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Alexey Komissarouk
33rd Street

Credit: Alexey Komissarouk

I’m a 25-year-old undergraduate. As a high-school junior, I had a pretty good hunch that I wasn’t going straight to college. As an Israeli citizen at the Walworth Barbour American International School, I was a minority — while most of my friends would be heading to college the following year, I would enter three years of mandatory military service. I remember being envious of my classmates and anxious about what college would be like if I started it three years late.

I ended up deferring my service until March and coming to Penn for a semester in 2005. I joined the Modern Languages program with the intent of picking up French as quickly as possible (ca n’a pas marché). I took a lot of different classes but did not do especially well in any of them. I tried to join any organization I could, the same way I had in high school — Mask & Wig, Model United Nations and marketing case competitions. I didn’t get any of the positions I had hoped for — and rightfully so. I didn’t have the experience or preparation required, and my interviewers could tell.

Then I left for the army. My job as a software developer for the Israeli Defense Forces had me at home at 6:30 p.m. nearly every day for three years with no homework or demands on my time, and with most of my friends on other continents. It was during this time that I became interested in technology and entrepreneurship. When my service ended, I had spent nearly a year working nights and weekends making Facebook applications and reading TechCrunch. I had found something I was passionate about.

In January 2009, I was back.

How different would the freshman experience be at 22? Would I be that older guy buying alcohol for his friends? Would it be weird hitting on fellow freshmen? Would I be out of shape academically after three years of no exams?

As it turns out: not that different, no, a little and no. Students are students — at any age, working on challenging material brings people together. I definitely wasn’t going to join a frat (if I wanted 19- and 20-year-olds to shout commands at me in the late hours of the night, I would have returned to basic training). I had already enjoyed my fair share of partying by 22 and the typical freshman scene didn’t appeal to me. I have yet to be asked to be the guy with an ID.

Other than that, I can’t complain. I’ve made a conscious effort to avoid girls with whom I felt a substantial age difference. But honestly, this has never been a real problem — the “Israeli soldier” card holds much less appeal than one would expect.

My unexceptionally subpar performance in the romantic realm was balanced, surprisingly enough, by my newfound academic prowess. To my bewilderment, I received better grades upon my return to Penn than I ever had in high school (in my defense, I had a terrible GPA in high school). My old classroom habit of doing a good-enough job at the last minute had vanished. In its place came an eager excitement to go above and beyond and a tendency to finish things early. (Seriously.)

As the hyper-achieving tier of our generation, we’ve become very good at following set paths: excel in high school, go to a top college and then choose between (for a lot of us) law school, med school or a high-paying finance job.

Taking a year off or avoiding college altogether feels like getting a tattoo — something that is perfectly fine for other people to do, we guess, but not really our thing. I wouldn’t recommend that everyone take three years off and join the Israeli army. But don’t be afraid to stray from the path, or at least take a detour or two along the way. It may prove well worth it; it did for me.

Alexey Komissarouk is an Engineering senior from Kfar Shmaryahu, Israel. His email address is 33rd Street appears every other Thursday.

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