Specialist Jim Olwell ’17 reflects on being a veteran and a student at Santa Clara University.
For many high school seniors, the next step after graduation is automatic and unwavering: college. Jim Olwell ’17 had other ideas. He wanted to serve his country. Olwell joined the Army after high school and through it saw a world he never imagined. From his home town of Monterey, California, he traveled to Louisiana, Georgia, and eventually South Korea, working in information technology for the military.
When he returned to the States, he jumped back into the life of an 18-year-old—only he was 25. Traveling to Silicon Valley and Santa Clara University, Olwell brought years of computer skills into the classroom as a veteran. And Olwell adjusted quickly, making friends and earning his B.S. in computer science and engineering in three years. Now he is a network engineer at Cisco in Raleigh, North Carolina. For Veterans Day, we asked him to reflect on life as a veteran and college student.
SCM: What was it like to commemorate Veterans Day at Santa Clara University?
Jim Olwell: In 2014, I was at the ceremony when they dedicated the Veterans Plaza in front of the parking deck near the Schott Admission and Enrollment Services Building. I was invited to that. I wasn’t dressed up or anything, but I showed up and watched the senior Santa Clara University administration folks give speeches. The color guard also presented the flag. It was a very emotional experience for me, because that was my first Veterans Day since I’d left the service. Standing there, I had a lot of thoughts just flooding back into me about old squad and team members. I had known several people who did not come back. Hearing the dedication, hearing the anthem, it was kind of hard. It felt good to see—not necessarily recognition of what I did, but a recognition of other veterans on campus. Just taking time out to say, here’s something for you guys.
SCM: Was it a major adjustment coming to college as a veteran?
Olwell: There was definitely a transition. I had to reconcile the fact that here I was 25 when I started, in a classroom with 18- and 19-year-olds who were fresh out of high school. But I was very fortunate that there were resources on campus. I talked to a veterans group. I met veterans who were faculty and who offered mentoring. I connected with people who were going back to school after serving. I was able to have those resources and support network. Ray Plaza, who directs the Office for Diversity and Inclusion, was also very helpful. He offered additional resources and helped me get benefits with my GI Bill. It never felt like I didn’t belong or that these students were so radically different that I couldn’t connect. I had to get past some of my own preconceptions just because of who I was as an older person and who they were as young kids. Some of the people I knew in classes are off doing great things right now at Google, Microsoft, Apple, and a bunch of highly competitive tech companies. They were able to put in the hours and effort to get the job done.
SCM: Did students ever ask you about your service?
Olwell: I didn’t go out of my way to advertise it, because I felt like that’s not the right way—to just go around and brag about it. But occasionally when it came up, they’d ask a little bit about it and I’d tell them the short story about what I did and they were genuinely interested. So, I used it as a teaching moment to help them see where I was coming from. I was able to better understand their stories and their background. I also made some friends in the ROTC program and they had some more specific questions about what it was like in the service, because they were about to be in there. I was able to connect with them a little bit more because we had a little more shared commonality.
“I had a lot of thoughts just flooding back into me about old squad and team members. I had known several people who did not come back. Hearing the dedication, hearing the anthem, it was kind of hard.”
SCM: Is there one class that was especially challenging?
Olwell: One was a computer engineering class: Intro to Formal Language Theory & Compiler Construction. That sticks out to me because that was the toughest class I’d ever taken in college. That was a lot of just gut checks, like, I’ve got a bunch of stuff on my plate so I’ve got to be able to just do this. But at the same time, everyone else was having a hard time. So being able to get together with other students and working this out and working through it, getting the job done.
SCM: Talk about your experience in South Korea.
Olwell: I was pretty much in the capital, Seoul. It was a very different, vibrant culture and lifestyle. A totally different experience than I was used to. The only thing I can compare it to is the Bay Area. But even then, it was a completely different level. I really enjoyed my time there. I served with some extremely talented and good people. I was also fortunate enough to have some time to explore a couple different cities.
SCM: As part of the U.S. Army in Korea, you served right alongside members of the Korean Army through the Korean Augmentation to the United States Army (KATUSA) program. How was that?
JO: Honestly, they were very helpful. They were very friendly. Very intelligent as well. Especially with IT, they have some of the biggest corporations there, like Samsung. The way the KATUSA works, they’re regular soldiers but they also fall under both our command as well as the overall Korean military command. So, they have kind of like a dual role. But it’s integrated pretty seamlessly, so we all have the same jobs, the same mission, the same team. The KATUSA is a very competitive program. You can tell some of these guys are the best and brightest they had to offer. Also, through working with them, you see there’s not so much difference between us. We can share ideas and learn from each other.
SCM: What was your favorite memory from Seoul?
Olwell: If you look up different skylines of Seoul, one prominent thing you’ll see is their observation tower, which is this giant tower up on top of a hill. I had the chance to go in it a couple of times with some of my squad mates and some of my unit—not only hike up the hill to get there but also go up the elevator to the very top of the tower. You get to see the entire surrounding skyline vista—it just expanded for miles around. It’s overwhelming. You have the Han River that goes down the middle and all the bridges and all the towering skyscrapers and buildings. But you also get to see the different buildings and parks from back in the kingdom times. It was an awe-inspiring juxtaposition between where they came from and where they are now.
SCM: What was the toughest part about being in South Korea?
Olwell: When I was in Korea, it was around a time that Kim Jong-un came to power in North Korea. So, it was a very tense period where we didn’t know what was going on. We didn’t know what he was capable of. There was a lot of tension. But the most challenging thing was staying in touch with friends and family back home. You feel homesick but you also feel glad to have the opportunity to be on the other side of the world, doing things you never thought you'd have the chance to do. I felt like I was part of something much bigger than myself, but at the same time I felt like I was contributing to make it a much better experience.
“You feel homesick but you also feel glad to have the opportunity to be on the other side of the world, doing things you never thought you'd have the chance to do. I felt like I was part of something much bigger than myself.”
SCM: A lot of people only think about combat when they think about a military career. For you it was more than that. Do you think there are misconceptions about the military?
Olwell: First off, you have to acknowledge the reality of people shooting each other and the battlefield. That is a very real possibility. At the same time, in the military you become so much more than how you started out. You get trained to be the very best you can be. You are given the resources to succeed. What you think you can do changes drastically once you start your service. You don’t even know what your limits are. There’s an overwhelming feeling of, “I cannot believe I was just in high school. I was just in my hometown. Now, I’m out here doing computer networks. I’m working with other militaries. Or I’m out here flying planes. Or I’m on a ship helping people with disaster relief.” There’s so much more to it than what most people think. I do feel like there’s definitely a gap with what people think they know and what the military is.
SCM: Do you think Veterans Day is a good opportunity to have those conversations?
Olwell: I think Veterans Day is a great opportunity for those kinds of conversations to happen. Most times people just view it was a day for sales at stores or different discounts or deals: “Buy now! Go get this car, now! It’s Veterans Day!” I do feel like those are great opportunities to talk, but it’s kind of like Mother’s Day. Having Mother’s Day is great but why do we only have one day when they work all year? Veterans Day is a great opportunity and it helps out. But these conversations can happen all year.