International students reflect on military service, its impact on the college experience

The International House is pictured on April 14, 2018. (Evan Zigmond / The Tufts Daily Archives)

While most Tufts students do not consider a career in the military, a number of international students, either by obligation or by personal choice, commit themselves to serving their native armed forces during or after their time at Tufts. Andrew Shiotani, who works with students who need to take leaves of absence for such reasons in his role as director of the International Center, estimated that only a very small percentage of Tufts students are affected.

Sophomore Denise Looi from Singapore is one such student. After completing basic training and a portion of officer school before her matriculation at Tufts, Looi now spends summers back home in Singapore completing various internships while preparing to enter a full-time, six-year commitment of service after graduation as an air warfare officer in the Republic of Singapore Air Force. Looi expressed excitement for her upcoming service.

“I’ve always been drawn towards the notion of serving my nation in some way, and although joining the military was going down the path less trodden, I’m incredibly excited to start my career,” Looi told the Daily in an email.

Looi’s military commitment puts her in different position than many Tufts students with regard to her plans during and after her undergraduate studies. While many Tufts students may struggle to secure a summer internship or solidify their career paths after graduation, Looi is well set for a military career in Singapore.

I know I’m really lucky and fortunate … to have both internships and a job secured post-graduation,” Looi said.

But committing to serve in the military comes with its own unique set of challenges. Like any Tufts student, Looi spends most of her time juggling a rigorous academic curriculum with a rich grouping of extracurricular and personal activities, which includes Tufts Tae Kwon Do and the Chamber Singers.

“Academics are still my number one priority and most of my time is spent either at Ginn [Library] or at the music library. I’m also in ALLIES [Alliance Linking Leaders in Education and the Services]. Of course, being in the military it’s really important to keep fit — I do have a fitness test every year — so I dedicate some time each week to work out at the gym,” Looi said.

But while Looi’s military commitment will only affect her during summers and after she graduates, first-year Matt Kim will be negotiating the complications of mandatory military service in the coming academic years.

According to Kim, as a South Korean citizen with a mandatory service commitment, he will most likely spend two years working for his home nation’s military in an office-job type role. For him, leaving Tufts to fulfill his service obligation is a daunting process.

“Since I go to school in the U.S., I have to take a gap year, at least two years, because [I] need time to adjust to Korean society and the army. After I finish my military service, I have to go back and study again,” Kim said. “Culture-wise, I would say it’s … a big gap for all Korean men — [especially in] your twenties … [it’s a] period of life where you could do so [many] things.”

From a logistical perspective, Kim faces challenges even in confirming the exact time when he will serve.

“I was having problems with when I should go serve … It’s like getting an internship or job … Time-wise [the process] was a struggle for me because I applied for a job [in the military] this last December. I couldn’t get it because there were so many people,” Kim said. “Since I didn’t get it … I’m going to apply again after sophomore year, but then if I don’t get it, it’s unfortunate — [I] have to go after I finish college.” 

Kim said that the social ramifications of entering into a military commitment have also hit home, and he worries that he may lose friends or miss out on important college experiences. For Kim, this is the standout consideration he faces that most other students do not. Kim also said that most South Korean students with military obligations face the challenge of having to readjust to the college academic environment, even dealing with the possibility of not retaining material they may have spent years learning.

Regardless, Kim said that his upcoming service commitment hasn’t affected his academic interests and adds that the commitment didn’t affect his earlier decision to apply to Tufts.

Karen Richardson, dean of admissions and enrollment management, said that Tufts makes no consideration of an impending military commitment in deciding on a student’s admission into the university.

“Tufts has great respect for students who choose careers in the service of others, whether in the military or otherwise. We welcome applicants who have served in the military or who have military service to complete and give their service due consideration during our holistic admissions review. The need to complete service does not factor into our review,” Richardson told the Daily in an email.

Kendra Barber, associate dean of undergraduate advising for the School of Arts and Sciences, said that the university works closely with students to help them balance commitments to military service with their education.

“Students who must fulfill a mandatory military service requirement can take a personal leave of absence and then return to Tufts after they have completed their military service,” Barber told the Daily in an email. “We welcome questions from students with military service obligations. Our goal is to provide guidance and help students smoothly transition out of — and back into — school as they fulfill their requirement.”

When asked what kind of further support the university could provide for a student in his situation, Kim suggested that some kind of academic credit for his experiences would be welcome.

Kim encouraged other students who do not have similar service commitments to appreciate the breadth of opportunities available to them in the four years they spend at Tufts.

“I just want to tell people … they’re fortunate to … spend more time with friends here and study what they want. And I just want to tell them [this] is a golden time,” Kim said.