Back to boot camp: Warrior-Scholar program helps veterans acclimate to higher education

Back to boot camp: Warrior-Scholar program helps veterans acclimate to higher education

by Mack Burke
The Norman Transcript, Okla.

Boot camp transforms new military recruits into soldiers. When they return as veterans, the Warrior-Scholar Project helps prospective college students reshape their minds to prepare for a completely different challenge.

The program, started in 2012 at Yale University, has since expanded to 12 schools, including the University of Oklahoma, where U.S. Marine Jeremiah Bullock attended a one-week course earlier this month.

“In the Marine Corps you have tests, but they aren’t as academically rigorous as college can be,” Bullock said. “So, after five years of not having touched collegiate level programs or training of any kind, I wanted to get back into the swing of things.”

Program spokesperson Joanna Borelli said the program is designed to help military veterans develop and rediscover the skills and confidence necessary to successfully complete four-year undergraduate degrees.

Because veterans are non-traditional students with unique experiences distinguishing them from their college peers, the program also uses the boot camps to help prepare participants for the emotional and cultural adaptations required to succeed in a higher education setting.

Each boot camp is run by a team of student veterans and taught by university professors and graduate students. The curriculum covers a wide range of subjects and is intended to guide participants as they learn not just the subject matter but how to learn.

Bullock said a friend suggested the program. He said he has always been well-read and his expectations of what the program would do for him weren’t very high. After a week of intense immersion, he said he intends to recommend it to every Marine under him.

“I’m not going to lie,” he said. “Whenever I came in on Day One and they put a schedule down on the table and it was from 8 in the morning to 10 at night and they said, ‘You’ll probably need to study after that,’ there was that, ‘Really?’ moment ... As the day went on, they were sitting us down and doing discussions about everything from Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech to the Declaration of Independence and Herodotus’ ‘The Histories.’

“Then they would have us discuss it and write papers. It wasn’t easy by any means, but it definitely, 100 percent got me back into the school mindset and kind of kickstarted that interest.”

Bullock said the most important takeaway for him was that he could do it. For military personnel accustomed to taking orders and having their path laid out before them, he said the program endows veterans with a valuable sense of direction and the boot camp format speaks to them.

“This was designed with that in mind,” he said. “You have to connect in a way that speaks to every military servicemember. I’d say they hit it gosh darn well, because they had a massive amount of check marks they had to hit, but they got them all in and they didn’t skimp on training or material or instruction.

“It was definitely tailored to a military mindset, but it was tailored to a military mindset with the caveat that it’s time to put that military mindset back into a civilian mindset, to help make sure that everyone would be able to mesh well on campus, instead of being that lonely and adrift veteran.”

Bullock said he intends to apply to OU in August, with the aim of attending in the spring.

Warrior-Scholar Project Executive Director Sidney Ellington said he hopes the program helps more veterans experience the kind of results Bullock has and continues to grow.

The program anticipates it will serve more than 200 veterans this year, and because the program is free to veterans, Ellington said there’s no reason not to utilize what he called a powerful tool for those intending to reap the benefits of the Post-9/11 GI Bill. For approved programs, like the Warrior-Scholar Project, the Post-9/11 GI Bill provides up to 36 months of education benefits, generally payable for 15 years following release from active duty.

“Our folks are starting college and they’re staying in college,” Ellington said. “Our student attrition rate is about 8 percent. The overall attrition rate for veterans is about 20 percent.”

That’s a much better mark than the national average. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, the six-year graduation rate for first-time, full-time undergraduate students who began seeking a bachelor’s degree at a four-year institution in fall 2009 was 59 percent. That represents an overall attrition rate of 41 percent.

“What they’ve come out of [their military experience] with is a tremendous sense of service, not only an attitude, but skills,” Ellington said. “They’re incredibly adaptable. We look at these post 9/11 generation veterans as civic assets. You couple that with a top-tier education and you have the civic leaders of tomorrow.”

OU President David Boren said he was happy to welcome a new batch of Warrior Scholars this year and looks forward to continuing the program.

He said the university is honored to play a part in their successful transition to civilian life. OU Veteran Student Services Coordinator Jennifer Trimmer said it’s a humbling opportunity.

“We are equipping these veterans to use their military experience in the classroom and developing the skills necessary to succeed in higher education,” she said.

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