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Warrior-Scholar Project helps vets transition from military to academic life

Allison Farrand/Daily
Participant Riva Szostkowski hugs her English teacher Mary Beth Harris at the program's closing dinner and remarks Saturday. Buy this photo

By Amabel Karoub, Daily Staff Reporter
Published July 26, 2014

Friday, 10 United States veterans sat with rapt attention as psychology professor Eric Fretz delivered a lecture on college study skills.

“We all joke in the military that the most important minute is the last minute, because without that minute nothing would ever get done,” Fretz said, eliciting laughter. “But this is not helpful for you. It leads to cramming.”

Fretz is the assistant director of the Warrior-Scholar Project, a national program that prepares United States veterans for the academic rigors of an elite university. Veterans spent this past week, until Saturday evening, on campus, taking classes from 9 a.m. to 10:30 p.m. every day.

Warrior-Scholars was founded at Yale University in 2012. The program has since expanded to Harvard and, new this year, to the University of Michigan, which is the first public institution to host it. University alum Ryan Pavel brought Warrior-Scholars to Michigan after shadowing the program at Yale.

He said the project helps to ease the stark transition veterans feel when moving from the military to a college classroom — a transition Pavel, who came to the University after serving in Iraq, faced himself.

“There are a lot of veterans who want to go to college but aren’t really sure where they should apply or don’t necessarily have the skills,” Pavel said. “The goal is that, by the time they’re in their seats for their first class, they know what they can do, and they have some tricks in their bag as far as how to succeed in school. And that thing doesn’t exist outside of this program.”

Veterans who do attend college have high potential to graduate; a recent study published in USA Today found that 51.7 percent of veterans who attend college graduate, not much lower than the graduation rate for non-veterans, which was 59 percent in 2011. As well, as of the 2009 Post-9/11 GI Bill, elite colleges are also much more affordable for veterans. The bill, an expansion of the 1944 G.I. Bill, offers increased funds for student veterans and covers full tuition for in-state, public colleges. For veterans attending private colleges, there is the Yellow Ribbon program, which offers payment benefits that exceed the amount covered under the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

Pavel said despite having many reasons to believe in their ability to apply to and attend prestigious universities, veterans often undersell themselves academically, causing them not to apply.

“This is a nationwide phenomenon,” Pavel said. “We see that a lot of vets are not really pushing themselves to apply for these top universities, and that’s why we’re hosting it at Yale, at Harvard, at University of Michigan, because we want them to see that vets are achieving at this level, that this is a possibility.”

Warrior-Scholars co-founder Christopher Howell, a Yale alum who spent nine years in the Australian army, said the program has two missions: increasing veterans’ confidence and helping adjust their attitude to what an undergraduate degree really is.

“Veterans have always been told, go get a degree that’s how you get a better job and be more successful,” Howell said. “So they approach it as if it’s vocational training, like all they have to do is just strike through it. An undergraduate degree was never designed to be that.”

The Warrior-Scholars curriculum revolves around the themes of democracy, freedom, and equality. These topics are meant to be relevant to the veterans while allowing discussion to go beyond the military sphere and into the academic one. The classes focus on reading, writing, and discussion skills. Every day of the program, there was a seminar taught by a different University professor.

Fretz said he likes teaching for Warrior-Scholars because, having served in the Navy, he feels comfortable in the veteran community. He added that a distinguishing characteristic of veteran students is, unlike many freshmen, they know why they’re in college.

“You almost never have a vet coming in with any kind of entitlement,” Fretz said. “They’re not here casually. They’re here deliberately.”

LSA sophomore Riva Szostkowski is one of these deliberate students. She chose not to attend college directly after high school because she didn’t feel ready. Szostkowski was raised a Michigan football fan, and after she got out of the military, she decided to apply to the school she had grown up loving.

Szostkowski eventually plans to run a fitness program for wounded veterans. She said she prizes the network of other veterans she has come across in programs like Warrior-Scholars.

“I’m connecting to veterans all over the country,” Szostkowski said. “And that’s a connection and a resource that I have no matter where I’m at.”

Fellow participant Sam Hughes, who will start at Columbia University this fall, said Warrior-Scholars has helped prepare him for the rigors of Columbia. Columbia is enrolled in the Yellow Ribbon program, and its School of General Studies has the highest number of veterans of any Ivy League institution — roughly 300.

“The amount of reading we do and the in-depth way we analyze the texts has really set me on the proper path,” he said. “This has really helped me tie in concepts and deep thought.”

Howell said he is planning to bring Warrior-Scholars to several more schools next year. Roughly ten universities shadowed the program this year, including the University of Chicago, Dartmouth College, and Cornell University.

This year at the University, the program was a single seminar, single week pilot. At Yale, the project’s original home, it’s two weeks, and has two seminars of 15 students each.

Pavel said overall, the program at the University this year went well, and he hopes to see it expand in the future.

“I think it has been phenomenally successful,” he said. “It’s almost surreal how well everything has come together.”

Correction appended: a previous version of this article misstated how long participants spend in class each day.


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