national service
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Soldiering on at university

The transition into university life as a fresher is not easy for anyone. It doesn’t help when you’re trying to fit in, but you can’t help but be different. You may be older than the people around you, you might come from a different culture or you may arrive with different experiences. You may not have been in academia for some time and are nervous about re-joining. You may have faced challenges that the people around you don’t know about.

For those who have undertaken National Service (NS), these are the problems that may be being faced. National Service is a system where young people who come of age, usually at the age of eighteen, participate in either compulsory or voluntary government service, normally military service. As someone who has completed NS myself, there was a desire to find out more about National Service and the transition to university life for others like me. I was lucky enough to have the opportunity to speak to three students about their experiences.

You feel less like a child that has come to a new place and more like an adult who’s just come to a playground

– Amittai Aharoni

Amittai Aharoni, a 23-year-old first-year student studying Philosophy and Mathematics, agreed it wasn’t easy fitting in initially. He said: “I do feel like they want you, or expect you, to erase this experience and start off as an 18-year-old but you’re clearly not an 18-year-old. You can’t just go circling and things like that as you’re thinking more about settling down and the economics of that because you’re usually 21, or in my case 23.” Clearly Amittai’s thoughts are that the age difference, in his case as a result of completing National Service in Israel, means he has differing priorities and obligations to those around him.

After all, National Service can last from a couple months in some countries to three years in Amittai’s case. These range from nations with high security issues, such as the Korean peninsula and Israel, to nations that are determined to keep high levels of readiness even in peacetime. Therefore, after a significant period of service, participants in National Service may feel they are at a different point in their lives than 18-year-olds starting university, and consequently have different priorities. As Amittai says, he doesn’t yet feel used to the drinking and carefree nature of university life compared to his National Service experience. “In general, you feel less like a child that has come to a new place and more like an adult who’s just come to a playground.”

For the men and women who serve, it is a sacrifice of time, effort and even safety, over the period of service and consequential reservist duties, which can last until the age of 40

An integral part of all cultures is a ‘rite of passage’, a journey to display a newfound maturity in an individual. It can take many forms, graduating from school, moving away from home, even going to your first nightclub. For some however, their rite of passage is decided for them by the society in which they live – in the form of NS. Military service is compulsory in 26 countries, with others offering non-military forms of conscription. Jonas Bouhlal, a second-year Chemistry student who completed National Service in Finland, told me about how his country’s service system works: “In Finland you’ve got two options for men [for] National Service in terms of not serving in the army, so you’ll [either] be working in a school or a library for a year, or you can go to the army which is what most people do. You can serve either six months, nine months or twelve months depending on what you want to do, how good you are, your skills, etc.” He shared some of the difficulties he faced when starting at university: “Sometimes it’s hard to speak to people, to arrange things whereas in the army, if you’re in a leadership position, you could say how you wanted things to be done, but at university you have to think about what you do in a bit more detail.”

Each nation that implements National Service has a unique historical and cultural make-up that justifies the programme – one which is no small undertaking for the state. And for the men and women who serve, it is a sacrifice of time, effort and even safety, over the period of service and consequential reservist duties, which can last until the age of 40. Amittai explained how he saw the purpose for National Service in Israel: “There are two purposes: the first one is protection and the second one is to unite the people under the same flag because a lot of people in Israel came from different countries and you had to group them under this new identity. And the army provided a place to accept them and to learn a common language, common values.”

Looking back it benefitted me a lot, and I would say they were the best years of my life

– Rajan Sakhrani

Jonas saw the purpose of National Service as one of contributing to the defence of his home country. He explains: “Finland is one of the last European countries to keep National Service, and it’s because it’s such a small country and we’re next to Russia so we have to maintain our defensive strength.” Rajan Sakhrani makes a similar point, saying that in the small nation of Singapore, where he completed NS, conscription is necessary and with “this strong National Service, nobody would really want to attack us, together with our strong diplomatic relations that we have with the US and other major countries”. National Service is how the individual becomes part of the greater good in some countries, sacrificing their efforts to a wider belief in national security and sovereignty.

The National Service experience, regardless of personal opinion on its necessity in modern society, will have an effect on the individuals who are involved. These effects may cause difficulties such as the individual feeling as though they don’t fit in. However, many will argue that National Service makes you stand out, but in a positive way, providing you with maturity and various life skills. Rajan who studies Law and Business, praised the experience saying: “Looking back it benefitted me a lot, and I would say they were the best years of my life.” Similarly, Jonas said: “I really liked my time there, a lot of people don’t, it’s really about your own attitude towards the service. I enjoyed it.” Clearly there was some value to the service to those I spoke to, but what exactly did they gain?

Self-discipline is a core tenet of military life and that personal trait seems to live on past a period of service.

The consensus between the three interviewees was the appreciation of life experience that National Service provided. They spoke of being able to see things in perspective; in Amittai’s case, seeing his friends in stressful intense situations during NS allowed him to acknowledge that safety and a supportive environment are something that may be taken for granted. After going through physical challenges during his service, Jonas said it’s “hard and tough, but it’s mainly about what happens between your ears and how you handle things mentally, so I think having gone through that I think I can basically deal with anything now”. NS allows for individuals to see how challenges can be relative, and they can look back on the struggles they went through to help them now with their work at university and beyond.

As well as this, National Service provided transferable skills that can be applied to different situations and workplaces. As Rajan explains, “I enlisted at 17 after finishing high school and I don’t think I would have been mature enough or ready to come to university and been disciplined enough to take my studies seriously” and goes on to say “because I took the two years out…it made me more hungry to study, and the mental strength that you develop in the army, you can apply to your studies”. Self-discipline is a core tenet of military life and that personal trait seems to live on past a period of service.

We can see that the university lives of my interviewees have been impacted by their experiences in National Service. As with any significant undertaking in a person’s life, it is natural for them to feel the effects of these experiences throughout their future. When it comes to life after NS, the interviewees all highlighted aspects of themselves that had been developed through a unique experience. Importantly, they expressed a commitment to using these qualities to their benefit, making their experience at Warwick a positive one.

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