Academic boot camp helps soldiers transition into students

UChicago to host 15 veterans as part of nonprofit Warrior-Scholar Project

Steve Koppes
Associate News DirectorUniversity Communications

Of the more than 200,000 Americans who leave the military each year, many say they want to pursue an undergraduate education but lack the preparation or confidence to do so. To help veterans and military personnel transition into the academic world, the University of Chicago is participating in the Warrior-Scholar Project for the second year in a row.

This academic boot camp exposes participants to one week of college life. From Aug. 13 to 21, 15 participants from ages 22 to 32 will attend seminars, read books, write papers, live in a residence hall, eat at University dining halls, receive tutoring from students and even play a game of flag football with the varsity football team.

“It’ll be a tough week, comparable to the first week of basic training,” said Sarah Starr, Warrior-Scholar Project program director at UChicago. Starr is a rising fourth-year in the College and has been a soldier in the U.S. Army Reserve for the past four years. “If these warrior-scholars can survive this week and accomplish everything thing that’s asked of them, they’ll do well in college.”

More than 95 percent of the 265 alumni of this nationwide program are pursing an undergraduate education, said Sidney Ellington, executive director of the Warrior-Scholar Project. Meanwhile, 17 percent of the alumni are enrolled in a top school (as ranked by U.S. News & World Report), compared to one percent of those receiving post-9/11 GI Bill funds, he said.

“We prepare students well,” Ellington said. “This is boot camp, not summer camp.”

Jesse Nuese Yaker, who was a warrior-scholar at UChicago last year, agrees. “It gave me the tools and confidence I need to succeed in an academic environment,” said the 22-year-old veteran, who has three and a half years of military service, including combat duty in Afghanistan, under his belt. Yaker is enrolled in a computer programming course this fall. He plans to attend a community college in his hometown of Madison, Wis.

“Not only did the UChicago professors teaching in the program encourage us to go back to school, but they also assured us that we are the kind of students that universities need and are looking for,” he added. “Vets have gone overseas, led people and experienced combat, typically at a young age. Since universities are places to explore new ideas, they want students with a variety of backgrounds and experiences.”    

The Warrior-Scholar Project began in 2012 with a pilot program at Yale. UChicago was one of the first schools to invite the program to its campus, and this summer 12 schools are participating. Another 40 have applied.

“We’re expanding rapidly, with 230 additional participants this year,” Ellington said. “We’ll continue to expand based on our resources.” The nonprofit organization is supported by private donations, grants and the National Endowment for Humanities, which covers 10 to 15 percent of its budget. This allows vets to participate for free.

“We don’t screen for aptitude or knowledge,” Ellington added. “We screen for attitude, desire and whether the applicant has a plan. After that, it’s first come, first served.”

Zachary Liermann, who will be a warrior-scholar at UChicago this year, is grateful for the program. He went into the military right out of high school. Now, after eight years—and six deployments to Afghanistan—he wants to do something else with his life, he said.

Liermann recently left the military and enrolled at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to study finance and business administration, starting this fall. “Warrior-scholars will improve the study skills and academic time-management skills that I’ve lost since I was in high school,” he said. “It will get me back into the swing of things.”

Social aspects of the program are important, too, according to Starr. “Most vets are not used to the school environment, are older than typical college students, and don’t know if they’ll fit in,” she said. “This can get them over these concerns. Some participants struggle, but last year a camaraderie developed here, and there was a real coming together. By the end of our week this year, we’ll all be pretty tight.”