For Veterans Starting College, 'Academic Boot Camps' Ease The Transition To The Classroom
On a recent day, about a dozen veterans and active-duty troops sat in a semi-circle inside a University of North Carolina classroom. They listened intently as Hilary Lithgow, an associate professor of English, helped them refine essays they had begun writing about the philosophical underpinnings of American democracy.
Right up front was Master Gunnery Sergeant Eric Gonzalez, tattooed and heavily-muscled, with a tour of duty in Iraq under his belt.
He’s been in the Marine Corps for 23 years. During a class break, Gonzalez said that when he retires from the Corps in a few years, he plans to enroll in a four-year college to become a physical therapist.
But he wanted to knock the rust off his classroom skills and build some new ones.
“The Marine Corps has given me the work ethic,” he said. “I just want to find different ways to use those tools that I've been given."
That’s why he signed up for the Warrior-Scholar Project's boot camp and made the 2 1/2 hour drive from Camp Lejeune.
And that distance wasn’t just measured in miles: The gulf between the distinctive cultures of the military and academia can be daunting for veterans, who may not have been in a classroom for decades, and who worry how they’ll fit in among classmates who might be the same age as their children.
One of the boot camp’s goals is to bridge that divide, said Ryan Pavel, a Marine Corps veteran who is the Warrior-Scholar Project’s CEO. He said the program prepares veterans not just with skills to succeed in the classroom, but also with confidence that they can do well.
“We believe — and we have 1,600 students worth of data at this point to prove it — that you can cross that gap,” Pavel said.
A few days into the camp, Gonzalez said he could feel the gap narrowing already.
“Being a 41-year-old student going to college, I'm a little hesitant to ask questions, because I don't want to say something dumb or feel embarrassed, or go to the stereotype that, ‘There’s a big, dumb Marine,’” he said.
The boot camps, which are for those who don’t already have bachelor’s degrees, are free of charge. About 90 percent of the 1600 transitioning troops and veterans who have attended the camps have graduated or are on track to, according to Warrior-Scholar Project leaders.
Twenty-one colleges and universities so far have hosted the boot camps — including Harvard, Yale, Williams, and Amherst College.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, many classes are online for now. But when they’re held in person — like those at UNC-Chapel Hill, the host institutions provide the classrooms, meals and housing. The Warrior-Scholar Project - which is donor-funded - covers the rest.
The VA is partnering with the program, hoping to improve the return on the more than $13 billion a year it spends on veterans' educational benefits.
“This is a benefit they've earned, and they worked hard for,” said Charmain Bogue, the Executive Director of Education Service for the Veterans Benefits Administration. "We want to make sure that if there are available resources ... to set them up for success, we want to be a part of that."
The new partnership means the VA will help get the word out to veterans about the project.
It’s expected to greatly lift the profile of the small organization. Until now, many participants found out about it the way another veteran at the UNC boot camp, Bryant Simmons, did.
“I heard about the program through a friend of mine at Stanford," Simmons said. "I was on a Zoom call with him one day and one of his buddies walks in, who was Army veteran at Stanford, and was telling me about this amazing program he went through that helped with his writing skills, his study skills, and helped him to get into a great school.”
Simmons, 32, an Afghanistan veteran who served in the Marines, lives in Alabama, but felt it was worth the long trip to Chapel Hill.
He was a generator technician, but developed a neurological condition that makes it hard to work outdoors. He has a large family to support, including eight children, and after his doctor recommended switching to indoor work, he decided to pursue a career in mental health counseling in part so that he could help other veterans.
But that will take a couple of degrees and that big leap into academia.
“It’s still quite daunting,” he said. “I mean, it just is, but I think all good things are challenging.”
He has already been accepted at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and said the boot camp is shoring up his skills.
“I came here specifically for my weaknesses, which are writing, study habits, organization, those types of things,” he said. “So they're helping me in framing that and knowing the proper content that I'm trying to extract. And through analytical reading, it can help to improve upon our content within our writing. I'm loving it, man, it's amazing.”
The boot camps center around humanities, especially skills in analytical reading and academic writing. They also have sessions on transitioning to academic life. Some also include a focus on business or science and math.
Lithgow, the professor teaching the UNC boot camp writing workshop, has worked with the project since 2015.
“It's what teaching is supposed to be,” she said. “You have a classroom full of really motivated students, and all they want to do is learn and do better. And it’s what you hope for in every classroom, but you don’t always get.”
Gonzalez, the Marine master gunnery sergeant, has had college courses before and said he did well, but sometimes found his approach to the work grueling.
But the boot camp, he said, has helped. The first couple nights, he tackled assignments the way he does in the Marine Corps, going over them repeatedly until he figured them out thoroughly.
That worked, but kept him up until 2 a.m.
Then the lessons started to sink in.
“With the tips they gave through the analytical reading, I'm doing the same quality of work in a third of the time,” he said. “So just those little things that the professor has gone over, it's awesome. Like, the light bulb went off.”
This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans.Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Copyright 2021 North Carolina Public Radio – WUNC