Jun Seok Choi is like most college sophomores at Oxford College. Just like the rest of the students, he is studying constantly trying to keep up with the campus’ rigorous schedule. What sets him apart from the rest of his colleagues is that at the age of 22, he is already a military veteran.
Choi first came to Oxford in the fall of 2008. Although he had been to the U.S. before, this would be the first time he would be on his own.
His boarding school in South Korea had prepared him for American classes, but he was still not sure if he was ready for whatever he was about to encounter in America When Choi first arrived in Oxford, he thought he was going to get an American Pie-esque experience. He soon learned that his college experience would be quite different.
Although Choi was learning a lot in his classes, he was learning even more outside of them. For the first time, he was interacting with a very diverse group of people.
He would constantly compare American ways with his familiar Korean ways, but his biggest obstacle was the language.
Although he had spoken English in South Korea, it was very different when he was faced with speaking it with natural English speakers.
“Sometimes I had trouble understanding causal conversations. I felt awkward and intimidated. When I couldn’t keep up with conversations, it was harder for me to make friends.”
Despite these challenges, Choi enjoyed his freshman year at Oxford. He made many friends; he even joined the service organization Circle K.
His time at Oxford was cut short after his freshman year when he had to fulfill his mandatory two years of military service to the South Korean military. Choi would join the thousands of other men his age fighting for the country whether they liked it or not.
Choi would spend the next two years of his life serving his country while his colleagues would continue to study at Oxford and Emory. None of them would know what it was like to drop everything to go back and serve their country.
His two years were spent filling out paperwork and keeping up with the base. During his days of service, he compared it to his days at Oxford and how his military experience had a “lack of freedom.”
He also reflected on the surroundings around him and why things were the way they were.
“I kept thinking about why the Korean military system is so harsh and my conclusion was because it’s mandatory, not voluntary. There is this sentiment that since we only have to serve for two years and that’s it. So people don’t put much effort into it. We just all have to do it.”
“When you do not get your job done, you get bad words and you get beaten up. My friends got beaten up. They had to get physical punishments; it was normal.”
When his two years were up, he retired as a sergeant. He was eager to leave behind the harsh military life and start school again back in the U.S.
“I love my country and I have strong affection towards it, but I hope I do not have to go back and fight in a war.”
Although he felt like he “wasted” two years of his life in the military, he said the experience helped him understand the importance of national security.
Choi’s experience enabled him the opportunity to compare his time in the Korean military to what he saw by the American military in the U.S.
He saw that the American military had a lot more respect from its people than the Koreans had for its own military.
“In Korea, we don’t really respect the military. There is this image of the military being bad and corrupt. We are always worried about the military taking over the Korean government.”
Since being in the U.S., Choi has seen that the American citizens honor and thank our military on a number of occasions, including this past Veterans Day.
“They fought for the country no matter the reason and I think that’s something worth getting respect for.”
Choi continues to learn more about the United States and the world as he compares his Korean experiences with the new ones he is experiencing here in Georgia.
He came back to Oxford this fall with the intention of majoring in politics. After he graduates from Emory, he plans on returning to South Korea and working with the government.