Enriching Academic Life for Veterans
Corri Zoli ’91, G’93, G’04 knows intimately the paradox at the heart of America’s support for its all-volunteer military. “We often talk about ‘supporting veterans’ without really thinking about what that means,” says Zoli, co-author of the Institute for Veterans and Military Families (IVMF) at SU report Missing Perspectives: Servicemembers’ Transition from Service to Civilian Life (with IVMF’s Rosalinda Maury and Florida State University professor Danny Fay). “We know very little about the veterans in our midst. We thank them for their service—but too often that’s where the conversation ends.”
Zoli’s groundbreaking research into servicemembers’ perspectives about why they serve, life after the military, and Post-9/11 GI Bill benefits helps deepen this conversation. One of the biggest misconceptions, Zoli finds, is the assumption that veterans need extensive support on college campuses. “It’s more accurate to say veterans have much to contribute to higher education,” says Zoli, director of research at the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism (INSCT). Beyond teamwork and leadership skills, veterans often have highly technical training, cross-cultural expertise, and dedication to the greater community. “Our research finds that most Post-9/11 veterans are motivated to pursue education, feel their military service prepares them well for degrees and jobs, and seek to give back to society,” Zoli says.
Yet too often veterans are an uncommon sight at four-year colleges. In fact, Zoli’s research found that less than half of recent veterans were using their generous GI Bill benefits as of 2014. Syracuse University has worked hard to be an exception to this rule, Zoli notes. Since 1946, when Chancellor William P. Tolley enrolled more than 9,600 veterans through the original GI Bill, the University has sought to leverage veterans’ skills, discipline, and leadership with such offerings as the Defense Comptrollership Program (Whitman School), the Military Visual Journalism Program (Newhouse School), and Operation Boots to Business (IVMF).
Zoli is part of another veterans’ educational transition effort on campus. The Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP) is a donor-funded college readiness initiative, launched at Yale University in 2012, designed to help transitioning servicemembers develop the academic critical skills and the confidence needed to thrive on college campuses. Zoli has taught in the program since 2015, along with history professor Allan Allport and writing and rhetoric professor Eileen Schell, among others. In February, Zoli was named chair of WSP’s Academic Advisory Board, which includes retired Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador Paul Russo. WSP’s free-of-charge “academic boot camps” now run at 12 universities nationwide. SU held its most recent camp—coordinated by Jen Jeffery ’14, G’17 of SU Libraries—in July. “We call it an ‘academic boot camp’ because it’s an immersive introduction to college work,” says WSP executive director Sidney Ellington, a former U.S. Navy SEAL officer and director of Teach for America’s Military Veterans Outreach and Support Initiative. “Just like when a young person joins the military and experiences barracks, drills, and firing ranges, at our camp they go to ‘chow’ at 8 a.m., ‘muster’ for class at 9 a.m., and work in writing labs all afternoon.” The workload extends into the evening, says Ellington, with warrior-scholars getting crash courses about admissions and college culture after dinner, before study hall until 11 p.m. “It’s an intense academic reorientation,” he adds.
Part of Ellington’s motivation for creating the program was to steer veterans toward top universities, showing them that re-tooling their military training and discipline will give them what it takes to do well, even if they are first-generation college students. “Taxpayers spent $12 billion per year on the Post-9/11 GI Bill, and 40 percent of that has gone to for-profit colleges,” he says. “At boot camp, veterans learn they can succeed at a college like SU.”
Adam LeGrand ’19 is one of those veterans. A former U.S. Air Force medic, LeGrand is now a policy studies major at SU. “Academic boot camp kicked our butts!” he exclaims. “The program is designed to overwhelm you and make you think differently about higher education, but it makes sense for veterans to test themselves in a new environment.” LeGrand had aspirations of becoming a nurse anesthesiologist or going into law enforcement, but a serious accident during his final deployment in Qatar forced him to reconsider life after service. “I took some community college and for-profit college classes, but nothing worked for me,” he says. That is, until the Warrior-Scholar Project reoriented him toward SU. Now LeGrand hopes, after a bachelor’s degree, to go to law school to study veterans’ rights and national security.
One important function of the boot camp is to bridge the gap between military training and the learning style required in college. “Military education is very ‘platform,’” LeGrand says. “You are asked to memorize everything and not to ask ‘why?’”
Allport, one of LeGrand’s boot camp teachers, agrees. “Servicemembers are not encouraged to ask questions about training material, but in boot camp, we teach classic texts—Democracy in America and The History of the Peloponnesian War—to examine concepts such as citizenship and democracy. In many cases, this is the first time these students have encountered these texts, and it’s impressive how they respond. They ask intelligent questions, and that includes ‘I don’t understand.’”
Allport enjoys teaching veterans, citing their willingness to talk and learn new things, he says. “They bring insights into the classroom from the breadth of their life experience.” And when they apply their experiences to the texts they’re studying “that leads to good discussion,” he says. While Ellington says he hears often from WSP professors that the warrior-scholars enrich academic conversations, he also cites data-driven measures of his program’s success, including Zoli’s IVMF research. “Corri’s research shows that just 1 percent of military veterans are using GI Bill benefits to go to USA Today top-ranked colleges, but WSP is sending 17 percent of its alumni into those schools, and more than half of those to Tier 1 schools,” he says. “What’s more, 98 percent of our alumni who have started college are still there.”
Zoli agrees that integrating warrior-scholars into university classrooms benefits all. “At boot camp, student veterans not only discuss the great ideas that animate history, they pitch in with interpretations steeped in their experiences, including war. Servicemembers thus contribute to some of our most enduring debates: What is the nature of democracy? How do we approach injustice?” Zoli says. “WSP strives to make veterans part of a wider academic conversation and to become campus leaders. In turn, college communities are enriched by their knowledge and leadership.”—Martin Walls
Corri Zoli ’91, G’93, G’04 (top of page), director of research at the Institute for National Security and Counterterrorism, speaks to a class of military veterans as part of the Warrior-Scholar Project. Adam LeGrand ’19 (above right, with his service dog, Molly) credits the program with inspiring him to succeed at SU.