New student recruits in Hefei, Anhui province, chat at a ceremony in their honor. (Provided to China Daily)
A range of ambitions
Deng said Tsinghua students enlist for a variety of reasons: "Some have had a passion for military life since childhood; some want to experience a different life; and for some, it is an opportunity to develop a new career."
Chen Yu, who was discharged in September last year, said one of the reasons he joined the army was the example set by his great-grandfather, who was killed while fighting more than 50 years ago. His appetite was also whetted by TV series such as Soldiers' Sortie, a highly popular program shown in 2007.
"All these factors made me think that being a soldier is cool and joining up is an honor," said Chen, who has now returned to Tsinghua's department of engineering physics.
He insisted on joining the PLA Rocket Force because his university department had produced a number of famous experts on atomic and hydrogen bombs, and artificial satellites. He wanted to walk in their footsteps.
"Joining the Rocket Force made me feel close to them. I felt I was making a contribution, just as they did decades ago, although my contribution was minimal and different," he said.
However, the decision to enlist is not easily understood by some people.
The feeling was even stronger 10 years ago. Li Gaojie, one of the two Tsinghua students who enlisted in 2005, said his decision surprised many people.
"I was the only one in my hometown - a small, impoverished village in Henan province - to be admitted to a top university during recent decades. In many people's eyes, I should have followed an academic path and then landed a decent, professional job, like the majority of students did. They didn't understand why I suspended a well-designed academic and career path and took the road less traveled," the 30-year-old said.
"I had always been fond of military things and had wanted to experience life in the army since I was a little boy. I never expected to have the opportunity at college, but when it came, I seized it without hesitation."
During his two years in the People's Armed Police in North China, Li was comfortable with army life, and realized that the military, rather than civil engineering - his university major - was his real passion.
After returning to college, he continued to study military-related courses, and when he graduated in 2011, he caused a second surprise by declining several job offers and refusing to apply for graduate school. Instead, he re-enlisted.
Hard to leave
Li, now deputy commander of an infantry unit, said he found it difficult to leave the army and turn to a civilian occupation.
He believes he learned a lot in the army, including discipline and teamwork - things he seldom considered before joining up but which are now paramount in his life.
"If I had to leave one day, I think I would work in a sector or industry related to the military," he said. "The hallmark of a soldier will accompany me wherever I go, whatever I do."
Lyu, the military theory teacher, said Tsinghua students are intellectually elite, but they may also be fragile psychologically and sensitive to criticism.
"In that sense, joining the army would be a very good exercise and training for them to overcome their weaknesses," he said.
According to Deng, the students have always regarded the army as an environment - a campus outside Tsinghua - where they can thrive and hone their skills.
"We are happy to find that students have changed after demobilization. Many become stronger, both physically and mentally. They have also progressed in terms of getting along with other people and dealing with all kinds of unexpected situations."