Most of us instinctively desire to be in an anxiety-free state, also known as the “comfort zone,” even if we know that getting outside of it is good for intellectual and professional development. There was a moment in the army when I had to come out of my comfort zone. That experience not only challenged me to grow personally but also changed the course and quality of my academic life.
In 2010 I joined the army as a KATUSA. KATUSA stands for Korean army to the United States army. Simply put I was an American soldier under Korean administration. During my service term I had to go attend a class called “Equal Opportunity Leader course.” The class was about discrimination in the army such as abuse of rank, sexual and racial discrimination. Teaching method was a typical American style: open discussions. Individual participation in class also was reflected in the final grade. But the key difference between here and school was that I had no choice but to participate because it was mandatory.
The highlight of this class was giving presentation in front classmates. Each person was given a topic to work on with five day time limit. I had never in my life given a presentation in front of anybody until that point and it was driving me crazy. I had complaints but since it was obligatory, I prepared for my material. It was no easy research to look through huge database finding thesis and data that fit my topic. I personally asked my sergeants and gathered advice from my peers in the class. It was not a material that I could simply extract sitting in a chair. I really had to dive in it.
On the day of presentation when it was finally my turn, I pushed back my anxiety and walked towards the platform. As I stood up in front I felt very nervous but once I started talking, the presentation proceeded smoothly. After five minutes of presentation I received applause from my classmates and shook hands with the instructor. It was an incredible moment filled with pride and joy. Above all, I was extremely satisfied that I had walked out of my comfort zone on my own. This experience was meaningful in a way that it advanced perception of my academic caliber. Due to this incident I learned that I am capable of expanding my limits.
Before I joined the army, my view on my academic experience was not clear. During my first year in SBU I never gave a deep thought about what or why I was studying. I just sat in the class and when I had the chance to participate in sharing ideas I chose not to. Avoiding attentions was one of the reasons that made it hard for me to understand the American way of teaching, the purpose of open discussions. Was studying not sitting on a chair reading and memorizing text? To me, standing in front of people expressing opinions was nonsensical. I had the notion that academic subjects should be approached with the methods that I was used to: reading and understanding, not expressing one’s opinions.
I had been accustomed to the Korean way of studying before I came to the U.S. In Korea from elementary to high school education is vastly similar. The instructor lectures while students take notes and memorize them. During class period there are no presentations or oral discussions but just one sided flow of information. Nobody questions or ponder on why studying should be done that way. Naturally, I accepted that this is how it is done. From that perspective feedbacks in class are unnecessary and a waste of time.
Given that kind of academic background it was a no surprise that I was baffled when I arrived in the States. Professors encouraged students to actively participate to bring out our thoughts and it seemed the students enjoyed it as well. I was at first dissatisfied by the system thinking this was not effective academic learning. I stayed silent most of the time for about a year. I was a passive person and I was comfortable with it. During my time in school I sometimes wondered if I should change my way of studying but I could not really change my attitude. That is until I had one incident in the army.
I returned to school a few months later with different mindset from my first time to school. This time I could more easily participate in class and accept the American way of studying efficiently, expressing my opinion and expanding the spectrum of my academic abilities. The teaching system here was not wrong, it was only different from what I have been used to.
My personal experience might not be a 100 percent academic incident. However, this incident has had an enormous impact in altering my way of learning. Through this event, I have learned that one moment in life experience may shape the rest of your academic career. The KATUSA training course made me a better communicator, and it gave me a whole new perspective and confidence to pursue my university education in a very different and effective way.
The incident taught me not to be afraid of getting thrown into situations but use that chance to expand my limits. Had I insisted on staying in my comfort zone, it would have taken a lot more time to be a successful student in a new environment.