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Not long after shells had rained down on Yeonpyeong Island off the coast of South Korea in 2010, College junior Ryan Kwon lay in bed in a combat uniform with camouflage smeared across his face, clutching a rifle to his chest.

He was nervous.

Tensions between North and South Korea were at an all-time high, and military bases across the country were on high alert. Not more than eight months ago, Cheonan — a South Korean warship — had been sunk by a North Korean torpedo, and rumors around camp said that the Koreas might go to war after all. But with nothing else to do except wait in agony, Kwon then thought about his family and his best friends, and the thought of them slowly brought him a sense of peace.

Today, Kwon is one of a small number of undergraduates at Penn who have completed mandatory military service in a foreign country.

Two years ago, Kwon handed in a letter to the Office of Admissions at the end of his sophomore year at Penn to serve his mandatory 22-month military service in South Korea — a remnant of the Cold War tensions that gripped the peninsula.

While Kwon’s story is rare, the South Korean native isn’t alone in having to serve military obligations.

According to Dean of Admissions Eric Furda, Kwon is among the approximately 6 to 10 people out of an average 50 gap year students who take time off to fulfill their military duties in foreign countries each year.

For Kwon, the prospect of leaving Penn for the military in 2009 did not make him nervous.

“Every Korean-born male has to go to the military, so there really wasn’t any pressure,” he said. “It was just like a rite of passage.”

He knew, however, that it wasn’t going to be easy.

The moment he stepped away from his family at the army base, Kwon was immediately thrust into a world of barked commands and grueling exercise drills.

From two-week survival expeditions into blizzard-struck mountains to practicing counter hand-to-hand combat moves to use against North Koreans, the entire ordeal was a mental endurance marathon for Kwon. For those soldiers who were unfortunate enough to faint during training, medics would simply revive the man before sending him back out again, Kwon added.

But as soon as Kwon was handed his first gun, he knew he had reached a turning point in his life. The moment he shot it for the first time, he was bombarded with the realization of just how fragile human life is.

“We never think of ourselves to be mortal,” he said. “We’ve gone through tough times in high school and such, but in front of a gun, it’s just a trigger away from life or death.”

This newfound lesson was further underscored when North Korea conducted small-scale skirmishes against South Korea in 2010.

“We were on alert,” Kwon recalled. “Every day we slept in our gear with our guns until we were sure North Korea wasn’t preparing for another attack.”

Yet despite all of the violence that was taking place while he served, Kwon’s time in the military also presented some opportunities. For example, he served as a security agent for President Barack Obama when Obama visited South Korea in 2010 for the G20 summit.

While Kwon has reintegrated himself back into student life at Penn, the transition hasn’t been entirely smooth. Now two years older than most of his junior counterparts, he feels that he doesn’t blend in among his classmates, especially since many of his friends have already graduated.

“Everybody I know has already gone,” he said. “It feels like you’ve jumped into the future. Everything’s different except you.”

Korea Foundation Associate Professor of History Eugene Park said Kwon’s story is not unusual for those in his position.

“Two years is a considerable period of time in terms of leaving everything behind,” Park said. “Returning to college is generally okay for some, but a lot of people will tell you that it’s not always easy getting back into mode of studying after two years of training.”

Though the daily hustle and bustle of On-Campus Recruiting kept him busy of late, he still reflects on what his two years in the military meant to him.

“Sometimes I feel sad,” he said. “It’s two years where you could’ve made a lot of memories and experiences.”

Still, though, Kwon believes that he has taken much away from his time in the military. His drill instructors instilled in him a sense of discipline and manners, and his stint as a squad leader has made him far more responsible in what he says and does.

But more importantly, Kwon believes one of the greatest lessons he took away from the military was learning to trust people.

“One thing you learn in the military is that it’s not your gun that’s going to save you,” he said. “It’s going to be the people around you that’s going to save you when you get hurt. So I tend to think of every person I meet as a very important person.”

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