Academic ‘boot camp’

Through the Warrior-Scholar Project, college-bound military personnel completed a weeklong academic “military to college” course at Penn.

Matt Johnson and Amy Brown from Penn’s Critical Writing Program assist with academic writing exercises during the Warrior-Scholar Project.

In a one-week academic “boot camp,” college-bound military personnel mustered at the University of Pennsylvania on their way to their next duty station: a college campus. 

The Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP) aims to empower enlisted personnel to succeed in an undergraduate program at a top-tier institution. It is the first time WSP has been hosted at Penn.

At no cost to the participants, a group of 13 active-duty service members and veterans lived at Harrison College House, dined at 1920 Commons and Hill College House, and learned about campus life, the admissions process, financial aid, and maximizing their educational benefits. 

Two-thirds of enlisted veterans using the Post 9/11 G.I. Bill are first-generation college students, says retired Commander Sidney Ellington, the executive director of the Warrior-Scholar Project, a non-profit based in Washington, D.C.

“These are individuals who don’t have support in their family structures to help them succeed in college,” explains Ellington, who adds that it costs the organization $6,000 for one veteran to go through WSP. “We exist to close that opportunity gap, so that the path to college becomes more accessible and we increase their likelihood of success.”

Matt Johnson and Amy Brown from Penn’s Critical Writing Program leading a workshop on academic writing during the Warrior-Scholar Project.

One of WSP’s goals is easing the military-to-college transition through “de-greening,” which means “putting away the uniform in order to assimilate into a completely different environment,” Ellington says. “It’s transformational, and these individuals come out of WSP with a new view of what they’re capable of and what opportunities are available to them.” 

During the program, attendees acquired practical academic skills, such as note-taking, effective study techniques, and time management. They also learned about the humanities, political science, history, and more, taught by faculty from Penn’s School of Arts and Sciences

When Anne Norton, a professor of political science, teaches veterans, she says she ties parts of her life together. She grew up in a military family and her father served as an officer in the Navy. For the WSP, Norton taught a unit on the Declaration of Independence.

“The veterans’ comments on the text and what they saw in it—both in the past and in the present—were insightful,” says Norton, who believes that they will fare well in college.

The WSP curriculum is comprised of works that encourage deep thinking about democracy. 

Active duty military personnel and veterans were actively involved in class discussions during the Warrior-Scholar Project at Penn.

After the students read Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America,” Rogers Smith, the Christopher H. Browne Distinguished Professor of Political Science, led a session on the Constitution and how the creation of a large constitutional republic was controversial.

Smith says he learned a lot from their differing perspectives, especially when he introduced why the founders of the Constitution opposed creating a standing military.

“The founders linked it to the centralized, tyrannical imperial authority they had opposed in their revolution, and we noted that, nonetheless, after World War II, America’s changed place in the world led it to create the most extensive standing army in history,” says Smith. “We discussed the pros and cons of this constitutional development in some depth, drawing on their experiences in Iraq, Afghanistan, and other parts of the world.”

WSP participants also developed critical reading skills by learning how to review and understand difficult literature in a speedy fashion. 

Peter Struck, a professor of classical studies, taught lessons on Thucydides’ work, looking at a speech from Pericles that celebrates the dead in a public funeral during the Peloponnesian War and at the Melian dialogue, negotiations that took place before Athenian generals demanded a neutral community to surrender or be exterminated. 

From left to right: Jorge Pintado and Jahbril Jauregui participate in writing instruction during the Warrior-Scholar Project at Penn.

“Teaching these texts, which frame out basic experiences of war and politics, to these diligent individuals with their distinctive backgrounds was eye-opening,” Struck says. “It added to my confidence both that the military is in good hands, and that these core texts from antiquity remain vibrant and alive.”

Michael Horowitz, a political science professor, taught United States civil-military relations, exploring the relationship between the armed forces, civilian political elites, and the public. 

“I was there as the teacher, but I learned a lot about civil-military relations from the diverse perspectives in the classroom.”

For Kathleen Brown, the David Boies Professor of history, two of her uncles earned Purple Hearts and several of her cousins served in Afghanistan and Iraq. One of them is still on active duty in the Army.

“Teaching for WSP was a ‘no-brainer’ for me,” says Brown, who had a different approach to the unit she taught on the social and historical context of the Civil War, by opening the floor to students and allowing them to steer the agenda for class discussions.   

Amy Brown, an instructor from Penn's Critical Writing Program, teaches an academic writing workshop during the Warrior-Scholar Project.

Matt Johnson and Amy Brown, instructors in Penn’s Critical Writing Program taught the group about the academic writing process, proper citation, and references. 

Johnson says academic writing is a foundation of college readiness. “These skills are essential because they give a diverse range of students a set of tools with which they can tackle any critical reading or writing task during the application process, such as an admissions essay or in their college courses.” 

Brown emphasized academic discourse, practice, discipline, and hard work. 

“Much of college readiness has to do with learning the norms of academic discourse, the ‘unwritten rules,’ that govern how we read, write, talk, think, and act in a university setting,” says Brown. 

Also, she says went home each night, thinking about “the incredible ability of the people in the class to experience the darkest sides of humanity and come out of it with energy, compassion, curiosity, and love for learning and for one another.”

Veterans are ideal candidates for the College of Liberal and Professional Studies’ undergraduate program, which offers flexibility for non-traditional students, says Nora Lewis, the vice dean of professional and liberal education in the School of Arts and Sciences. 

WSP is already planning ahead for an expansion during the summer of 2019 and Sidney Ellington hopes to include a business initiative in the future. 

“We are incredibly proud to serve our military and veterans,” Lewis says. “They are tremendous contributors to the academic discourse in our classrooms and to the larger campus community.” 

Of the 13 warrior scholars, two students from the WSP, Marines Javier Cuadras Castillo and Kyle Brekke, are already planning to matriculate into the undergraduate program at Penn’s College of Liberal and Professional Studies in the fall.