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Warrior-Scholar Project ‘boot camp’ at UCI puts military members on the front line of education

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Chassen Selwyn, Kevin Lopez and Matthew Walters, foreground from left, share a laugh at UC Irvine on Tuesday as part of the Warrior-Scholar Project “boot camp” intended to provide veterans and active military service members with the skills they need to move from military life to student life.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Fourteen veterans and active military service members from around the country are going back to basic training this week in sunny Irvine, miles from their bases and homes.

But this time, these “cadets” are not being trained for what the military will demand of them emotionally, physically and mentally. Armed with pencils, highlighters and textbook after textbook, they are attending a boot camp of a different kind — one meant to prepare them for college.

The week-long, humanities-focused program made its debut Monday at the UC Irvine campus. It is presented by the university and the Warrior-Scholar Project, a nonprofit that promotes educational opportunities for retired and active service members.

“We are extremely excited to host the Warrior-Scholar Project here on UCI’s campus,” said Kevin Huie, the university’s executive director of student success initiatives. “The participants will have the amazing opportunity to learn from some of our world-class faculty members in the School of Social Sciences and School of Law while gaining a strong set of critical, academic skills and knowledge that will help prepare them for future success.”

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Cassie Michael, a campus organizer for the Warrior-Scholar Project, said the humanities program is one of the most popular courses. Students learn about and discuss democracy, the Constitution and contemporary writings about the military.

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Sterling Meriweather, a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, gathers books needed as part of the Warrior-Scholar Project “boot camp” at UC Irvine that aims to help veterans and active military members transition from military service to academic life.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

“We’re really trying to push these folks into somewhat difficult discussions in order to expose them to the level of critical thinking and analysis that they should expect once they get to wherever they’re going,” said Michael, a veteran of the Marine Corps. “We try to have them practice all of these skills. You know, if we fumble a few times, that’s OK. But we’re here doing it in this sort of space where it’s a very forgiving environment. We do a lot of learning about how to navigate this new space.”

The project has several iterations, each focusing on different fields of study, including STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and more recently, a pilot business program.

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The program is free and includes campus boarding and food. The only thing students need to pay for is travel, Michael said.

“The website calls this experience an ‘academic boot camp’ because we pack a lot of information into either one-week or two-week programs, and from 8 o’clock in the morning to about 10 o’clock at night, they’re doing something — studying, reading, going through some kind of instruction, sitting in on a seminar/discussion with professors,” Michael said.

The goal is to aid the transition from military service to academic life, Michael said.

Jake Grandolfo, a Marine stationed in New Orleans, said he felt the transition is the most difficult part of the educational boot camp, partly because he was out of school for so long. Though he took some community college classes while serving, he felt he was still struggling to get back in the academic mind-set.

Four years, the typical requirement for active service in most military branches, “doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but if we’re talking about folks who have just exited high school and they have this four-year gap of where they’re doing something completely on the other end of the spectrum of academics and they want to come back and go to school, they don’t have the same skill sets that they might have had if they were just coming from high school going right through college,” Michael said.

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UC Irvine law professor Jonathan Glater begins a lecture as part of the Warrior-Scholar Project “boot camp” at UCI on Tuesday.
(Don Leach / Staff Photographer)

Grandolfo and Sterling Meriweather, a Marine stationed at Camp Pendleton, both joined the military straight out of high school.

Meriweather said he’s glad he enlisted because the Marine Corps helped him figure out what he wanted out of life, and he said education is his next step once he completes active duty.

“It’s a mental challenge as far as expanding your life to wrap around the college life and how college students kind of work and what they need to do to strive at the institutional level,” Meriweather said.

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“Being in the service, you’re out of the [academic] environment for a long time,” he said. “The most challenging part, I would have to say, is us being able to connect with the other college students to find similarities and differences there to actually be able to be a contributor — not only to the classroom but to the institution that hosts us here.”

Despite the challenges, Meriweather said he enjoys the freedom of being a college student after coming from a military background in which there are strict rules. He added, however, that having that kind of routine helped him complete his work efficiently.

“Honestly, I think a lot of us — myself included — we have this fear that we’ve been out of school for so long,” Grandolfo said. “But the staff are super welcoming and they understand what we’ve been through because they’ve been through it too. The people I’ve been around, they’re really great guys.”

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