Warrior and Scholar

Two-week boot camp to help veterans make the transition to college is spreading at selective institutions.

February 4, 2015
Participants in a Warrior-Scholar Project boot camp

Military veterans have more life experience and maturity than the average traditional-aged college student. But some say they could benefit from extra guidance as they make the transition to a residential college environment often designed for 18-year-olds.

Several start-ups are stepping in to help the large numbers of veterans attempt to adjust to campus life. One, a nonprofit dubbed the Warrior-Scholar Project, is an academic boot camp aimed at veterans who plan on attending or transferring to a 4-year college. A group of about 10 foundations and private donors pays for the project.

The up to two-week program is immersive and demanding, say both its organizers and participants. A veteran runs the sessions, which are taught by university professors and graduate students. The curriculum is designed to help participants prepare to tackle the reading lists of rigorous college courses.

The Warrior-Scholar Project is also about the social side of college, said David Howell, the group’s director of studies. He said the goal is to give veterans confidence that they have the “tools and skills” to succeed as students.

“The transition from the military to college is quite difficult,” Howell said. “There’s a distinct cultural difference.”

It can be hard for civilians (this one, at least) to understand why a worldly-wise 30-something military veteran would need a confidence boost before shipping off for a liberal arts college. But that’s exactly what Michael L. Smith, 35, said he needed.

Smith previously served as a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps and also in the U.S. Army Reserve. While he had taken courses at Bunker Hill Community College, he graduated high school in 1998 and said he felt the distance from his life as a student.

Wick Sloane, a writing instructor at Bunker Hill and a columnist for Inside Higher Ed, where he frequently writes about veterans' issues, told Smith about the Warrior-Scholar Project. The boot camp is free to participants, with the group even paying for participants’ housing.

Although it sounded “too good to be true,” Smith decided to give the sessions a try, in part because he was intimidated by the reading demands of college.

Smith filled out the application, which asks about prospective students’ military experience, academic background and plans for college, and includes a series of short essay questions. He was accepted and traveled to Yale University in 2013 to participate. After completing the program, Smith enrolled at Wesleyan University last fall.

The project began at Yale in 2012, Howell said, with 9 participants. Since then the boot camps have spread, first to Harvard University and then to the University of Michigan. This year more than 150 students will attend sessions at 11 institutions, including both public and private universities (see list).

'Not an Island'

Most selective colleges have failed to attract, or accept, a significant number of veterans. A web comparison tool the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs released last February for the first time gave a public glimpse of how many Post-9/11 G.I. Bill recipients attend individual colleges, as well as providing other information about institutions to veterans and their families.

Locations of 2015 Boot Camps

Vassar College

Yale University

Harvard University

University of Michigan

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

Syracuse University

Cornell University

Georgetown University

University of Oklahoma

University of Chicago

University of Southern California

Only nine G.I. Bill recipients attend Wesleyan, according to the Web site. That tops the four who attend Williams College. And only 21 recipients attend the much larger Princeton University. However, interest in the Warrior-Scholar Project suggests that some selective institutions are working to welcome more veterans, and to help them succeed.

Stephen P. Rosen has watched the project grow. Rosen, a professor of national and military affairs at Harvard (which has 249 students who are G.I. Bill recipients), said he is impressed with its organizers’ approach to teaching. He said many other undergraduates, not just the veteran participants, could benefit from its lessons on college reading.

“I didn’t expect that they would be such excellent educators,” Rosen said. “They were more than compassionate. They were expert.”

The syllabus includes both classic and modern scholarly works. Participants are encouraged to frame their ideas in academic context. They are also taught about how to translate their military skills and experiences to college.

Smith said the program sets high expectations, keeping participants working until midnight most days. They learn how to balance an academic schedule, which is far less rigid than what most veterans experienced in the military. The boot camp helped Smith shorten his learning curve for getting back into an academic life, showing him he “could work at a high level with a proper level of support.”

The group dynamic was also important. Smith said he has kept in touch with several other student veterans he met through the project, including a few who enrolled at Wesleyan, as well as students at Yale (30 G.I. Bill recipients), Dartmouth College (48) and other institutions.

“We talked about reaching out to other veterans, and not being afraid of seeking counseling,” he said. “You’re not an island.”


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