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Life After the Military: Helping Veterans With Their Second Act

The Warrior-Scholar Project aims to build the “next great generation” by helping soldiers transition to college and encouraging them to continue serving their country after they return home.

In June 2012, just a bit over a year since a back injury forced him into retirement from the United States Army, former Staff Sergeant David Carrell found himself in an air-conditioned Yale University seminar room with eight other veterans, discussing Alexis de Tocqueville’s “Democracy in America” under the guidance of Professor Norma Thompson, director of undergraduate studies in the humanities department. It was a long way from the inside of a tank in Iraq.

Carrell, who had served in the Army for 12 years, was among the first veterans to participate in the Warrior-Scholar Project, an intensive summer program that aims to help soldiers transition from the battlefield to the college quad. During the project’s pilot week of 16-hour days on campus, the vets, who hailed from every service branch, attended academic seminars, untangled essay arguments with personal tutors, and participated in mealtime presentations on topics like emotional intelligence and campus leadership.

Carrell, then 30, was taking classes at Central Texas College, near Fort Hood, working toward an associate’s degree. During his four deployments to Iraq, Carrell had served as a tank commander, but back at home he acknowledged that his biggest fear was being outperformed in the classroom by 18-year-old freshmen.

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The Warrior-Scholar Project seeks to address such challenges in part by helping veterans recognize and harness the qualities they already possess — leadership, dedication and motivation, among others — to succeed as scholars and citizens. Veterans receive substantial financial benefits toward college, including the GI Bill and the Yellow Ribbon Program, but the U.S. military doesn’t have any college planning or counseling services built into its discharge operations. A program like the Warrior-Scholar Project not only encourages veterans to pursue a four-year academic experience, but it also tries to help them do well. There are currently no definitive statistics on veteran graduation rates, but one Department of Education estimate suggests that as few as 10 percent of veterans who entered college in the 2003-04 school year got their bachelor’s degree in six years, compared with 31 percent of nonveteran students. When student-veterans receive support from academic institutions, however, they tend to earn higher GPAs and are less likely to drop out than their traditional student peers.

Today, having obtained his associate’s degree from Central Texas, Carrell is a freshman at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., where he plans to earn his bachelor’s degree. He is taking a writing-intensive course load, participates in a public speaking forum, and is considering pursuing a career in clinic psychology. He may even run for local political office. “By the end of the Warrior-Scholar Project, I felt like I could take on the world,” he says, with a laugh.

This is exactly the sort of bridge that the Warrior-Scholar Project hopes to build between the military and academia. “Our goal is not only that the veterans are going to go to respected universities, and complete university, but that they’re going to become leaders on campus and represent the veteran voice on campus,” says Jesse Reising, a second-year law student at Harvard University who dreamed up the program during his senior year at Yale.

Reising had planned to serve in the Marines after college, but a devastating tackle in the final quarter of his final game as a linebacker for the Yale football team left his right arm paralyzed. “I was searching for a way to serve those who would be serving in the military in my place,” he says.

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When Reising’s friend and the program co-founder, Nick Rugoff, introduced him to Chris Howell, a nine-year veteran of the Australian Army and a student at Yale, an idea jelled.

It was Howell’s younger brother, David, who had spurred his transition from the Army to university. Once Chris had set his sights on college, David, who was attending the University of Sydney at the time, sent him study advice and books packaged with brotherly tough love. Reising, Rugoff and Howell adapted the curriculum that David created and made it work for any U.S. military veteran hoping to embark on a college career. “There are so many challenges for veterans — academic, social, cultural, emotional challenges — in the transition from the military to college,” says Reising. “We launched the Warrior-Scholar Project with the idea that we were going to formalize the things that Chris did in order to successfully transition.”

The program, which has been expanded to two weeks, emphasizes reading and writing fundamentals, critical thinking and study techniques. Chris Howell, the executive director of the project, likens it to boot camp for its intensity — with five-page papers instead of push-ups. “When I rolled in there, I thought the professors were going to take it easy on us — but no, they were relentless!” says Jean Pierre Gordillo, a former Army convoy driver who attended the Warrior-Scholar Project in the summer of 2013.

The program also seeks to create an environment in which veterans feel understood, respected and empowered. Both Gordillo and Carrell emphasize the importance of the presence and perspective of fellow veterans like Howell, who have already made the transition to university and succeeded. In what Howell refers to as a “degreening seminar,” he and other veteran volunteers offer practical tips to help new students adapt to college life. You can’t swear in a seminar, for example. You can’t tell the same jokes you told in the military either. And you have to remember that you’ll be interacting mostly with 18-to-22-year-olds who, in all likelihood, have never witnessed combat and don’t know how to ask you about what you’ve seen.

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Before he arrived on campus for the program, Gordillo says he was most intimidated by the potential divide between the civilian student volunteers and the veterans. But built into the intensive academic work of the program was the occasional break — an afternoon on the beach, a backyard barbecue, a night on the porch of a Yale fraternity — that allowed his group to swap stories and ideas with current Yale students. “I left feeling I could share something of my military story, rather than being judged for it — and that that story gives me a unique perspective,” he says. Gordillo, who aspires to a career in U.S. foreign affairs, is now finishing his bachelor’s degree at Miami Dade College and recently submitted applications to master’s programs at eight selective universities.

Since 2012, every veteran who has completed the Warrior-Scholar Project and started college has stayed in college. Twenty-four Warrior-Scholars from the 2013 class are also currently in school or have plans to be enrolled by the fall of 2014. Last December, three more program graduates were accepted to Wesleyan University with financial help from the New York-based nonprofit Posse Foundation’s Veterans Program, which also provides Carrell with a scholarship to Vassar.

The Warrior-Scholar Project is now looking to scale up — but carefully. Its founders want to reach as many veterans as possible, while maintaining the support networks and one-on-one attention that have made the program so transformational. “There’s a saying in the special forces,” Howell says. “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”

MORE: How This Navy SEAL Uses His War Wounds to Help Other Soliders

With that in mind, this summer the Warrior-Scholar Project team will work with veteran students at Harvard and the University of Michigan to run two additional weeklong pilot programs on those campuses. With every university that hosts the project, more veterans will be able to experience its empowering effect, says Jeffrey Brenzel, former dean of undergraduate admissions at Yale, who teaches philosophy seminars to Warrior-Scholar participants.

“Their sense of themselves changed over the course of the [program],” says Brenzel of the veterans he taught at Yale. “They could see themselves as active participants in their own education.”

This week, Carrell is in the midst of midterm exams, but he’s keeping his head high above water, thanks to Chris Howell’s late-night motivational phone calls and Dave Howell’s reminders that writing is a process, not an event. “Having the knowledge from the Warrior-Scholar Project is like having a reserve parachute,” he says.

Editors’ note: Since the original publication of this story, Jesse Reising, founder of the Warrior-Scholar Project, has become a NationSwell Council member.

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Charlotte was one of NationSwell’s first interns and is passionate about green economies, innovation and making good on the American dream. She lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., where she enjoys seeking out good pasta and any semblance of