For many, the term “military service” evokes an image of order, obedience, authority, and perhaps even fear. However, such perceptions have failed to deter individuals such as Rachel Kim (’09), who has known from an early age that she wanted to serve her country. In recent years, other Stuyvesant students have followed suit, forgoing the traditional college experience to attend a military academy. Saungwon Ko (’11) enrolled at the United States Naval Academy because of his love of the sea and memorable experience at the six-day United States Naval Academy Summer Seminar. Lauren Ng (‘11) has a similar story; indifferent to the idea of military academies beforehand, she fell in love with West Point after just one week at the Summer Leaders Seminar. However, for many students, what military academy attendees do on a daily basis once they enroll is completely unknown.
Saungwon Ko – United States Naval Academy
Even though the first classes at the United States Naval Academy (USNA) do not begin until 7:55 a.m., its students, including Saungwon Ko, are up and working long before that. As excellent physical conditioning is expected from each and every cadet, they are expected to be ready by 5:30 a.m. for the 40-minute-long mandatory workout. These workouts can be every day or every other day, depending on the staff in charge of the training regiment. However, no matter the company, the training is nothing short of intense. A workout day could start with lunges along the perimeter of the football field, followed by sprints, pull-ups, push-ups, and crunches, all in rapid succession. The more strict companies might ask students to also run around the campus, practice ground fighting, or do calisthenics.
The morning workouts are not the sole time where students at the USNA have to do physical exercise. For Physical Education, students must take a semester of swimming, half a semester of wrestling, and half a semester of boxing. Later on in the day, students have time to practice a particular sport during the athletic reserve period.
“It’s almost exactly what I had expected,” said Ko, referring to his school. “It is challenging both physically and academically.”
The 50-minute classes start early in the morning, but schedules change depending on the day of the week. For example, Ko has Calculus, Japanese, and Seamanship on Mondays, and Leadership, English, and Chemistry on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Japanese class is a favorite of Ko’s. “It’s fun to learn an entirely new language. I didn’t like [learning] Spanish in high school as much,” he said.
Mealtimes at the USNA all follow a standard procedure. Students are expected to arrive in the cafeteria by 6:40 a.m. for chow call, when the underclassmen recite the menu to the upperclassmen in their company. After announcements are made, the students eat breakfast, with a menu of eggs, bagels, cereal, and pastries.
At lunch, students listen to announcements outside before praying and sitting down to eat at their usual 12-person tables. Food items include the popular buffalo chicken sandwiches or gyros, as well as salads. After students finish eating, the remainder of the hour is used for mandatory training, conferences with higher-ranking officers, or even punishments, such as uniform-changing races.
After dinner, students have a free hour during which clubs can meet. The day ends with a mandatory study period from 8:00 p.m. to 11:00 p.m., the time at which the students are mandated to go to bed, since they are not allowed naps during the day.
Ko’s favorite part of his day is the same as that of many Stuyvesant students: bedtime.
Lauren Ng – United States Military Academy at WestPoint
Lauren Ng, a Division I (D1) swimmer, starts out her day at 5:00 a.m. every Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday. While this prospect of waking up at such an early hour may seem daunting for most, Ng takes an optimistic outlook. “I just got used to it after the summer, when sleeping in until 6:00 a.m. was considered a treat. Also, I’m used to it because I used to have morning practices over the summer in high school.” After swim practice, at 6:55 a.m., she joins the rest of the school at Breakfast Formation, when the entire corps of cadets assembles in groups based on regiment, battalion, company, platoon, and squad, for accountability purposes.
Each class, which begins promptly at 7:30 a.m., lasts for 55 minutes. Classes run on an alternating schedule, so before lunch, Ng takes Information Technology and Advanced Multivariate Calculus on Day 1, and Advanced Multivariate Calculus and Advanced Chemistry on Day 2. “I enjoy math and chemistry the most, but that’s probably just because I’m good at those subjects” Ng said. After, Ng takes either U.S. History or Composition.
Most of her classes are like those in a traditional college, but she noted that WestPoint is “probably the only school where it is hard for most people to pass PE [Physical Education],” she said. Adding on some more physical activity, her sports team practice at 3:15 p.m. every day takes the place of another class.
In terms of meals, Ng’s experience is similar to that of Ko’s at the USNA, with formations preceding every meal. In this mess hall, each table seats three plebes (freshman) and seven upperclassmen. The younger students perform the table duties. “One would be responsible for pouring drinks, another for cutting the dessert, a third to get coffee and make sure that all the condiments at the end of the table are lined up in height order,” Ng said.
As a D1 athlete, Ng has to sit with her team during lunch and dinner, so she is only able to sit with her company during breakfast. Dinner begins at 6:30 p.m., and students dress up based on specific themes on “spirit dinner” Thursdays.
West Point also stresses the importance of extracurricular activities, and mandates students to take “Athletics.” During this hour and a half, students can partake in physical activities such as intramurals, which are recreational activities, perform drills and ceremonies, or do military/physical training. Some other non-athletics related alternatives include clubs such as debate.
