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International Exchange Cadets Inspire Camaraderie

Five cadets pose on parade ground with hands behind back.

Mateusz Wos from Poland, Jaehyun Lee from South Korea, Rokas Sarkus from Lithuania, Hyemin Koo from South Korea, and Wiktor Koteras from Poland, military exchange cadets, pose on the Parade Ground in early May.—VMI Photo by Eric Moore.

It is said that the way to international peace starts with friendship between peoples, countries, cultures, and individuals. After visiting with the six international exchange students and witnessing their rapport, friendship, fondness, and good-natured ribbing, one might conclude that world peace can be achieved.

Military exchange students come to VMI from military academies abroad and visit for one semester as part of a formal exchange agreement. They participate in the academic program, live in barracks, and may participate in athletics and other extracurricular activities. Following the completion of their program at VMI, cadets return to the academy in their home nation. This semester, six exchange students participated in the program: two from South Korea, two from Lithuania, and two from Poland.

Patricia Hardin, assistant director of international programs, said the main reason for the international exchange program is to expose VMI cadets to other cultures before graduation. “Even though we encourage our cadets to travel abroad during their time at VMI, not all of them are able. By having foreign cadets study at VMI, our cadets gain an understanding of other nations and their customs, and of course, the exchange students get exposed to our culture and our military college,” said Hardin.

Hyemin Koo is a cadet from Korea Military Academy in Seoul, South Korea. Koo had always wanted to experience other cultures, so when she heard about the exchange program, she applied without hesitation. She chose VMI because she wanted to experience an American military college. Koo stated that there are more similarities than differences between VMI and KMA.

“The VMI curriculum seems to have more diversity and flexibility in managing time and classes,” stated Koo. “One large difference is that the commissioning and noncommissioning cadets take classes together. KMA has only army cadets,” stated Koo. She plans on keeping in touch with the friends she has made at VMI, a few of whom plan to visit her in South Korea.

Jaehyun Lee, also from KMA, was impressed that VMI encourages both academics and physical training, in contrast to KMA, which focuses more on academics. A memory Lee will always cherish is his time with his “battle buddies” while completing the Norwegian Foot March, a physical challenge in which participants rucked 18 miles within four and a half hours with at least 25 pounds in their ruck. “There is an adage, ‘Patience is bitter, but its fruit is sweet.’ The foot march was painful but worth it. We didn’t give up. I’m proud of myself that I made it, and I am grateful to my battle buddies,” said Lee. Other fond memories are spending time with friends in Lexington, eating in restaurants, and enjoying karaoke nights, which he confessed with a laugh, “I did sing one or two songs.” Due to the Korean schedule, both Koo and Lee have additional summer training when they return home, followed by another academic year. They will graduate in March 2023, and both plan a career in the military.

Wiktor Koteras and Mateusz Wos are from the Military University of Land Forces in Wroclaw, Poland. Koteras saw an announcement regarding the VMI exchange program on his university’s website and decided to apply. After passing the language test and two interviews, he was accepted. Koteras stated that subjects and classes are different at VMI than in Poland. “I chose to study history and international studies. Learning here is much more focused on your own work, and assignments are interesting and encourage creativity,” stated Koteras. He said he will always remember the Rat Line. “It was unusual. I have never seen anything like it. I watched Breakout just moments after I arrived here, so I will remember that for a long time.”

Koteras was also impressed with a pistol course in which he participated. “I learned how to use different pistols, safety rules, weapon maintenance, and different types of ammunition. I spent a lot of time on the shooting range,” he explained. Koteras also enjoyed eating at Crozet Hall. “The food is great, so much to choose from. It’s like a five-star restaurant,” he mused. One food item he wasn’t pleased with was a pierogi, a traditional Polish dumpling. “My friends brought it to me in barracks to see my expression, but I wasn’t impressed, not as good as home.” After returning to Poland, Koteras will undergo military training, a month’s vacation, an internship as a commander of a military unit, then another academic year.

Wos, unlike Koteras, had never planned to study in another country. “My sister, after seeing the announcement on the university website, encouraged me to apply. After thinking about it briefly, I decided it was a great idea to meet cadets from another country,” said Wos. He also was impressed with tradition at VMI. “The strong presence of tradition is visible every day, not just on a holiday. Another thing that made a huge impression on me were the reunions of graduates who can meet their companions from their studies and see the barracks in which they lived. It must be a great feeling to meet like this after years,” Wos stated. He was also grateful for the warm welcome he experienced at VMI. “When I meet American soldiers in Poland, I will also treat them with the hospitality that I have experienced here,” Wos said. After returning to Poland, Wos will have military training, and in September, he will be a commander of basic training for the new class of cadets. While at VMI, he created a new basic training manual and exchanged knowledge and training approaches with VMI cadets. “My goal is to one day become a lecturer at my university. Training and educating future commanders would be rewarding to me,” he stated.

Rokas Sarkus is from General Jonas Zemaitis Military Academy of Lithuania in Vilnius, Lithuania. He learned about VMI from other Lithuanian cadets who were exchange students in 2015. They convinced him that it would be a great place to visit and study. “Last year, I lived with a VMI cadet in Lithuania. We really enjoyed our time together, and he talked a lot about the Institute,” said Sarkus. He stated that even though VMI offers a lot of very interesting classes, the most important part of the exchange program is the people and the new friendships he has formed. “I will never forget the great times spent in town with my friends. Who knows, maybe we will meet again. Even though Lexington is a small town, it is a very beautiful and interesting place.” Upon returning to Lithuania, Sarkus will work on field training exercises. He plans on sharing his VMI experiences with his fellow cadets there.

Before flying back to their home countries after commencement, the six cadets plan to enjoy their time with friends and explore the natural resources of Virginia.

  • Marianne Hause VMI Communications & Marketing