Back From War, Veterans Enter Education Fight at Home

Underrepresented at top schools, warriors coming home are prepping for battle on a new front.

A Yale professor engages the class in a lesson about the convergence of democracy, liberty and freedom. Students read works from notable theorists, including Alexis de Tocqueville and Isaiah Berlin.

A Yale professor engages the Warrior-Scholar Project class in a lesson about the convergence of democracy, liberty and freedom. Students read works from notable theorists, including Alexis de Tocqueville and Isaiah Berlin.

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NEW HAVEN, Conn. – It’s a quiet night at Yale’s Saybrook College residence hall, nestled within the Gothic confines of the university’s stately New Haven campus. Halfway up one of the winding stairwells, the telltale glow of a laptop screen blends with the low but thoughtful chatter of three blooming academics.


One is shirtless and sits on the stairs with the computer, one leans against a banister and another – heading to brush his teeth – stops to debate whether democracy, liberty and freedom can all truly coexist in any particular political system. He dismisses the works of Robert Dahl, the 20th-century Yale professor who questioned whether the U.S. Constitution is, indeed, democratic. Dahl’s points are valid, but the approach is too stuffy, professorial and out of touch, the student says.

Another responds by citing the works of French political thinker and historian Alexis de Tocqueville, whose critique “De la democratie en Amerique” highlights the inherent dangers of democracy falling into the hands of despots.

But these are not your average Yale students. Further signs hint at an academic background not rooted in the world’s best high schools, which channel students to the natural next step of higher education. There is ink on an arm honoring fallen comrades, a former high-and-tight haircut finally allowed to grow out and a distinctive 7.62 mm bullet, strung on a necklace and worn only by elite scout snipers in the Marine Corps.

The students routinely worked on writing assignments well after dark and into the early morning hours.
The students routinely worked on writing assignments well after dark and into the early morning hours.

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“De Tocqueville is my homeboy,” says Jeremy Laster, the former sniper, before reciting a paragraph about the pitfalls of despotism. “He’s going to help me with this paper I’m writing.”

Laster, another fellow Marine and former Army Spc. John Fought are all combat veterans with multiple deployments to the Middle East. They are part of a class of 28 who participated in the Warrior-Scholar Project in late June. This summer, the program began its third year of trying to give hope to former and current service members whose academic prospects had been limited. Some left high school early or barely graduated, and most believed military life would provide their only route to professional stability.

Now they need what the program offers: a chance to learn critical academic and social lessons before entering a four-year institution.

Through the Warrior-Scholar Project, participants learn skills like “ninja reading,” how to structure academic papers and the elusive art of paring a complex scholarly theory down to a distinct argument. Perhaps more importantly, the program breathes new life into these unconventional students’ academic dreams, which for many did not extend further than a few classes at a community college or perhaps a vocational school.

“It raised my expectation for myself,” says Rob Henderson, one of the Warrior-Scholars and a seven-year veteran of the Air Force. He is based at Ramstein Air Base in Germany, and previously resigned himself to taking classes online from public colleges.

“It made me think,” he says, looking around the immaculate Saybrook courtyard, “‘Maybe I can go to a school like this.’”

Warrior-Scholars

The Warrior-Scholar Project began its inaugural year in 2012 with nine students and was the brainchild of an unlikely duo. Jesse Reising, a native of blue-collar Decatur, Illinois, was a leading linebacker for the Yale Bulldogs varsity football team – just one of the academic and social exploits that singled him out as a future leader. His plans of completing Marine Corps Officer Candidates School after graduating in 2011 were dashed during the Harvard-Yale game his senior year, when a helmet-to-helmet collision left him without the use of or feeling in his right shoulder and arm.

[PHOTOS: Wounded Warrior Games]

While at Yale, Reising met Chris Howell, a former Australian senior enlisted special forces commando who, with the help of his scholarly younger brother David, received the tutoring necessary to bring his academic understanding up to Yale standards. Perhaps more importantly, David’s brand of academic confidence-building helped Chris learn how to sit in mahogany-ringed classrooms with students half his age who had no intention of ever experiencing his gritty livelihood on some of the world’s most dangerous battlefields. Chris’ efforts paid off after a year at Sydney University, when he was admitted to Yale’s Eli Whitney program for “non-traditional students.”

