UPDATED: January 26, 2015, at 2:58 a.m.
In late August, at the start of their freshman years, Israeli students, most in their mid-20s, arrive at the gates of Harvard Yard. They are surrounded by 18-year-olds, most of whom are straight out of high school. Like their younger peers, these Harvard freshmen are eager to begin their college experience: attend classes, join clubs, and meet new people from all over the world. They’re curious about college parties, and are nervous but excited to meet their freshman roommates. But unlike most of their classmates, they have spent extensive time living in the “real world” as they completed their mandatory military service. Some served in combat, some in intelligence. All served for their required terms, sometimes longer, before ever clicking on the Common App.
Israelis are not the only students at Harvard who have to factor in mandatory service to their education and career plans. Fifteen Minutes also spoke to students from South Korea—who typically take time off in the middle of college in order to complete their mandatory two years—and from Singapore about their transitions between service and scholarship.
Despite the differences in their background in service, all share a deliberate and conscientious approach to their time in Cambridge. For these foreign students, who have served or know they must serve in their country’s military, college was not the obvious next step nor is it simply a segue into the adult world. Rather, they have made the conscious decision to take time away from that world and immerse themselves for four years in campus life, even as they acknowledge the challenges that immersion can bring.
Giora A. Ashkenazi ’17 took part in a volunteer program in Nepal following his military service in the Israeli Defense Forces. Eventually, as he explains, “something about being outside of Israel and having this experience led me to think about another adventure, a different new place: the United States.”
Israeli students Dor Baruch ’18 and Michael, whose name has been changed because he does not have clearance to talk about his IMF service, said they wanted to experience something different than what Israeli universities had to offer.
Michael describes most Israeli universities as “purely academic,” explaining that you “come for classes, then you leave and you don’t socialize too much.” He notes that while he sees Israel’s school system as one-dimensional, colleges are “multidimensional” in the United States. Harvard, he observes, is about extracurriculars and meeting new people just as much as it is about academics. “I came here for the full experience,” he said.
In Israel, many students enter a university knowing exactly what they will study and what kind of job they will have when they graduate, Baruch says. Though he knows he’s interested in science, he notes, “I wanted to escape that and experience others things before taking that path.”
But taking the less straightforward route means allowing time for adjustment. “It was very overwhelming at first,” Ashkenazi notes. While most of the freshmen had been looking forward to Harvard all their lives, he explains, “I was coming to a new place, not knowing what I got into.” And while for most American students college was the natural next step after high school, “I sort of got here sideways,” Ashkenazi says.
A FUNCTION OF EXPERIENCE
One of the most striking elements of the first few weeks for the Israeli students was being around mostly 18-year-olds.
Baruch notes that the culture of the Israeli military has more of an age-based hierarchy than exists at Harvard. “When you’re 22, you treat the 18-year-olds like babies, they’re much younger than you, inexperienced,” he says of the IDF. “People of that age are not treated the same in the army.”
But many also note that Harvard students did seem to be more mature than what they would have expected of 18-year-olds.
“I found people here a lot more mature than what I perceived as the average American college student,” Moriya Blumenfeld ’16 says, explaining that many students seem to come to Harvard with a lot of life experience. “I find myself learning a lot from my peers every day and it never feels like I’m older.”
Blumenfeld articulates a conscious approach to friendships and interactions with younger peers. “From the beginning,” she says, “I had a contract with myself that despite the fact that I’m older than the people who are going to school with me, I’m going to do my best to not let it get in the way of my experience.”
Like Blumenfeld, Michael says he has found that maturity does not always correlate with age. “I think that maturity is not a function of time but of experience,” he says. Michael says that he has made an effort to immerse himself socially “as much as possible” despite the fact that he is much older than his fellow classmates. “I think it all depends on the mindset,” Michael explains. “I think you can take the age out and just be a person, have a conversation.”
Tai Boon Ding ’15, who served in the Singapore Civil Defense Force before coming to Harvard, writes in an email to FM, because he is abroad, that every year the social scene gets a little more “awkward” for him. “After junior year I stopped going to most parties on campus, unless I’m going with a close group of friends, because you’ll never know what might happen otherwise,” he added. “Half plus seven, they say, half plus seven.”
Beyond just the age difference, the students’ past or future service gives them a different outlook than most Harvard students on the ins and outs of everyday life.
Peter G. Chang ’18, who has yet to complete his service in South Korea, says that though he accepts the military service as part of his future, he is ambivalent about the idea of leaving campus for two years to do something “less intellectually stimulating.” But, he adds, military service can be a helpful break from the academic and social rigors of college. “You have the opportunity to step away from chaos and college life and think about your own future,” Chang says.
If the experiences of Israeli students are any indication, campus “problems” seem much less significant after military service. “It gives you another perspective—maybe being in a double is not so bad,” Ashkenazi says.
Koplewitz also speaks to the effects of his new perspective on some of the typical Harvard student’s favorite complaints. “I think [military service] has the most bearing on things you find consequential and inconsequential,” he says, “like being quadded.”
And it works in the opposite direction, too: Topics of political conversation that may be purely academic for some Harvard students hit much closer to home for those who have served in the military.
Baruch says that his background in the IDF has given him a greater insight into the Israeli-Palestine conflict as it has played out on the ground than the average person on the street or, for that matter, in Annenberg would have.“It’s especially hard to hear things that you know aren’t true because of what you know from your army experience,” he explains. “The best thing you can do is just know you know.”
A POLITICAL MELTING POT
Despite the disparity in experience, most Israeli students agree that they have not encountered hostility from their classmates during political discussions about Israel’s actions. They say instead that Harvard students tend to be open-minded and eager to learn. In fact, Harvard’s diversity ensures that Israeli students aren’t just the teachers, but can also learn from the range of viewpoints they encounter.
Blumenfeld, who attended Santa Monica College in Los Angeles for two years while she worked at the Israeli Consulate there, says she encountered much more antagonism towards Israel and the IDF in LA than she has at Harvard. In Cambridge, though she has engaged in what she called “very intense” conversations with fellow students, she has never felt as though she was being attacked. “The beauty of this place is people are very open-minded and respectful,” she says. “I always felt like people actually listened to me.”
Ashkenazi explains that he does not mind when people challenge him about Israel’s policies. “I much more enjoy people questioning and talking to me rather than assuming or posting statements that are lacking knowledge and not knowing the facts,” he says.
It’s not just students curious about Israel who benefit from this exchange. Israeli students at Harvard also get the opportunity, often for the first time, to take part in dialogue with other students for whom the conflict is local.
Michael explains that before Harvard, he had never met anyone from Israel’s neighboring countries of Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, and Iran. But a few weeks into his freshman year, he has met and in some cases befriended students from all of those countries. “That’s something really exciting for me. This is a unique melting pot where people from all these conflicting countries can meet and make friendships,” he says. “If that can start here and then go back home, I think that can be a big change.”