Without Limits: 4 years of U.S. Air Force Academy life

Cadet 1st Class Kwo-Zong Wang will be a member of a U.S. Air Force Academy's Class of 2015. Wang is scheduled to graduate from the Academy May 28, 2015, with a bachelor's degree in Foreign Area Studies. (U.S. Air Force photo)

Cadet 1st Class Kwo-Zong Wang will be a member of a U.S. Air Force Academy's Class of 2015. Wang is scheduled to graduate from the Academy May 28, 2015, with a bachelor's degree in Foreign Area Studies. (U.S. Air Force photo)

U.S. Air Force Academy. Colo. -- During my sophomore year as an Air Force Academy cadet, I was on academic probation again. I was sitting in the McDermott Library here, studying for a physics exam I was sure to fail, when I heard the news. One of my best friends had passed away. The tears had barely dried from the funerals for a close friend and mentor I attended three months earlier. The shock was too much to take. As my pulse pounded and my veins froze, physics equations played in an endless loop in my head.

It's hard to explain what happens in the mind of a 19-year-old who experiences personal loss while failing in multiple aspects of life. But my story isn't unique. It is situations like these cadets at the Academy face and overcome. These situations define us.

The cadet experience at the Academy is life-altering. In addition to a heavy academic load, cadets are challenged by countless mandatory duties and training activities. Stress and strain are facts of life. While we pride ourselves on our firmness in the face of adversity, sometimes we forget our limits.

During my first two years as a cadet, I was overwhelmed. I was a mediocre basic cadet, an average four degree and a great friend, but an utterly deficient student. I failed classes and with each misstep came another inspection seeking the root of my inadequacy. My low GPA barred me from the Academy's perks. When the news of my friends' passing found me, my self-esteem had long evaporated and my gregarious attitude was gone. I allowed failures and events beyond my control to silence the outgoing young man who had once been the student government president of his high school.

If the first two years were my worst at the Academy, the next two were by far the best. Through the support of loyal friends and deep, personal introspection, I found the courage to remember who I was and what I believed. I survived the unending barrage of academic challenges and thrived in my major. The stains of past failures became distant memory as I enjoyed Judo, exploring beautiful Colorado with friends, and activities I had not been permitted due to academic probation. I embraced incredible leadership opportunities, met amazing people, travelled across the U.S. and enjoyed every second of every day. I want to relive the wonderful memories of Ring Dance, 100's Night and everything in between, because good times pass too quickly. As a sophomore, I counted down the days. As a senior, I didn't want them to end.

Adversity builds character, pain creates toughness and grief inspires empathy. Undoubtedly, the personal and professional challenges I encountered during those two years made me confident, optimistic and resilient. Undoubtedly, future challenges will force me to call on those experiences. My story is neither unique or the most trying. Countless cadets here are tested in more demanding ways, but those who persist and endure, those who remember the hard times even when they succeed, will learn the most about themselves.

For the past three years I have remembered the words of a 2012 graduate, "I finished undergrad today, graduation's coming up and I'm blessed to have a good job and all the opportunity the world has to offer ... no limits." For the first time in three years, his words make perfect sense to me. For the first time in three years, I look forward -- without limits.