During Reising’s recovery and Chris Howell’s undergraduate studies, the two paired their mutual desire for service by formulating a curriculum to help former warriors. Instead of moving past the intense indoctrination of military training, the Warrior-Scholar Project harnesses this unique brand of discipline, using it to fight the common attitude among exiting enlisted troops that they should settle for something less.

Students in the Warrior-Scholar Project assemble in the courtyard of Yale’s Saybrook College in mid-June 2014.
Students in the Warrior-Scholar Project assemble in the courtyard of Yale’s Saybrook College in mid-June.

The program, which costs roughly $100,000 at Yale this year, is funded entirely by private donations and grants, mostly from Yale graduates such as former Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady and organizations such as the National Endowment for the Humanities. Students only pay transportation costs to and from the program – books, meals and room and board are all covered.

The result in the three years since the first class is a veritable boot camp, which begins with Chris Howell’s first lesson to the students: “You served. So what?” They then are plunged into the works of de Tocqueville, Frederick Douglass, Felix Oppenheim and Isaiah Berlin with no support – at first. Their initial feelings of hopelessness and frustration are mitigated over two weeks by a field of instructors and tutors that at times numbers more than the class itself. These advisers and mentors aim to build up the students' confidence in their own scholarship and ability to compete with other top undergraduates.

David Howell’s brand of “ninja reading,” for example, breaks down complicated texts into simple arguments and focuses the students on words or terms they don’t understand so they can look them up later. As one instructor puts it, “We’re going to take these books and tear them to shreds, treating the books as cannon fodder for what you want to get out of them.”

"Ninja reading" breaks down complicated texts, like this passage from Isaiah Berlin, into simple arguments.
An example of "ninja reading."

“Annotate, annotate, annotate,” is the constant refrain from David Howell, a Yale fellow who leads the program's academic process while also pursuing a doctorate at the University of Sydney. He is bolstered by a growing cadre of former program participants who return to work alongside volunteers from Yale’s current student and teaching population, all to show their successors that triumph is possible.

“The Warrior-Scholar Project is about addressing the latent desire to learn, but not knowing how to do it,” says Reising, now a student at Harvard Law School.

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The project has so far graduated 61 students, with 30 more lined up this summer through new programs based at Harvard University and the University of Michigan. Some have gone on to four-year institutions such as Yale, Columbia University, Dartmouth College and Wesleyan University. Others went back to community college, continuing to rely on the project through its social media network for graduates and frequenting refresher courses David Howell conducts through Google Hangouts.

Project Executive Director Chris Howell, a former Australian senior enlisted special operations commando, addresses the class of Warrior-Scholars. His first lesson: “You served. So what?”
Project Executive Director Chris Howell, a former Australian senior enlisted special operations commando, addresses the class of Warrior-Scholars. His first lesson: “You served. So what?” 

The program plans to expand to three or four more schools by 2015, and to as many as 10 by the following year. Representatives from the University of Oklahoma and Dartmouth, among others, visited the Warrior-Scholar Project during its final week at Yale.

Still, growing interest in the program’s success likely won’t accommodate the entirety of a tidal wave of veterans heading for civilian academic space. Permanent U.S. ground troops have left Iraq, at least for now, and Afghanistan will host zero combat troops by the end of 2016. Ever-tightening purse strings are forcing all service branches to slash at their troop-number bottom lines: The total number of Army soldiers could fall by 80,000 or more by roughly the end of the decade, and the Marine Corps could shrink by almost 10,000.

Meanwhile, the number of veterans taking advantage of government stipends for their education is soaring. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs, more than 540,000 veterans received education benefits in 2008, the year before the Post-9/11 GI Bill took effect. By 2012, that number had swelled to just less than 1 million.

But very few of those recently returning from war are likely to enroll at some of America’s top schools. Harvard's undergraduate classes had only three veterans this past academic year, according to its official publication, the Harvard Gazette. Asked to confirm, Harvard spokeswoman Tania deLuzuriaga tells U.S. News there are 16 students receiving veterans benefits within the undergraduate college, but those include spouses and dependents of veterans.

“There is no way to tell how many of these students are veterans,” she says.

