Not All That Foreign is a biweekly column about life as an international Yalie by Irene Colombo (BF ’25).
When leaving for college, most people want to start again. Blank slate. Leave their high school selves behind and dive into the newness of it all. But for some, the interim period between high school and college is characterized by military service: an experience so intense and formative that it cannot possibly be shaken by the ivory tower.
Forty-nine countries currently have mandatory military service, primarily, for their male citizens, so it’s no surprise that many international Yalies have spent time serving their countries before moving to the US for college.
Xander Dai DC ’26 served in the Singaporean military for two years after getting his Yale acceptance letter. “I had a pretty unusual experience,” said Dai. He described his role as an EMT in a military prison in Singapore. “I interacted with prison inmates from all walks of life, and it made me realize how often we misjudge those who have made mistakes. More often than not, their behavior is a product of what they’ve experienced rather than who they are deep down.” Although Dai did not consider continuing on the military path after his service, he is grateful for the sense of independence and resilience he gained in those two years.
Christian Oestergaard BF ’25 also found that his time serving in the Danish military profoundly affected his development as a young adult. He explained how his time in the Royal Life Guards branch of the Danish military affected his ambitions and goals for the future: “In high school, I was dead set on working in finance. However, the guys I was serving with were all in their early or mid-twenties and prior to serving, had worked jobs mostly involving manual labor—construction workers, electricians, and woodworkers. I have never enjoyed myself more with a group of people, and seeing how happy they were caused my mindset to shift.”
In fact, Oestergaard has now resolved to set aside the prospect of working in finance for a career path that he anticipates will be more rewarding and for reasons beyond economic gain. He hopes to one day become a Danish Frogman, the equivalent of a U.S. Navy Seal. Aside from leading him to reevaluate his aspirations for the future, Oestergaard’s military service experience also opened his eyes to the value of interpersonal relationships, earning him a new perspective on friendship that he has been able to translate into his social life in college.
“During the time I was in the military, I made some of the strongest connections with people I have ever had,” he explained. “Struggles serve to strengthen bonds between people, and in the end, they bring people closer together—be it studying together for a difficult midterm or going to an early morning practice on a sports team. In this sense, the military has helped me choose my true friends at Yale.”
Similarly, Patrik Haverinen BF ’25 stressed the impact of his year serving in Finland’s military on his professional aspirations. “I was a journalist and editor for Finland’s military magazine for half of my year in service while still training to become a sergeant on the side,” he said. The experience in journalism not only made Haverinen more interested in the field but also helped him apply the knowledge he had learned to a more academic setting.
Haverinen outlined the ways in which military service facilitated and complicated his transition to college.“I shared a room with around 10 or 12 people for most of the year, so living in college dorms never struck me as anything crazy,” he said. “The main difference must’ve been the somewhat direct, even harsh nature of discourse that is expected in the military, which poses a striking contrast to the polite, bubbly way of speaking in most places and particularly here on campus.”
Last spring, Russia’s invasion of Ukraine struck a chord in Haverinen. His experience in the Finnish military equipped him with the sensibility to truly grasp what this conflict meant for the countries and civilians involved.“Finland shares over 800 miles of border with Russia, and we didn’t really know what the Russian army was capable of. The uncertainty of it all, as well as everything happening so close to home, made following the war more personal.”
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine left Haverinen shocked and saddened by the suffering in the area. Although he stresses that his experience was “not in any way comparable to those with family in Ukraine or any war zone around the globe, being far away from home in the spring from February onwards wasn’t easy.” Watching Ukrainian people fight for freedom for themselves, for the rest of Europe, and for all free democracies in the world inspired Haverinen: “I’ve found strength and hope during these times when nobody really seems to be able to promise a better future more explicitly.”
Apart from being an obligation that many international students have to their countries, military service provides a life experience like no other. At first, I was surprised by how grateful all the people I interviewed were for the time they spent serving their respective countries, but after hearing their stories, it became clear—the demanding physical training and the strict regiment are all features of the experience, but what ultimately remains are the relationships forged, the developed grit and resilience and a new willingness to act selflessly in service of others.
At Yale, it’s easy to reduce each other to the things we study, the clubs we are involved in, or the social circles we run in. Most of us cringe at the thought of life before Yale and quiver at the thought of life after. But for many internationals, the turning point was in the military, long before they made their way through Phelps Gate.