On an average day, promptly at 5:00 a.m. we stood at attention by our beds awaiting instruction. By 5:15, we had already changed into uniform, shaved, polished our shoes, brushed our teeth, and made our beds. After 35 minutes allotted for prayer, bathroom, and a breakfast that consisted of cucumbers, hard boiled eggs, chocolate pudding and bread we were ready to start the day’s activities. We jumped right into rifle training, physical conditioning and Krav Maga, or hand–to–hand combat. Following dinner, we engaged in fortification construction, combat first aid, stealth maneuvering and camouflage adornment. Our day culminated in a speed march in full gear through desert and mountainous terrain that concluded just in time for sunrise. 

That was how I spent the last two years serving as a combat soldier in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF).

Photo provided by Gabe Low

Throughout my gap years, I looked forward to assuming my role as a student in an American university. I was excited to solve new problems and enroll in classes that would challenge me intellectually. I traded in my automatic rifle for a crisp Herschel backpack and acclimated to the weight of introductory econ and psychology textbooks instead of ammunition. The trek from the Hillel dining hall to DRL for my 1 p.m. Calculus II class couldn’t be more different than my nightlong military marches as long as the Philly marathon in the Judean desert. I attacked writing seminar assignments with the same passion and fervor as I had in my army manuscript.

As I transitioned from combat infantry soldier to twenty–year–old freshman, I struggled to relate to my peers. As I unloaded the car on the first day of NSO, I immediately realized that succeeding here, similar to the army, revolves around understanding my position within the collective.

Photo provided by Gabe Low

Although fundamentally different, both battlefields presented to me and to those around me mental challenges and difficult truths. My two–year combat tour forced me to push my internal and external limits and enabled me to handle endless physical demands. Here, in the academic arena, people are consumed with course selection, GPAs and OCR. Meanwhile, 11:59 p.m. essay submissions in the Moelis Grand Reading room with snacks from Mark’s Café are a huge upgrade to my all–nighters in armored vehicles with limited rations of canned tuna, olives, and rice wrapped in grape leaves. Close calls in the field taught me to continuously see life’s daily blessings despite rejections from esteemed extracurricular activities and upon receiving less–than–satisfactory grades.

While the army may have given me the perspective to adequately manage life’s challenges, socially, I was less prepared. Two years older than most freshmen, I immediately felt out of place. I constantly found myself explaining how “I am the age of a junior,” but I am currently “just a freshman.” Juniors already had their friends and freshmen couldn’t relate to my peculiar situation. To make matters worse, I live in a single. Instead of having a buddy to accompany me at the numerous NSO and Greek Life events, I showed up alone hoping to find a familiar face. Originally, the idea of a single and the freedom of having my own space appealed to me. I had been deprived of privacy for the past two years while living with dozens of bunkmates in the army. Little did I know how beneficial a built–in first–day friend would be.

In addition to my social troubles, I found myself struggling academically as well. After all, it had been over two and a half years since I physically sat down to complete work for a class. I spent dozens of hours on MyMathLab reteaching myself the difference between integrating and finding a derivative. It took me days before I was finished writing an outline for a chapter of writing sem. I had to take every possible econ practice test I could get my hands on to remind myself what a timed test felt like. Similarly, during army training, I broke down during my first physical exam. I had to complete a timed obstacle course, and when I reached the six–meter rope I had to scale, I failed miserably. It was only after hours of repetition and training that I successfully conquered it. The army gave me the preparation and resilience I now carry into my education.

Photo provided by Gabe Low

In college, it can be exceedingly easy to underperform or struggle with time management. College is often a messy academic, social, and extracurricular juggling act. But after living on a military routine for two years, I have developed a sense of self–discipline and temporal awareness that has enabled me to flourish at Penn. For the eight months of basic training, I lived by the minutes as I completed scores of odd tasks on a fixed schedule for my superiors. I perfected polishing my shoes, shaving, cleaning, and shooting drills through repetition and practice. I slept for around five hours in 30–minute increments and survived solely on non–perishable foods without utensils.

The army equipped me with a heightened appreciation for freedom and responsibility. At Penn, with limited class time and consistent late starts to the day, I am successfully able to make my bed, spend an hour lifting at Pottruck, and complete assignments in a timely fashion. I am able to take advantage of every waking second to review for exams, enjoy meals with friends, and engage with the West Philly community through tutoring. I exercise the freedom to eat whatever and whenever I desire. And the best part of all, I never get less than six hours of sleep.