ITHACA, NY – One of the much-lauded benefits of military service is the promise of financial support for higher education. The G.I. Bill provides the funding, but it doesn’t provide much in the way of direction.
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Now in it’s fourth year, the Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP) is looking to tackle that problem, by giving returning veterans an intensive one-to-two week “boot camp” focused on preparing veterans for success in academics.
Cornell is one of a dozen schools that participates in the program, which began at Yale in 2012 and has been expanding year after year. More than 200 veterans are expected to participate in the program this year.
The Voice spoke to Brittny Escamilla, a 2015 graduate of the Warrior-Scholar Program at Cornell, to learn about her experiences with the program.
Escamilla, 26, served four years and did two overseas tours in the United States Army as a Healthcare Specialist.
“Depending on the Military Unit you work for, that job description can mean different things. But I typically tell people I was a nurses’ assistant one year, combat medic (basic EMT) for another, and a Human Records Admin Assistant for the remanding time in service,” Escamilla said.
Coming from a family with a history of military service, Escamilla said she expected that she would join the Army after finishing college. In 2009, her third year enrolled in UC Davis, she found herself struggling with the strain of being a full-time student, athletic competitor and holding down a job — as well as a hefty tuition bill.
Those factors, plus an effort on the part of the military to recruit more female personnel to interact with women in Afghanistan (cultural norms prevented male soldiers from doing so) led Escamilla to enlist — but she knew it wouldn’t be the end of her academic career.
“I was no straight ‘A’ student, and struggled through all of my classes, so taking a career shift seemed logical. So I made a promise to myself that if I joined the military I must at some point return to school and finish my degree before I turned 30,” said Escamilla.
On her first tour in Afghanistan in 2011, Escamilla served at Camp Nathan Smith in Kandahar City, working in a trauma hospital. Later, she transitioned to a human resources position, where she dealt with more legal matters.
Escamilla said that that sort of flexibility and the ability to learn and train in multiple disciplines was something she valued in her military experience. “They want you to be a diverse soldier, diverse in your career,” she said.
After her service was finished, Escamilla enrolled in a local community college began looking into her options for transferring to a four-year school. She reached out to various student veteran groups, seeking advise on the best course of action.
With guidance from fellow veterans and a non-profit called Service to School, she learned about the Warrior-Scholar Project.
“I heard about this program that was tailored to the ‘non-traditional’ veteran student,” Escamilla said. “The more I read into the program, I knew that this was the one I needed to attend.”
Escamilla said that the other institutions she looked into offered programs for veterans, but many of them were in the early stages and were still working out how best to serve veterans’ needs. None of them had the proven track record of the Warrior Scholar-Project.
On a basic level, one thing that sets most veteran students apart from the average student is simply having more life experience. Some are just entering a higher learning atmosphere for the first time after enlisting directly after high school. Even those who were returning to academics were looking at at least a four year gap, meaning they were in their mid-twenties or older.
“In the military, they say you have a task and a purpose — this is what’s expected of you and this is why you’re doing it. Task, purpose, execute,” Escamilla said. Coming into the academic sphere, things are less straightforward.
Escamilla said a big challenge for her was trying to figure out where she would fit in in the world of academics and which program would be best suited to her life goals.
It’s not just big picture, either. Escamilla gave a smaller example of the challenges a veteran can face when entering or re-entering the world of academics. “We went from writing reports and regulations or policies to how do you write a strong persuasive essay.”
Cornell was one of Escamilla’s top picks among the schools in the WSP. “I had the mentality that if I want to see where I stand in terms of capabilities in academics, an Ivy League school would be a great way to start,” she said.
During the program, students had opportunities to tour the campus and meet with academic advisers and faculty. “It opened the door, like ‘Cornell is an option for me’ and more importantly, it was an option they were willing to help if it’s something you’re interested in,” said Escamilla.
With Ithaca being college town much like UC Davis which she had previously attended, Escamilla said she was right at home while visiting Cornell. She also appreciated the historic look of the campus and the beauty of Fall Creek.
Escamilla is currently studying Management in Information Systems and Emergency Management at the University of Nebraska – Omaha, but said “If I could somehow make my career and my academic goals lead in that direction, I’d love to come back.”
The academic boot camp structure of the WSP mirrors that of a proper boot camp. After arriving on a Sunday and settling in, the next week was heavily structured with everything — even meal breaks and personal time — on a strict timeline, according to Escamilla.
“They keep you busy, they keep you on your toes, but at the same time they don’t let you burn out. They want you to push yourself, but at the same time not become overwhelmed and give up on it,” said Escamilla.
The program gave the attending veterans opportunities to work with college faculty, alumni of the WSP itself as well as student tutors who volunteered their time to the program. However, Escamilla said the biggest impact for her was working with her fellow veterans.
“Hearing their stories, hearing their reasons for going back to school, hearing the goals in life… that gave me more motivation and more confidence in me going back to school, because you can hear stories of someone going back while also raising their family and also having to re-familiarize themselves back into their hometown, getting back on their feet after coming out of the military,” she said.
She likened the sense of communal learning to having a “battle buddy” to get through struggles. Through study groups and group discussions, the veterans were able to share their backgrounds and experiences and work together throughout the program.
Escamilla said there were main skills she took away from the program that have helped her advance academically, one personal and one technical.
On the personal side, she said learned how to better open up and ask questions. While it wasn’t as much a problem in the military, she said she had always struggled with being self-conscious about it in classroom settings. The WSP program helped her open to asking for help, and more importantly, she said, helped her realize that there are plenty of people out there willing to help.
On a technical level, she picked up a skill called “ninja reading.” Since the students had to cram a lot of reading into their one-week program, they learned a way to be more engaged with those readings.
After finishing her week of the Warrior-Scholar Program at Cornell, Escamilla returned to the community college she had been attending. She said that even though she knew she was soon transferring out of state, she wanted to make herself available as a resource to others who were in her situation.
“I know for a fact there’s hundreds of other veterans that are in the situation that I was. They know they’re capable, but they don’t know how to approach it. They know they can pursue a four-year university, but they don’t know the transfer process,” Escamilla said.
She went to the Veteran’s Center there, which was still a developing program and gave them her information, so she could serve as a resource for other veterans who found themselves in similar situations. After all, that’s what had led her down the path to find the WSP — by connecting with another person with whom she knew nothing except that they too had served.
Escamilla says she recommends the program to fellow veterans every chance she gets, whether connecting with people from other parts of the country or fellow students at UNO.
Note: If you’re interested in this topic, you may want to go back and take a look at The Ithaca Voice’s “Hope on the Homefront” series, which deals with issues confronting veterans returning home:
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