowed to defer their military enrollment, attend college for a year or two and then take a leave of absence.

Weinberg freshman Alex Park faces taking a leave of absence and a transition from NU into mandatory military service. Park moved to the United States from South Korea in first grade, and despite living here for most of his life, Park will still be required to enroll in the South Korean military by age 21 unless he becomes an American citizen. Although he still has a couple of years to figure out what he’s going to do, it is always in the back of his mind, he said.

“On one hand, it’s two years that I could be doing something to further my career,” he said. “But on the other hand, it’s also serving my own country, which is part of Korean culture and something most people in my family have done.”

About 10 to 15 students every year go through the process of taking a leave of absence, said Nick Seamons, coordinator of campus and community initiatives at NU’s International Office.

“I don’t believe anyone has ever encountered any problems, because these students are aware of their requirement,” he said. “They know that when the time comes, they need to make the necessary preparations both through immigration and through their academic schools.”

Although the International Office offers a basic orientation at the start of Fall Quarter, returning students are grouped with new freshmen, Seamons said.

For students like Thaker, who found it hard to assimilate, there are no special programs available for those who have had to previously complete military service, he said.

“We can only hold so many info sessions, but it’s really a matter of building those relationships,” Seamons said. “Unless you have that social network to rely on, it’s going to be hard to integrate back into American culture.”

Thaker said his integration was not easy: It took about two quarters to adjust to life at NU.

“Everything was hard when I first came here,” he said. “From being the first person to turn 21 to being older than my CA to failing my first midterms, I didn’t have the typical freshman experience.”

Thaker said the difficulties of his military service and the transition to NU were worth it, even if it means he is a few years behind his friends in the United States.

“A lot of people that I knew are now doing their master’s and Ph.D.s and I’m still getting my undergrad,” he said. “But when I finished, I was a whole lot more mature and I have these experiences that I think barely anyone else on campus has.”

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