There is one undergraduate veteran at Princeton. Brown has 11 and Dartmouth has 16, with five more transferring in for the next academic year. The University of Pennsylvania counted 23 of roughly 10,000 undergrads as part of its 2012-2013 academic year – the latest year for which data is available, a spokesman says.

Paul Shinkman for USNWR/Source: Department of Veteran Affairs

Columbia University in New York City has more than 300 undergraduate veterans enrolled through its School of General Studies, created in part after World War II to accommodate returning troops.

Calls to the two other Ivy League colleges, Yale and Cornell University, were not returned in time for this report.

According to the Gazette and Harvard President Drew Faust, the college's small number of veterans mirrors the mere 1 percent of the U.S. population serving in uniform.

However, other schools are feeling the postwar pressure. The University of Oklahoma has admitted some 600 veterans to its undergraduate classes and another 600 to its College of Continuing Education.

“The need has been there for a while,” says Shad Satterthwaite, assistant vice president for continuing education academic programs at Oklahoma, during his visit to New Haven.

Jeffrey Brenzel, a philosophy lecturer at Yale, discussed with students toward the end of the course how to get the most out of professors in college.
Jeffrey Brenzel, a philosophy lecturer at Yale, discussed with students toward the end of the course how to get the most out of professors in college.

Matt Hamilton, OU’s registrar and vice president for enrollment and student financial services, points to the fears and uncertainties facing young veterans daring to go back to pursue a degree. Perhaps veterans share the same concerns as 18-year-old incoming freshmen, he says, but colleges and universities are better designed to accommodate students coming fresh out of high school.

“There are so many more things to consider with military life,” Hamilton says. The Warrior-Scholar Project, he adds, helps to orient those students.

Perhaps most urgently, service members feel pressure to take advantage of a fleeting attitude among corporations and elite academic institutions that helping veterans is “trendy.” If history serves as any guide, such a fashionable craze may disappear soon.

“We owe our veterans more than that,” says Jeffrey Brenzel, former dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale and a lecturer in the university's philosophy department. “We have some impact, but the question is, how can this program be something at scale?”

Warriors: Report for Study

Brenzel gave a lecture to the Warrior-Scholars toward the end of their two-week program that on its face was about the intersection of freedom, liberty and democracy. In truth, he was actually helping the students realize how far they had progressed in the classroom. His questions about current events were met with advanced political theories from the students, including whether America acted in a totalitarian fashion by insisting Iraq and Afghanistan must adopt democratic systems. The students cited instances in America’s past when the label “un-American” could be used to advance any agenda, and pointed out how those in positions of authority sometimes stifle liberty under the banner of maintaining it.

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Out of the classroom, Brenzel is consistently surprised by the Warrior-Scholars' articulate responses when they describe how the readings have changed their perspectives. The veterans are often much more engaged in such discussions than his normal Yale students.

As Brenzel says, the military teaches young troops that their life depends on the new skills it imparts.

“In a way, you apply the same outlook here,” he says of the program. “And your life does depend on it. You don’t have that much time to get it together.”

Warrior-Scholars differ from the average Yale student, as multiple professors pointed out: “I’ve never seen so many tattoos.”
Warrior-Scholars differ from the average Yale student, as multiple professors pointed out: “I’ve never seen so many tattoos.” 

He isn’t the only Yale instructor who enjoys the refreshing candor that comes with a room full of combat veterans.

“They swear a lot in class,” adjunct writing professor Rosemary Jones observes, covering a grin with her hand during a break in one of the many writing tutorials for the students’ final seven-page paper. “And I’ve never seen so many tattoos.”

Jones, a native Australian, wouldn’t usually tolerate such behavior in a traditional Yale classroom, but she enjoys the eagerness the students direct at completing their work.

Another writing instructor observes how differently the program students approach learning, versus a room filled with Ivy League undergraduates who each could have been a high school valedictorian.

“They’re used to working as a team,” says Yale history teacher and doctoral candidate Jadwiga Biskupska. “My Yale students would not act like that.”

Many students in her usual classes resent others who master an academic principle or are able to wrap their minds around an idea first. Among Warrior-Scholars, any success is immediately followed by that student assisting classmates, Biskupska says.

