Meet the Johnnies: Ali Kiziltug (A22)
September 24, 2018 | By Kimberly Uslin
“I try not to define myself as a veteran, because everyone has their own path here,” says Ali Kiziltug (A22).“But especially in the Iliad and Odyssey, those themes strike pretty close to home. In the Iliad, I was really caught up in the idea of rank versus merit—and with the Odyssey, and Odysseus wandering the seas for years?”
He laughs. “That’s almost too on the nose.”
Kiziltug, a 26-year-old freshman, is about a month into the Program and only six months out of the Navy, where he was enlisted for six years. Though it’s been more than a decade since he first heard of St. John’s, he says attending has been the goal since he received a Great Books brochure from his mother—whom he also credits with instilling his love of reading—in 2008.
“I just absolutely fell in love with the idea of the Program and the style of the curriculum here,” he recalls.
At the time, however, his grades and financial situation kept him from applying. He spent two years working industrial and food service jobs before deciding it was time for a change.
“I realized I needed a path forward, and the military was that for me,” he says. “The Navy’s nuclear program was looking for kids that were smart and qualified but maybe goofed around a little bit in high school. That was definitely me to a T, so I gave it a shot and got in.”
He shipped off to boot camp in April 2012 and spent the ensuing years moving from the Great Lakes to Charleston to Japan to an extensive, two-deployment tour in the West Pacific, followed by a tour down the coast of South America to Peru, Chile, the Straits of Magellan, and Rio. He ended his tour in dry dock in Norfolk, Virginia—and though he “absolutely loved traveling and seeing new places,” St. John’s remained on his mind.
“I won’t say that St. John’s is the reason I went into the military, but it definitely was a factor,” he says. “I’d always had the idea of going to St. John’s while I pursued other paths. I got a taste of life in the fleet out to sea and in port, and I had a good time, but I realized it wasn’t for me. So I focused on finishing out my tour, getting out, being a civilian, and going to college.”
Now that he’s finally made it to campus, he says, it’s more than living up to his expectations.
“Don’t get me wrong. It’s not like skipping through daisies with bunnies and sunshine,” he laughs. “But even when the classes are tough or the coursework is challenging, I just look around [and think] ‘I’m so lucky to be here.’ I know where else I could be. I’ll take this over [being] seven decks down under the waterline in a 110-degree engine room, sweat pouring down [my] face, trying to turn valves with the steam shooting and burning [my] hands. It’s just an absolute blast.”
Still, however, Kiziltug says learning to navigate civilian life and the Program simultaneously has its challenges.
“Before class started, I was a little afraid of how I would relate to [my classmates] and how they would see me,” he says. “I was afraid of how long it’s been, [thinking] ‘Will I still be able to enjoy these mental pursuits that I used to love before I enlisted, or have I lost the taste for it?’”
“Thankfully, those were all baseless. Yes, there’s some experiential difference, but we all have this passion, we’re all here for more or less the same reason, and that unites us more than anything else. I think everyone’s experience is valuable, and I’m not ashamed of what I bring to the table.”
While he’s not eschewing his veteran identity, he says, he is interested in discovering who he is outside of the service—somewhere between “somebody who wraps himself in the flag,” “the bitter old guy in the corner,” and the long-latent selves returning to the surface: a recreational sailor, a swing dancer, a reader, and a deep thinker.
“There are a million things I’m looking forward to,” he says. “I’m here for the Great Books, especially Nietzsche and Kant, who I have no experience with or understanding of. I can’t wait to get a more sophisticated, well-rounded understanding of philosophy. I love swing dancing, so that’s a big reason I’m here as well. When I was stationed down in Charleston, I would come up [to Annapolis] a couple of times a year to go swing dancing. I’ve been to the Annapolis Cup twice. It’s been about four or five years since I’ve done serious sailing, so I’m looking forward to brushing up on that. And I’m just excited to be able to live the life of the mind.”
“I worry a lot about how I come off,” he adds. “I don’t want to be a cliché or a pastiche. For so long in the Navy, I defined myself as somebody who was going to St. John’s, as someone who was going on to bigger and better things. And now I’m here. I have to adapt, I have to assimilate. This place is worlds apart, and I love it, but it does make me realize how much I had acclimated to that other lifestyle.”
Difficult though it may be, Kiziltug is more than up for the challenge.
“In the Navy, when I would pass a buddy, he’d be like ‘Hey, what’s up man?’ and I’d say ‘Living the dream,’” he remembers. “But just last week, I was walking to school and passed some dude on the street and I was like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ As I got to campus, I remembered those interactions, and there was just this uncontrollable smile on my face because I am living the dream now. I can say it without irony, without snark and sarcasm. This is the dream. I’m living it.”