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College Commando: How a Special Forces Candidate Tackles Undergraduate Life

September 26th, 2008 · 5 comments

An Unconventional StudentSpecial Forces Guy

Steve is a student at the University of South Florida, where he studies religion and international relations. He first came to my attention earlier this summer when he published a provocative blog post debating his post-graduation path. The two options he was juggling: going to law school or becoming an elite Special Forces operative. Steve, as it turns out, is an NCO in the US Army, recently returned from a tour of duty in Iraq. So when he says he’s interested in joining the Special Forces, this is not idle talk.

When I heard Steve’s story, I knew I had to get in touch with him. As you know, I’m fascinated by students follow unconventional paths, as their examples can help jolt us out of our own conventional wisdom-hardened ruts. When it comes to unconventional, I can’t think of anything more fitting than a student whose splitting his time on campus between studying and intense training to join the most elite group of warriors on the planet.

Steve was kind enough to answer my questions about how his military lifestyle affects his approach to college life. Excerpts from our discussion are below. You can find out much more about Steve at his fascinating blog: Educated Soldier.

Give me a sense of your daily schedule.

During my last semester, every Tuesday and Thursday, I had class from 12:30 p.m. until 4:00 p.m. I would wake at about 7 a.m. I would eat a quick, light breakfast and head to the campus library. There, I would drink my daily Americano from Starbucks (which I can say, by the way, is one of my rare addiction indulgences) and spend about an hour browsing the websites that I consider daily reading requirements. This was time spent totally free from concerns of studying or Special Forces requirements. Before leaving the library, I would make sure to do something school related. This usually meant working on a reading assignment, which I would typically spend about a half an hour doing.

I would then head immediately to the gym. My work out lasts from 9:45 a.m. until 11:00 a.m. I would then shower at the gym and eat on campus. It would then be 12:30 p.m., or close to it, and time for my class.

Following my class, I would come home and usually spend about an hour checking those same websites of interest again. Like my morning library routine, I would then dedicate about a half an hour or so to school work.

At about 6:00 p.m., I would go for a run. Now, you really have to understand that I enjoy running. It’s an addiction that I am quite proud of. That being the case, I can claim in all honesty that my daily runs would last from an hour to over two hours. And on Tuesdays and Thursdays, it was usually the latter.

After finishing my run, it was about time to clean up and go to bed. Before going to bed, I would tend to hang out with my roommates for a while, eat something light, and complete a little more homework. And, if needed, this is when I would do the bulk of my additional school work. Even if I only dedicated another half an hour to studying here, however, one can see that my schedule affords me a total of an hour and a half of studying daily without the studying ever seeming burdensome at any one time.

Also, I am a master of hip-pocket studying. That is to say that I always have a book on me and have learned the value of picking up a few pages here and there; for example, I ride the campus bus often and always complete some studying there.

How is this schedule different than what you followed before you began to seriously consider joining the Special Forces?

After joining the Special Forces training program, my daily routine at the university changed in two ways: First, my daily schedule wasn’t so regimented. While I did many of the same things as I do now, I didn’t necessarily plan to do them as well as I do now. Second, prior to joining the SF training program, each day I would either work out in the gym or run. Now I work out in the gym AND run daily.

Why has being ultra-disciplined not made your life less fun?

I definitely had more free time during my freshman year. Yet, I found that I haven’t had less fun on a more restricted schedule. What I have learned, however, is that fun has to be scheduled and a bit less spontaneous than it was that first year.

For example, I do not adhere to my regiment on weekends. I may go to the gym or run on any given Saturday or Sunday because I enjoy doing so. However, I have in no way made this a requirement for myself. I workout hard all week knowing that I going to have the weekends to do whatever it is that I choose. And this mindset has been beneficial in many ways.

Financially, saving my recreational activities for the weekend has been a boon. Like many college students, I like to drink and party. However, by establishing minor priorities, I have found it nearly never necessary to drink or party on a week day or night. Buying beer two nights a week (and usually less lately) is obviously cheaper than buying beer five or six nights a week.

Also, my physically demanding regiment has caused me to develop a much more physically in-shape body. While I can hardly claim to be a ladies man, being in shape does wonders in ways that people not in good physical shape rarely recognize. For example, each day that I work out especially hard, I tend to tackle everything else I do that day equally as hard. When I see tangible, positive physical changes in myself, my confidence is boosted. Doing anything — from taking a test to hanging with friends — is much more enjoyable with a high level of self esteem.

In addition to your personal training you’ve also joined a unit that’s dedicated to training soldiers to enter the Special Forces program. Give me a sense of what this is like.

This last weekend, for example, was dedicated to land navigation. We arrived to our drill location on Friday night for mandatory briefings. These lasted until midnight. We met next on Saturday morning around 6:30 a.m. for a Physical Fitness test that measured our maximum push-ups and sit-ups (both completed in separate two minute increments) and our time running two miles. Immediately after the test, we changed into uniform and packed our rucksacks for the day land navigation course.

