International students adjust to Northwestern after military service


Sam Schumacher/The Daily Northwestern

Alon Schneidman, 25, is a McCormick junior. Schneidman came to Northwestern after serving in the Israel Defense Forces for three and a half years after high school.

Rishika Dugyala, Assistant City Editor

After three and half years in the Israeli military, Alon Schneidman found himself wondering what he was doing in a Northwestern chemistry class. To Schneidman, schoolwork felt pointless compared to his service in the military.

“In the army I did something, and it had a purpose,” Schneidman said. “I could see the immediate impact manifest in different ways. Here, when you’re in school and you take a class, it doesn’t work that way.”

After his high school graduation, the now-25-year-old McCormick junior served in the Israeli Defense Forces before coming to NU. Schneidman described the transition as “a struggle.”

Other student veterans say they too encounter challenges while adjusting — or readjusting — to the college environment, particularly in reconciling their experience in the military with finding a sense of purpose in academic pursuits.

International students from Israel like Schneidman face a military service requirement. As of December 2015, just under 8 percent of international students at NU were from Israel, South Korea or Singapore, countries that have mandatory military service requirements for their citizens.

Weinberg sophomore Chung Il Lee paused his studies at NU after his freshman year to complete his service in South Korea’s military. He applied to become a translating soldier and, because of his education at an American university, Lee said it was easier for him to get the position. After being accepted as a translator, Lee set out in November 2013 to serve the mandatory 21 months.  

Lee returned to NU this past Fall Quarter and said he had a difficult time transitioning back to the university culture.

“My English kind of stopped after my first year of college because I was a translating soldier but I didn’t really get to speak English a lot,” Lee said. “So after two years away from United States, when I came back, I couldn’t even order Chipotle.”

McCormick freshman Yihai Su, 21, said a challenge in the transition back to school was people treating his military service requirement as an abnormality. For students who attend universities in Singapore, Su’s home country, military service is common, but he said in the U.S. it draws questions.

Su was drafted into Singapore’s military after high school to serve his required two years. Before that, Su and his fellow draftees had their health assessed and took IQ tests. They were not told the results of the assessment until after their four months of basic training on the island Pulau Tekong was finished, Su said.

Roughly 5,000 miles away in Israel, Schneidman went through similar tests. At 16, Schneidman received a letter from the Israel Defense Forces asking him to report to his first meeting. He later underwent a day of intelligence, psychological and physical tests as officers created a profile of his strengths and weaknesses. Three years later, he was drafted into a specific technological unit after going through a month of basic training.

But instead of expanding on his electrical engineering abilities as he had hoped, Schneidman’s position required him to do computer science, a shift that he said was at first disappointing but highlighted one of the lessons he learned in the military.

“A lot of people get disappointed, and I think that’s a big part of the growing up that happens in the military sometimes,” Schneidman said. “And what’s more important is sort of how you react to the things that happen to you rather than hoping you can sort of change the circumstances you are flung into.”

Yihai Su, 21, is a McCormick freshman. Su was drafted into Singapore’s military after high school to serve his required two years before coming to Northwestern.

Lauren Duquette/The Daily Northwestern
Yihai Su, 21, is a McCormick freshman. Su was drafted into Singapore’s military after high school to serve his required two years before coming to Northwestern.

Although Schneidman did not receive the professional experience he sought while in the army, he said he grew as a person in a way he hadn’t expected. Working as a part of a group helped him develop as a team player, he said.

But re-entering a school environment was a difficult transition for Schneidman as he attempted to re-acquire “basic learning skills,” such as critical thinking and analyzing, that most students take for granted, he said. Returning to the classroom was especially jarring, Schneidman said.

“What the hell is a schoolbook?” Schneidman remembered thinking in General Chemistry in the Technological Institute’s LR3 classroom. “Why the f— am I sitting in a lecture hall and listening to some person talk about chemistry, like why do I care? Why am I writing this s— down?”

Classes were also a challenge for Lee because his current courses were based on concepts he learned in his freshman year, before he left for the South Korean military, he said. And most of Lee’s friends from freshman year are now seniors or graduated from NU while he was in the military, so Lee not only had to work twice as hard to keep up with his classes but also had to make new friends with people in his year, he said.

University faculty make a point to reach out to international undergraduate students returning from military service, Dean of Students Todd Adams said, connecting them with academic advisers specific to their schools and, in the case of students who interrupted their studies to serve, faculty they might have been close to before.

Adams said he expects the number of veteran students re-entering campus to increase at NU as the population of international students from countries with required service grows.

“We’re seeing increased need partially due to some moderate growth, but partially due to the desire to help students connect with other veterans, connect to the institution, be well prepared,” Adams said. “We want to be able to meet the need that is currently there and anything that might emerge.”

Now that he is continuing his studies, Su noticed that he’s getting better at managing time, responsibilities, personal conflicts and work. He attributes this to the maturity he gained in the Singaporean military.

“The issue of mandatory military service, some people think it’s a total waste of time and for different people I can see how that is the case,” Su said. “I guess it’s how you treat it. You get out whatever you put in it.”

Twitter: @rdugyala822