By EC Barrett
Making the transition from active-duty service member to veteran can be difficult, particularly for the many veterans who entered the service with a high school diploma and want to use their GI Bill benefits to get a college education. The non-profit organization Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP) supports veterans seeking a higher education by partnering with prestigious universities across the country to teach veterans how to learn in a rigorous academic setting.
Cornell University partnered with WSP for the first time in 2015, thanks in large part to the efforts of Vice Provost Judith Appleton, and just wrapped up the second weeklong academic boot camp hosted by Cornell the last week of July. Veterans were taught by WSP staff, veteran alums and Cornell faculty, including President Hunter R. Rawlings, who not only taught for WSP both years but played a role in helping the project recruit Cornell faculty to participate.
In one- and two-week immersive academic boot camps, WSP and university faculty teach participants studying skills, critical thinking, argument development and writing. They also educate veterans about their opportunities. “Many enlisted veterans pursuing higher education are unfamiliar with the extensive options available to them,” said WSP Director of Education Craig Plunges. “As recipients of the GI Bill, they are routinely targeted by for-profit higher education businesses, which generally do not provide them with the support they need to succeed and leave them with a degree of questionable value. Many enlisted veterans who go down this path do not actually complete a degree program and end up losing a significant portion of their GI Bill benefits.”
While veterans gain skills and experience in the service, their high school and military education is focused more on learning as information retention and job training. That may not adequately prepare them for academia. According to Plunges, the WSP introduces its participants to academic discourse by teaching them to read primary texts with a focus on the course themes of democracy and liberty. This is taught through close and critical work in small seminars of around 15 students, giving them a chance to learn fundamental or tactical study skills from fellow veterans employed by WSP for the summer.
“The Warrior-Scholar Project can play a pivotal role in helping our enlisted veterans develop the academic confidence and skills they need to succeed at highly-competitive American universities,” Plunges said. “By teaching students to engage closely with challenging texts in the humanities, from Plato to Martin Luther King, Jr., the program helps students realize their potential and broaden their interests.”
This approach helped 2015 WSP alum Piragash Swargaloganathan broaden his understanding of the role of learning in his life and gave him the knowledge, skills and confidence to matriculate at Cornell’s School of Human Ecology this fall. Swargaloganathan, an immigrant from Sri Lanka, joined the Navy after high school and was trained as a cardiovascular technologist.
“This experience of working with people at their most vulnerable, and witnessing and participating with Navy physicians providing the care, motivated me to become a physician,” Swargaloganathan said.
Toward the end of his service, Swargaloganathan was confident in his decision to seek a medical education but nervous about returning to a classroom for the first time since graduating from high school in 2009. After watching a WSP video he was excited to sign up for the 2015 Syracuse University WSP boot camp.
“I applied to the program hoping that I would learn a thing or two about how to handle college level reading and writing and advice on how to handle the transition and make it a successful one,” he said. “But, by the end of the Syracuse program, my approach toward higher education itself was changed, and I felt empowered. WSP planted the idea that I should get a well-rounded liberal education, and it changed my perspective of undergraduate education from narrowly focused – more like job training – to a broad knowledge-seeking endeavor.”
Swargaloganathan says his experience with WSP also introduced him to the possibility of attending a top-tier college, both in the example set by program alums and in the form of counseling by WSP staff. Plunges in particular, who taught writing in the Syracuse boot camp, helped Swargaloganathan find a program that fit his educational goals and encouraged him to apply to an institution as selective as Cornell.
The Warrior-Scholar Project boot camps are free to enrollees, including room and board. For more information, visit www.warrior-scholar.org.
By EC Barrett