When Tristyn Stemple started studying energy engineering at Pennsylvania State University last winter, she felt out of place sitting in a classroom full of students fresh from high school. While they were studying calculus, composing college applications, and preparing for the prom, Stemple was machining metal, fashioning fiberglass, and adjusting hydraulic systems as a helicopter mechanic in the U.S. Marine Corps, where she served for five years.
“I had no confidence in myself when it came to being a good student and holding my own in a classroom with these kids that came right out of high school,” Stemple says.
In July, however, Stemple got a confidence boost when she traveled to Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology to participate in the Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP)—an academic boot camp designed to give enlisted veterans, service members typically who did not get a college degree before joining the military, the skills they need to be successful college students.
“I came hoping to simply become a better student, to learn how to study better,” Stemple says. “It’s been so much more than that,” adding that her confidence in her ability as a student blossomed during the two-week program. “I struggled this past semester, but I feel so much better now,” she says.
WSP began at Yale University in 2012 as a weeklong intensive humanities and liberal arts course focusing on developing reading and writing skills. Nine students participated in that inaugural class. It’s grown dramatically in the past six years. This summer, 16 colleges and universities hosted WSP courses for about 15 students at each campus. The WSP organization and the host schools cover all the costs for classes, housing, and meals during the program. Students pay only for transportation to their program site.
The program has grown thematically as well. In 2015, WSP began offering STEM week, a second week of training focused on giving students skills for classes in science, technology, engineering, and math. This summer, seven of the 16 WSP sites included STEM week.
STEM week was the brainchild of Yale astrophysicist Marla Geha. Geha says she read about WSP in the Yale Daily News when the program first began. Even though she had very little personal connection to the military, as a woman in science she felt a kinship with these student veterans: They, too, often feel like outsiders, have to reckon with impostor syndrome, and lack role models. She reached out to WSP’s founders to see if they planned to introduce STEM skills in the program.
It turns out such skills are in demand by student veterans. About two-thirds of enlisted veterans leaving the military expressed an interest in STEM, according to a 2015 survey by the Institute for Veterans & Military Families at Syracuse University. But the National Veteran Education Success Tracker found that only about 14% of the degrees earned by student veterans are in STEM fields.
Many student veterans, Geha says, didn’t do very well in high school. “They joined the military and have since become amazing learners through their experience,” she says, “but still view themselves as lousy high school students.” The majority of these service members are also first-generation college students, so they’re not familiar with the college experience and aren’t aware of all the resources available to them.
WSP’s rigorous program makes student veterans feel comfortable on campus, Geha says, and gives them “all the skills that they need not just to survive but to thrive.” During WSP’s STEM week, warrior-scholars participate in a research project, attend lectures based on an introductory physics course, and work through problem sets related to those lectures. They also visit labs at their host school to get a broad perspective on the kind of research going on there.
“There’s a perception that this is a physics program,” says Michael McDonald, an MIT physicist who runs WSP’s STEM week at MIT. “Physics is just the dressing that we put on this. The point is to give them a week of something that simulates university life.”
“It’s not like we’re giving them a whole bunch of knowledge,” Geha adds. “They already have everything they need. We’re just trying to show them that they have it.”
“It was a hard program,” says Devin Steward, a former Navy hospital corpsman at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center who is studying computer science at the University of Maryland University College. Steward participated in Yale’s WSP program this summer. “The problem sets took hours, during late nights and early mornings,” but he adds that it makes the other classes he took this summer look “like a cakewalk.” What’s more, Steward points out, the program provides a good support system. “It’s probably one of the most encouraging places I’ve been in my adult life.”
Geha plans to expand the support system for warrior-scholars using a $1 million grant she received in December from Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The funding, distributed over five years, will help the program establish an online network and will fund summer research opportunities for WSP alumni.
WSP is also planning to bring STEM week to nine schools in 2019, and Geha encourages professors in the chemical sciences at host schools to get in touch. Involvement can be anything from a 30-minute chat about research over cookies to running a weeklong research project.