As academic excellence is expected in addition to being physical adeptness, there is a mandatory evening study period for plebes and sophomores from 7:30 p.m. to 10:00 p.m. During this time, some students do homework, while others meet up to do club work.
Cleanliness is another must for the students. Plebes do chores for an hour and a half after the study period, such as cleaning, sweeping, and taking out the trash.
Despite the regulations, Ng’s love for her school has not wavered since she first applied. “Everything is pretty much how I thought it’d be. There are times you really appreciate the little things,” she said.
One of the unique aspects of the school is its room standards. When the rooms are in AMI, which is every day until 9:30 a.m., the door is open and students are not allowed to take naps, partially to stress the importance of obeying the set bedtime. Any student who has the first two hours of the school day free and wishes to take a nap during this time has to use the auditorium in the academic building. “It’s funny that I thought it was ingenious when I found out about it, whereas one of the sophomores in my company thought it was sad that there are times we aren’t even allowed to sleep in our own beds,” Ng said.
Even the extra freedom that the upperclassmen have is limited. Standard bedtime is at 11:30 p.m., when the TAPS, or advisors come around to each room to check that everyone is in their rooms.
Rachel Kim – United States Military Academy at WestPoint
An even earlier riser, Rachel Kim starts her day at 5:10 a.m. on Mondays, Wednesday, and Fridays to work. Like Ng, Kim looks upon her early mornings with a bright attitude. “Granted I don’t get a lot of sleep on the weekdays, [but] I think Stuy prepared me well enough on how to manage sleep deprivation,” Kim said.
Before they leave, Kim and her peers have to clean their rooms, which are inspected on a daily basis, to meet cleanliness standards. Before morning formation, some students work out, while others catch up on work. On Wednesdays or on days of importance, uniform sessions at 6:45 a.m. are used to iron clothes and shine shoes.
Classes officially begin at 7:30 a.m. Alternating on a two-day cycle, a day is composed of five or six classes lasting 55 minutes each. The core curriculum requires cadets to take a total of 26 to 30 core academic classes depending on the major, not including the core physical education classes, military science classes, a job title after plebe year, as well as a leadership position that is a major factor of the cadet’s military grade. Kim plans to study solely classes related to her major at the United States Naval Academy next year, and so is taking extra core classes to meet the requirements of the school. Her extra classes include Systems Engineering (Computer/Database Design), Advanced Military Science (studying infantry tactics from the perspective of a platoon leader), Military Leadership, and two Physical Education classes: Combatives (boxing and grappling) and Survival Swimming (swimming while geared in full army combat uniform and boots).
“The abundance of core classes makes it less enjoyable at times, but I really enjoy the DP [Department of Physical Education] classes, especially Survival Swimming, when you have to escape in full uniform. It’s really different from anything else that you would ever take,” she said. “Research Methods class is applicable towards groundwork for research in general, and my Systems Engineering class showed me something new.”
Outside of these mandatory classes, Kim also dedicates much of her time to soccer, and numerous clubs, including Sandhurst (which prepares members for the military skills competition called Sandhurst Competition, dubbed SANCOM),Glee Club, Korean Seminar, and Christian Club.
At West Point, there is also a notably smaller teacher to cadet ratio (12 to 18 cadets per teacher) than at other military schools, which allows for more individualized instruction. Teaching by the Thayer Method of Instruction, instructors have the cadets read and teach themselves the material before coming to class. This contributes to altering the class from being entirely lecture based to being more interactive. “The military instructors are [also] typically more invested in your learning because we will technically be future employees in their organization,” Kim said.
Immediately after graduation, cadets are commissioned as Second Lieutenants. Kim is currently leaning towards Military Intelligence in either Germany or South Korea. And since it is also often the case that the officers were West Point graduates themselves, they are able to offer advice to the cadets based on their own experiences. Such advice would involve “specific branches, military schools, career advancement, cadet-officer transition and how to succeed as a brand-new second lieutenant leading a platoon,” Kim said.
At West Point, juniors like Kim herself faced a difficult decision at the beginning of the school year. Unless they plan to transfer, juniors have to commit to completing the “next two years at the Academy, five years in the Army as Active Duty personnel and three years in the Reserves,” Kim said.
Last year, because of her conflicting interests, Kim was dubious of the route that she would take. She wanted to focus on her academics and conduct research, but because West Point emphasizes a holistic military, with fit cadets who are able to lead well, it makes it impossible to focus on just one activity. “I realized that I have still so much to learn about what it means to be a leader. I am constantly learning something new everyday in the classroom, in the field, in the company, from my classmates or instructors. While my perspective shifted from plebe year, it’s changed for the better.” She said.
Kim looks back contented with the decision she made three years ago. “It’s definitely a different college experience in that I have to take extra core classes, have mandatory events, summer training all in a military setting[…] but after a while, you get used to the formalities.” she said. “It’s hard to imagine what my life [would be like] otherwise. I imagine I would have more personal time and freedom to pursue different opportunities, but then again, I think West Point provides similar, if not more, opportunities.”