The required weight for our rucks was 55 pounds. This was measured before we added food to last throughout the day and night and six quarts of water. My rucksack’s total weight after adding our needed items was 78 pounds. The day land navigation course lasted from 11:00 a.m. until 7:00 p.m.

This means that in temperatures that reached in excess of 100 degrees throughout the day, we were constantly searching through national forest terrain for points. The entire time we had rucks on our back, equipment vests on our chests, and a simulated rubber rifle in our hands. Our main navigational tools were simply maps, a compass, and a protractor.

The culmination of the day land navigation course only provided minor rest. A mere two hours later, we began the night course. This event ended at 4:00 a.m. With the same equipment on, and with no additional equipment to aid our night vision (besides a headlamp that was only useful when looking at the map), we had to traverse through the same hazardous terrain. One of members of the cadre sitting on a point that we had to locate encountered a bobcat. A peer candidate turned on his headlamp while crossing a stream only to have his light reflect off the two eyes of an alligator.

The total distance between points in the two courses exceeded 15 miles. This distance fails to reflect how far each of us candidates walked when sporadically lost or in our attempts to avoid particularly hazardous terrain.

While all the Special Forces cadre and candidates returned from the weekend safe but exhausted, I still wanted to share my adventures with you. What I did this past weekend was only a day and a half’s worth in a training effort that ultimately takes nearly two full years to complete. And only after Special Forces qualification and assignment to an Operational Detachment Alpha does the real training begin.

Most of my cadre and nearly all of my peer candidates are college graduates or on-going students. I just want to do my part to reassure the educated types that would frequent a site such as yours that in the Special Forces we maintain the company of highly trained, well-educated individuals.

I think I speak for all of use here at Study Hacks when I say your experiences make the standard student dramas of an all-nighter or busy exam period seem like a little girl’s tea party. Thanks again Steve!

5 thoughts on “College Commando: How a Special Forces Candidate Tackles Undergraduate Life

  1. Linh says:

    Hello Cal,

    I read the whole interview closely but didn’t find what I was most interested in: how Steve managed to work only an hour and a half a day and still absorbs enough to do well in his classes (incidentally, how did his college career work out?) I’ve observed that a serious reading will take at the very least two minutes a page, and the typical college class assigns about fifty pages for each meeting. That simply can’t be done in half an hour including note-taking, even if you’re very focused. Even casual fiction takes about 1 min/page. Sure, there’s the hip-pocket strategy, but that probably adds maybe another half-hour of work. Still doesn’t cut it. Also, you can’t very well toss the average 5-lb-and-above textbook in your pocket (but then, of course, he carries 80 lbs on his back regularly).

  2. Pram says:

    Hi Cal,

    I agree with what Linh says…how does he pack in all his readings and studying in such a short period of time…I just finished reading like 40-smthng pages of macroeconomics and it took me an hour or so and i still haf to condense the ideas into notes..it’d be cool if Steve could elaborate on how he does his readings..(of cse we’re all assuming his reading workload are sizable too).

  3. andres jimenez says:

    This is fun to read, but not possible in technical courses… actually, is it possible for any other kind of course?

    Anyone in science attempting to study in this schedule or “regime” is doomed to fail.

    Maybe the “special forces” scholar level is quite low. Im checking the date and is not april’s fool day!

  4. Steve B. says:

    Foremost, I would like to thank Cal for featuring my story and for providing an informative site for all of us traveling our paths through academia.

    I am Steve, the subject of this interview. I just wanted to respond briefly to the previous comments.

    In regards to the relatively short amount of time dedicated to studying and reading, it should be noted that this interview was conducted during a summer semester which required a very light course load. I am now currently enrolled in the first semester of my senior year and obligations (my senior thesis, beginners’ Hebrew, two capstone seminars, and a political science elective) have added heavily to my schedule. I find myself in the library much more often than past semesters. And, as a side note, I would recommend finding “your own place” to study. For me, that place is the library. While I could find the same peace in my own apartment, I have found that I better concentrate when I study in a location that I use SOLEY for studying.

    In any case, I have still found it valuable to dedicate my mornings to physical activity. I wake up early, complete my gym routine, go to class, and dedicate most of the remainder of the day to study. More than anything, in my interview, I really hoped to condone a good balance. It has helped me tremendously in maintaining a successful collegiate experience.

    I appreciate this vibrant educational dialogue. I hope to promote the same at my own blog, linked in the original article, which I intend to be much more faithful in updating.

    Thank you!

  5. Study Hacks says:

    Foremost, I would like to thank Cal for featuring my story and for providing an informative site for all of us traveling our paths through academia.

    Thanks for sharing your experiences with us. I encourage everyone to check out Steve’s most recent blog post which describes how his schedule and thinking has changed with the start of the heavier fall semester:

    http://educatedsoldier.blogspot.com/2008/09/my-world.html

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