At first, Sara’s story sounds like the stories of many of the other admitted students visiting MIT this weekend. She was born in California, was very active in extracurriculars growing up, and felt like she had won the lottery when she was accepted to MIT.
However, when it comes to everything between California and MIT, Sara’s story couldn’t be more different.
Her actual name is not Sara. She has been responsible for the lives of dozens of people before. She herself has run for her life. That’s because Sara was a commander of a technological unit in the Israeli military for nearly four years.
Although she couldn’t reveal her true identity because of the security surrounding the unit she recently discharged from, Sara agreed to speak with The Tech. The following is Sara’s story, put together from an interview that was edited for brevity and clarity.
I was born in California and I moved to Israel when I was about three years old. One of my parents is Israeli.
I grew up in Israel and I still have a lot of family in California, so my summers I spent in California. That’s why my English is kind of good.
I grew up in a suburb north of Tel Aviv. I had a lot of extracurriculars. Sunday and Wednesday, I had ballet. Monday and Thursday, I had tennis. Tuesday and Friday, I had scouts. I had one day off, which was Saturday.
I wanted to do everything. I’ve always had a lot of interests. I think my dad is also like that.
Growing up in Israel had a huge impact on my shaping and my personality. I think in Israel, because you go to the army straight out of high school, you mature faster and you also gain independence younger. Here, at least where I’m from in California, I know that you can’t really hang out with friends, even in the mall, until late junior high, because it’s dangerous. It’s a 300 million-person country.
In Israel, it sounds dangerous on the news, but it’s actually one of the safest countries in the world, and it’s only seven million people.
In Israel, alcohol and stuff starts at 18, because they figure, if you can go to the army and get killed at 18, then it makes sense that you’ll be able to drink.
In Israel, you know you’re going to go to the army once you finish high school. Everyone starts a selection process: the first summon. Specifically, the selection process for me was over a year long. One day we had seven tests, and each one was an hour — like worse than the SAT.
I was selected to the elite technological unit.
Then you do three weeks of basic training. I went to four months of an intense course, and basically you’re introduced to the unit. It’s an intense environment: 5:30 a.m. to 11 p.m.
I feel like it’s the equivalent of college since it’s an intense environment and it pushes you, and the friends that you make there, you just go through different situations that you wouldn’t go through in a regular environment: high stress, pressure, competitiveness.
Another thing is that in the course, you also have a lot of the traditional military assignments. You guard, so you’re with a gun and the vest. And we have to get up at 3 a.m. for a shift of guarding. We draw straws to decide who gets the middle of the night shift.
It’s not easy for everyone to do the transition. My best friend in the course, she was a girl that took it really, really hard. She was crying, I think, 85 percent of the time. I took it personally that I wasn’t able to help her and make the experience better for her, because I really think that everything is attitude. In the army, if you get caught up in the little things, you’re going to get very frustrated very quickly.
Afterwards, in the unit, it’s completely different. In your actual service, they encourage you to innovate and it’s an “impossible to possible” spirit. We have a phrase in Hebrew: you can be a big head or a small head. Small head means to do what you’re assigned to do, and big head is to go beyond.
As an officer, I had many challenges. I managed several teams of soldiers, so you learn a lot from that experience. I was dealing with a lot of big data.
There was once a problem we had where we didn’t have the tools to analyze some data correctly. One night, my commander asked us for something, and I was like, I can’t answer this because I don’t have the tools. This problem had been going on for months.
I wrote my commander an email at 5 a.m. saying that we needed a better long-term solution that involved developing software. That will give us the tools to analyze and process this data properly.
He told me, “I think I really agree with you. That’s a great idea. Good luck. This software is your new project.”
Which was the best thing that ever happened to me in the military, because that’s how I was introduced to the tech and software development side of it. I was now leading a team of software developers.
That’s when I was really happy that I took the highest computer science course that was available in high school. I knew a little bit of computer science — even though it was the highest offered, it’s probably covered here at MIT in two days — it allowed me to understand what is possible and what is not, and how to prioritize the programmers’ tasks.
That’s when I realized I’m hungry for more technology. That’s why I ended up applying to MIT as well. I’m an artist at heart, so I discovered this interest and excitement towards computer science in the army.
During all this, I was in a base close to the Gaza Strip. At the end of my service, it was some heated times over there. For a month, we lived in bomb shelters. There were sirens every hour.
As an officer, you’re like a mom. I needed to worry about my soldiers. After each siren, you have to make sure everyone is fine and that everyone made it. Most of our casualties were actually running to the bomb shelter, because you only have half a minute.
Statistically, you’re going to most likely die in a car accident rather than get hit by a rocket, but you still run for it, and when you have hundreds of people running for it, it can get dangerous. That month, you could be running every hour or two.
That’s why we slept in bomb shelters, because some people don’t wake up from the sirens. I shared my room with seven other girls, so four bunk beds in one room. That can also get dangerous: eight girls running from it, with a little table in the middle of the room. So if you’re in a bomb shelter, you just don’t go anywhere.
Everyone was going in and out of the base for funerals all the time. It was a tough time.
I feel like I won the lottery getting into MIT. I think it’s also a lot of luck. I don’t believe in pure success.
I don’t know if I’m going to choose to go to MIT or not. I do think MIT is a super special place — forget the obvious world-class academics, professors, and best technological institute in the world — everyone here is so nice, down-to-earth, and real.
Being an Israeli, the mentality is very straightforward and direct, and I think I really appreciate that.