Gap Year Student Artur Fass Served in Estonian Army

ARTURWhile many students at Colby choose to spend a semester off, or their full junior year abroad, some students take a gap year. Artur Fass ’16, a history major and education minor, took a gap year in between his second and third years at Colby to serve in the Estonian Army.

“I came to Colby in Fall of 2011. And then after my sophomore year, I took a gap year and [started my mandatory military service] and came back for junior year. So last year, I watched my original class graduate in May 2015 and now I’m becoming part of the class of 2016 which has been an interesting process,” Fass said.

Estonia is a small northeastern European country with a population of approximately 1.3 million people. Estonia is one of the few countries in Europe in which military service is still mandatory for men, while women can volunteer if they choose. Citizens must serve at some point between ages 18 and 28 for either eight or 11 months. Fass served for 11 months because of his plan to receive a degree from a higher educational institution. “If you’re doing higher education, you do 11 months because you have to become a non-commission officer,” Fass explained.

In addition to the basic training all soldiers complete, non-commissioned officers undergo more intensive training: “So you do the basic training, and then you go to the non-commissioned officer training, which means that [you’re] a soldier, but you can also have more power over people. And then you have to specialize in something, so I specialized in military medicine,” Fass said.

Although Fass hadn’t previously had an interest in medicine, the military opened his eyes to the field. He explained, “I was a paramedic in the military which was fascinating because I had never had any interest in medicine…and then I thought, ‘Okay I’ll just try this.’ And then there I was studying intense field medicine with real doctors who went to Afghanistan. I also had to do an ambulance practicum… and during those practicums I saw pretty much everything, [even] people dying….It was a whole new universe of medicine for me. It was pretty incredible.”

Fass continued, “[Medicine] is definitely one of my interests now….After my military service, I was supposed to come back for my junior year at Colby, and I applied to medical school [in Estonia] also and got in, and there was a moment of crisis in July 2014 when I was sitting in my room and thinking, ‘Should I come back to Colby? Should I apply for a U.S. visa? Or should I accept the offer to go to the medical school and stay here?’ And, well, I’m here right now, but we’ll see what happens next year.”

Although coming back from abroad is a transition for the majority of students, Fass noted that his transition was different than others’ due to the nature of his military experience. “[Coming back to Colby has been] very interesting. It was a transition. [They’re] two different universes; absolutely different environments. But it definitely puts things in perspective. Being in the army puts things in perspective in a way that you appreciate things that you take for granted here, like a roof over your head or being able to go to the dining hall or choose between the three dining halls.”

Fass reflected on one specific memory in which both the Colby and military atmospheres came together: “I remember once, when I was in the military marching and doing drills, I would occasionally think, ‘At Colby right now, I’d be doing that’….I remember…we [had to] spend up to two weeks in the forest, and we [were] pretty miserable. And at night, [we had] to do patrols. So we’d be up taking care of the fire and the tent, and I remember one morning at 3 or 4 a.m., it was my duty to be up, and I decided to check Facebook… and the very first post that I saw was someone ranting about the Colby libraries. How they were really upset about the Colby library and how they were emotional. And this made me feel so angry.”

Being back at the College has helped Fass put everything in perspective: “But, being back in this Colby mindset, I understand where people [are coming] from. But, at that moment when I was in the military, I felt so incredibly angry at how people don’t appreciate what we have here, because we have it here really good….But, being in the mindset of a very different and rather brutal environment affects the way you see this world.”

Fass also reflected on the fact that problems at the College may seem big to the small community, but it is at times necessary to look past the bubble. “People here can be stressed about things that aren’t really big problems, or they’re passionate about things that I’m like, ‘This is important, but there are also people in war zones right now.’ Here, you occasionally have a discussion with your friends in your dorm room or the classroom about war conflicts somewhere, but it feels so distant from us,” Fass said.

Being in the military allowed Fass to reconnect with his country after a few years of living in the U.S. “When I went to the military, I had already spent four years in the U.S. I left home when I was 16 to go study in New Mexico and then I came…to Colby. And for me, I began to feel that I was losing connection to my homeland, and [then] there I was in that environment with people from all around the country.”

“It’s a small country, but I felt connected to every single community back home [because of] the people I met there. So it was definitely very important for me, especially being in my early twenties.”

Because Estonia is one of the only European countries that still requires military service, Fass found an interesting connection between Estonia’s military relationship with NATO and the European Union.

“As I was growing up in Estonia, it was becoming part of NATO and the European Union. We were the new generation. And there was all this talk about [because of] the European Union, there would never be war in Europe…. and then there I was serving in the military as the crisis in Crimea unfolded… as we realized that war was possible in Europe and that was the moment when I was the guy with the gun. So that just changed my entire world view.”

Fass ended the interview by reflecting on his experience in the Estonia military as a whole. He said, “It made me appreciate Colby a lot. It made me appreciate what we have even more.”