AMHERST — Alex Baran was working three jobs and taking classes at Mount Hood Community College in Oregon in 2008 when he found himself unable to pay for health insurance, a car and food at the same time. So, out of necessity, he quit school, joined the Marine Corps and went off to war.
Nearly a decade and two tours in Afghanistan later, Baran, 30, has seen the world and has become fascinated with different types of government and how they compare to the United States’ own system. He wants to go back to school to study political science but worries that after such a long stint as a Marine he’s not ready for the difficult transition from the battlefield to the book stacks.
“I haven’t really experienced civilian life yet,” he said Aug. 9, walking through Amherst College’s campus.
Baran was at Amherst College as one of 15 veterans taking part in a weeklong “academic boot camp” this week organized by the Warrior-Scholar Project, a nonprofit that seeks to help enlisted veterans as they prepare for reintroduction to academic life.
For veterans, one of the biggest perks of finishing service is going back to school on the GI Bill, which in 2008 was expanded to military veterans who have served three years or more of active duty after Sept. 11, 2001. In a 2015 survey, the Institute for Veterans and Military Families at Syracuse University found that “military service was primarily motivated by education benefits,” with 53 percent of respondents identifying education as their primary reason for enlisting.
Benefits under the GI Bill are also soon likely to expand significantly after the U.S. Senate earlier this month unanimously sent the so-called “Forever GI Bill” to President Trump’s desk, which among other things would remove a 15-year limit on when new enlistees could use those benefits.
But despite that hard-earned money, many veterans like Baran have spent years out of a classroom and may feel unprepared for the rigors of higher education. Into that gap has stepped the Warrior-Scholar Project, which raises mostly private money to pay for veterans to attend an immersive academic preparation course free of charge. Now in its fifth year, the program is operating on 15 campuses and this summer has put around 250 veterans through its academic boot camps.
“They’re an ideal college candidate at this point, but they’re carrying all that baggage with them from previous experience, and their belief in themselves is very limited,” said Sidney Ellington, the organization’s executive director and a Navy veteran himself. Colleges across the country are clamoring to take part in the project, he said, with fundraising the only thing holding them back from expanding what he sees as a clearly needed and under-provided service.
Top colleges also see the program as a way to attract veterans, who make up a tiny portion of the student population on many elite campuses. At Amherst College, there are only five veterans out of a student population of 1,800 enrolled for this fall, according to Katie L. Fretwell, the college’s dean of admission and financial aid.
“We’re eager to attract the talent among these veterans,” Fretwell said. “We know they are already leaders, they are collaborators, they are already community leaders, and these are the qualities we seek in applicants.”
The number of students using the post-9/11 GI Bill to attend the Pioneer Valley’s other private colleges isn’t much higher. In the past calendar year, there were six attending Hampshire College, seven at Smith College and 10 at Mount Holyoke College, according to data from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (At the University of Massachusetts Amherst there were 326).
For some veterans, applying to a school like Amherst may have always seemed out of reach.
“I could have never gotten here after high school,” Baran said of Amherst, looking out on the manicured lawns and elegant buildings. He didn’t have the grades, he said, or the finances to make it possible. “Nobody would have invited me here.”
Many, however, are drawn in by the for-profit college industry’s aggressive marketing to veterans, Ellington said. Critics accuse those institutions of using predatory practices like providing inflated job promises, with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, going so far as to accuse them of seeing veterans as “dollar signs in uniform.”
“On the backside, the graduation rates from a lot of these schools is abysmal,” Ellington said. “Then the marketability of that degree once you do attain it, it’s not worth much.”
Preparing for success
Sixty-two percent of student veterans are first-generation students, according to the VA, and Ellington said many of them don’t intuitively understand the landscape of higher education. For that reason, the Warrior-Scholar Project wants to insert itself into that time between when service members put down the rifle and pick up the textbook to coach them on their options.
That’s not to say, of course, that veterans don’t possess the skills to be successful students. In fact, it’s many of the qualities those veterans possess as nontraditional students that are enticing to schools like Amherst.
For Barry Frederick, a 33-year-old Navy hospital corpsman, there’s one quality that stands out.
“It’s got to be discipline,” he said during a break from a lecture on ancient Greek democracy on Wednesday. “And we get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”
Frederick said he joined the Warrior-Scholar Project to add more educational “tools” to his figurative “toolbox” — a sentiment shared by several others.
“I’m excited to come here to get a better grasp on writing again,” Naomi Campos, a 24-year-old Navy linguist, said. She has been out of school for more than five years, and said she appreciated the opportunity to get re-acquainted with being a student. “This program has helped me go back to critical reading.”
Baran, the Marine, said the week at Amherst has helped him recognize what strategies he’ll need to thrive in higher education; his hearing is damaged after so many explosions on the battlefield, for example, so he realized that he’ll need to sit near the front of the classroom to hear the professor.
Other lessons will take time to learn, however, and that’s something that concerns Baran. For instance, being an “individual” in the military was something higher-ups would routinely punish him and his comrades for.
“It’s normally literally seen as a bad thing,” he said. Contrast that with what Baran saw on Amherst’s campus, where students’ differences are celebrated and encouraged. “If you can’t prove you’re an individual, you don’t belong here.”
Makayla Cardella, a 23-year-old Navy linguist from Phoenix, was also anxious about whether she’d do well diving back into scholarly pursuits. But listening to longtime Amherst classics professor Rick Griffiths discuss the Greek historians Thucydides and Herodotus, she was able to dispel that distress.
“Mostly, I was just nervous, so it’s really cool to come here,” she said.
And the warrior-scholars looked the part too: casually congregating outside the entrance of historic Fayerweather Hall to chat, relax and drink coffee and energy drinks before class began; actively engaging in Griffiths’ class, their assiduously highlighted texts open in front of them; and staying behind to ask extra questions after the college’s planetarium director, Fred Venne, gave a presentation on the constellations that will be visible during the solar eclipse later this month.
“A lot of times people come back later in life to school,” Venne said afterward. “I find them to be more focused.”
That doesn’t mean that there aren’t still underlying fears, though. For Baran, it’s the prospect of rejection from the top colleges he’s applying to — Amherst, Columbia, Williams, Princeton — that’s most troubling.
“It’s still terrifying because I haven’t completed the application process for any of these places,” he said. And that’s while still trying to figure out how to get his VA health care figured out, still figuring out how to transition from the military service that meant so much to him.
“It’s easy to miss everything, even the painful moments,” he said shortly before trekking across campus to the dining hall, blending in effortlessly with the other students.