An Unfamiliar World: The Life of a Returning Student

June 10, 2020 by Juho Lee


When reports that people were suffering from pneumonia-like symptoms in the Chinese city of Wuhan first reached news outlets, few foresaw that these would be the early cases in what would become the worst global pandemic since the Spanish Flu. Covid-19 has spread around the globe and none, including UIC students, have been exempted from its rampage. This article will shed light on the struggles faced by UIC students who finished their military service during the crisis. Adjusting to civilian life under normal circumstances would be difficult enough. Instead, they returned to an unfamiliar world after two years of isolation from the rest of society. These are their stories.

“The crisis altered my back-to-school plans considerably,” says Choi Sungmin, a class of 17 UIC economics major. Sungmin was drafted by the ROK army a mere three weeks after his third semester ended. He had planned on returning to school early this March by using the leave he had saved up. 

“I decided not to return to school this semester”, says Sungmin. He cited the school’s decision to conduct courses online as the reason behind his choice. “I figured online courses would be of poorer quality than they would be otherwise. Moreover, college is more than just the classes; it’s sometimes about being able to grab a meal after class with friends”. Sungmin continues, “I really wanted to see my friends after finishing my military service, but didn’t because I was afraid of unwittingly spreading the virus to others. I was very lonely and empty”. 

Despite the hardships he faced, Sungmin says he is proud of how he has spent his time so far. “I’ve been bettering myself by pursuing personal goals...the situation has allowed me to focus on my studies. Spending all my leave days at the end allowed me to get into the proper mindset”.   

Others had harsher words of criticism for how the university handled the crisis. “I think how the school took three announcements to let us know that all courses would be conducted online for the entire semester was irresponsible,” says a UIC International Studies major who preferred to remain anonymous. He will be referred to as J in the this article. J returned to school this semester after finishing his service in February. “If they had told us at the outset that the school would be conducting all courses online for the entire semester I could have prepared accordingly. A lot of the courses ended up being sub-par”. 

Adjusting to one’s studies is hard enough for a returning student under regular circumstances. J commented on how this problem was exacerbated further by the crisis. “There are very few people returners, like myself, can rely on to begin with. It would have been nice to get to know people in person so I could have asked them for help. But because our courses were conducted online I was robbed of that opportunity”. J did not stand idly by however. “I managed to form online study groups where we could share info and ask questions”. 

Many are worried that the crisis will disrupt the Fall semester as well. Lim Seunghyun, a class of 17 political science and international studies major, finished his service in May. He planned on returning to school this fall. While Seunghyun was in the military he applied to go on an exchange program in order to begin his first semester back in school with an exciting new experience. 

“It was definitely not easy”. Seunghyun said while recounting the difficulties he faced applying for the program during his service. “In the military you can only use the internet for three hours a day. When applying for an exchange program you need to do thorough research on the application requirements, the location of the school, and also about their curriculum. Then you need to do the same thing for all the other schools you are interested in before you can list them by order of preference. This took a really long time”. Moreover, Seunghyun says that preparing for standardized English tests, an application requirement, was extremely inconvenient. “It’s not like I had my own laptop”. Despite this tremendous effort, the current crisis threatens Seunghyun’s plans. “I still want to go”, he says. “Covid-19 worries me and it’d be safer not to go, especially because it’s an exchange to the States, the current epicentre of this pandemic. But if I postpone it for a semester I would have to deviate too much from my future academic plans”.   

These interviews underscore how the crisis disproportionately harms the least privileged amongst us. And yet amidst the turmoil emerges a story of resilience. The returners did not lose their passion for life despite the seemingly insuperable hardships  that confronted them. In fact, all of the interviewees assiduously tackled the situation with a vengeance, unwilling to let Covid-19 deprive them of a joyful return to civilian life. The struggle against Covid-19 continues, but the perseverance shown by these students reassures me that we will overcome it.

The UIC Scribe was founded in 2006 as the official student-run newsmagazine of Underwood International College. It celebrates diversity of thinking, excellence in writing, and the freedom of self-expression.