As she explains, one student shouts from across the classroom, “The goal is to accomplish the mission!” He then purposefully returns to helping a classmate edit a paper.

A Military Surplus

A Google search for “veterans aid” yields more than 52 million results. The first half-dozen pages alone are filled with organizations, government programs and advocacy groups claiming to be the right resource for returning veterans aiming to re-enter civilian life.

Tutors stayed up late with students in the many study rooms within the Saybrook College residence hall.
Tutors stayed up late with students in the many study rooms within the Saybrook College residence hall. 

This sea of support can be a daunting prospect to a returning veteran: Which option to choose, and are such programs “legit”? Since 2009, the Department of Veterans Affairs has issued more than $20 billion in Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits for use toward higher education. Many of this year’s Warrior-Scholars have direct knowledge of for-profit institutions, often based online, that make false promises to veterans about what they can offer in an attempt to tap into such a massive source of revenue.

Chris Merkel, one of this year's students, served in the Marine Corps before and after Sept. 11, 2001, with a stint as a police officer in between. He eventually became an infantry platoon sergeant before retiring in 2005.

He cites a common theme among the veterans he helps cope with returning home from war: They become eager to put themselves back into an environment where they can act as warriors. For example, volunteers for Team Rubicon – the nonprofit that deploys groups of combat veterans to apply their military skills in disaster relief – will take time off work to help with aid missions before even learning whether there is space for them. Merkel himself at one point went to work in the Montana oil business to fulfill his desire for adventure and accomplishment.

“You come home from deployment, only to deploy again,” Merkel says of these choices.

Without the sense of belonging and purpose the military provided, many veterans find they are left alone and without a support base while trying to navigate the emotional process of ending a military career. But through daily staff-only meetings, the Warrior-Scholar Project staff keeps close tabs on how each student behaves. As a group, they assign specific people to help students confront problems or issues they may be facing, such as the side effects of post-traumatic stress disorder, an inability to perform a specific academic task or just overcoming self-confidence issues.


“There’s no other place where you can learn all these skills,” Merkel says.

Building Back Up

Jennifer Austin served as a combat medic in the Army before applying for the Warrior-Scholar Project. She doesn’t hesitate to describe the most poignant part of the program for her, which came toward the end of its two-week duration: In between classes, Warrior-Scholars had a chance to tour Yale’s pristine campus and access some of the facilities available to Yale students, including the distinctive Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library. The building, designed to resemble a beehive, is constructed of massive panels of opaque Vermont marble. Upon entering the library, the panels transmit a dim light onto the enclosed central tower, exposing floors and floors of rare books and documents.

The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library houses original copies of many of the texts the students studied.
The Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library houses original copies of many of the texts the students studied.

An archivist at the library selected a few works for the students to see, including an original handwritten draft of de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America.” Austin saw that the author, like her classmates, struck through lines of text and wrote scribbles in the margins, only to cancel those out and try again as he struggled to find the right words for his thesis.

She began tearing up. Suddenly, such a revered thinker didn’t seem so unapproachable.

“I realized these are actual people who also make mistakes and wrote in the margins,” she says.

The project is continuing to evolve as it considers the ever-growing needs of veterans returning home from war. On the last day, it ventured into the sphere of science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, with a lecture from Yale astrophysicist Marla Geha. Program tutors also offered an introduction to advanced mathematics and tips for preparing for science classes.

Two students list parts of the course their classmates enjoyed and things they found to be a struggle.
Two students list parts of the course their classmates enjoyed and things they found to be a struggle.

The project's organizers are considering adding a week of STEM courses as an option in future years.

"We are going into a big expansion phase," says Reising, the Warrior-Scholar Project's chairman, citing recent successes in fundraising.

[SEE: Bringing STEM Education to Underserved Communities]

Back in the Saybrook courtyard on the last night of the course, a muscular former Army policeman with extensive combat experience in Iraq gets in the face of one of the tutors.

He, too, had previously disregarded applying to top-tier schools, and jokes that he was in elementary school the last time he wrote a paper.

Now, his renewed sense of self-confidence is starting to show, as he broaches subjects previously considered out of reach.

“Wait a minute,” the former soldier says sharply. “If that’s true, wouldn’t the photon be going faster than the speed of light?”