Program helps veterans adapt to life in college

It was November 20, 2010, the last football game of the season at Harvard Stadium. The outside linebacker for Yale University, Jesse Reising, was about to leave college with his life planned out — following graduation, Reising was slated to enter the Marine Corps. In a matter of seconds, his plans would be derailed.

With just 10 minutes left in the final quarter, Reising saw the Harvard running back head toward him. He distinctly remembers that his shoulder pads were too low. Before he knew it, he was lying on the 27-yard line, barely conscious. The impact had detached two nerves in his neck, and paralyzed his right arm above the elbow, shattering his hopes of joining the Marines.

Reising soon found another way to serve his country, through helping veterans assimilate into college. He connected with veteran and fellow Yale graduate Christopher Howell to create the Warrior-Scholar Project, which came to USC last summer.

Partnering with 11 top-tier colleges such as Yale and Vassar College, the Warrior-Scholar Project was established as a skill bridge between enlisted service to college.

Even though the government provides monetary support for veterans in the G.I. Bill, it is not clear how many of them graduate from college. The Warrior-Scholar Project recognizes that receiving a degree requires not only the opportunity, but also  the ability to adjust to academia. For veterans that enlisted out of high school, the gap between institutions makes it difficult for them to transition back into school, especially college.

“Over 40 percent of post-GI dollars are finding their way to private, for-profit college industries,” said Sid Ellington, the executive director for the Warrior-Scholar Project. “Most of these people are really smart, very capable. They just aren’t prepared to take full advantage of the opportunities of higher education.”

The program works like an academic boot camp every summer, lasting from one to two weeks. It focuses on two types of skills: tactical and strategic.

Tactical skills include things like breaking apart a syllabus, time management and taking notes efficiently. Strategic skills, also known by the scholars as “engi-reading,” are taught by professors at the University.

The professors teach about liberty and democracy from the perspectives of their own disciplines, such as international relations, political science, law, philosophy or English, making analytical reading and writing easier for veterans to identity with. Veterans of all different demographics are selected.

“There were some people still going through medical treatment. There were veterans that were retired 15 or more years. The ones that were enrolled in college were from both four-year and community college,” said Tina Fleming, a tutor at the USC Warrior-Scholar partnership.

The program director of the Warrior-Scholar Project at USC is Jesse Ramirez, a junior majoring in political science. Originally from Chicago, Ramirez moved to Los Angeles to be closer to his brother, who was stationed in San Diego with the Marines. He attended Santa Monica College for two years before transferring to USC. At the University, he started working for the Veterans Resource Center and was invited by his supervisor to attend a veteran issues meeting, where the opportunity for the Warrior-Scholar presented itself

“A veteran myself, I’ve always worked with other veterans. so it’s a very close community,” Ramirez said. “I resonate with all of their struggles — I was in a position where I needed help and that help wasn’t available.”

The program at USC was carried out for the first time last summer with 14 students and lasted for about a week. In the morning they were taught by USC faculty, then spent the rest of the day in critical thinking and critical writing courses interspersed with talks about the college application process, visits to the library, and other aspects of university life. According to Fleming, with this rigor came some difficulties.

“The material that they read is really heavy, and the immersion process for students definitely isn’t easy,” Fleming said. “There are moments when people break down or feel like they just want to walk away because it’s really intense, and they might not get too much sleep. But in the end, the majority of people are satisfied, and the program really promoted USC by having the students come to campus and learn through USC professors.”

The idea for the program coming to campus was first proposed by the chairman of the Board of Trustees, John Mork, who heard about it from a veteran who works for him. Mork asked Provost Michael Quick to consider supporting it, and eventually USC became the first West Coast school to join the program. Mark Todd, vice provost and manager of the WSP branch at USC, said that he finds the most rewarding part of the program to be the reciprocation for the service veterans have provided us through education.

“What is most rewarding to me, [is]that we offer the best of what USC has, to help those who have sacrificed so much to serve us,” Todd said. “They come away believing that they can really succeed at a university like USC. It is powerful.”