WARRIOR-SCHOLAR: Now a STEM Fellow for the Warrior-Scholar Project at Princeton University, U.S. Navy veteran Luke Hixson taught classes, provided tutoring help, and served as a student-veteran mentor at this summer’s Princeton University academic boot camp, which completed its sixth summer in operation on July 2.
By Donald Gilpin
Academic boot camp was in session at Princeton University from June 18 to July 2, as 13 student veterans, “warrior scholars,” participated in an immersive program of humanities and STEM classes taught by Princeton professors. They started classes each day at 8:30 a.m. and continued their studies — research, writing, collaborative projects — into the late night hours.
Designed to help veterans prepare for an academic environment while learning strategies to become better students, the Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP) boot camp has taken place at Princeton University for the past six summers, with support from Princeton, along with foundations, corporations, and private donors, covering the entire cost of the program for participants, including an accessibility stipend of up to $500 for travel, child care, and other expenses.
Since the partnership began, 71 veterans have attended the WSP-Princeton academic boot camp. WSP’s first boot camp took place at Yale University in 2012, and since then the program has expanded to 24 of the country’s top schools and has helped nearly 2,000 veterans get a head start in higher education.
“I know that the Warrior-Scholar project saves lives,” said U.S. Navy veteran Luke Hixson, currently a sophomore at Princeton who served as a STEM Mobile Training Team Fellow this summer after attending the University of California, Irvine boot camp in 2020. “For many transitioning service members, getting out of the military can lead to losing a sense of community or purpose in life.”
He continued, “I know for me, one of the reasons I had joined the military was because I was afraid of going to college fresh out of high school. The value in WSP is the fact that veterans leave this program with a realization that they have what it takes to be successful at any academic institution. Not only do they leave the program feeling more confident, but they also become members of the WSP alumni network, a national student veteran community. WSP changes the trajectory of its participants. The impact it has on veterans is life-changing.”
At this year’s boot camp, Hixson’s job included teaching STEM classes to the WSP participants, giving tutoring help, and serving as a student-veteran mentor. “I was very impressed with how well the students were able to work together and how close they were as a cohort,” said Hixson.
“The STEM curriculum is quite rigorous, as each day requires 12 to14 hours of learning and engaging in the classroom environment,” he added. “In one week the students learn trigonometry and vectors, 1-D and 2-D motion, Newton’s Laws, and work and energy. In addition to the program curriculum they also work on a week-long research project where they are paired with Princeton faculty or graduate students and develop a presentation with their STEM research. Collaboration is key.”
U.S. Army veteran David Nagley completed the humanities boot camp at the University of Pennsylvania before completing the STEM boot camp at Princeton last week. A Ewing resident, Nagley is currently enrolled at Mercer County Community College, majoring in political science, and plans to apply to Princeton University for admission in the fall of 2023.
The academic challenges and the positive environment were two of the most striking aspects of academic boot camp for Nagley. “The whole community meshed together extremely well,” he said. “We helped each other and we all grew. Everyone who was there wanted to be there and everyone wanted to work hard. It was a really nurturing environment for people of all skill levels to grow and learn something new.”
He continued, “It was really rigorous mentally, especially for those like myself who hadn’t been to school for three or four years. It was a very different environment from what I’d been used to, but it was awesome. I loved it.”
Describing himself as “extremely confident for the upcoming school year,” Nagley said he feels that the WSP is “under-advertised,” “a hidden gem.” “Everyone gained the confidence they needed, learned the material they needed, and acquired the skills they needed to excel at college,” he said. “Your life isn’t over post-military. This program should get more publicity and be known as a common tool for veterans.”
Keith Shaw, director of transfer and outreach for the Emma Bloomberg Center for Access and Opportunity at Princeton, has been a participant and leader in the WSP since its first year at Princeton in 2017. This year he taught two seminars and served as writing instructor.
Shaw was happy to see the academic boot camp back in person for the first time since 2019. Virtual sessions in the past two summers were successful, but Shaw noted, “Feels like it’s much more productive for everybody to be in the same classroom and go to the same meal hall and be able to tour through campus. The students were fantastic.”
He continued, “The whole aim of the program is to give them a sense of what it’s like to be a student at a four-year university. We do everything we can to make them feel like real Princeton students while they’re here, so that includes not just the classroom but also residential life.”
In addition to helping the warrior scholars acquire the necessary transferable skills in writing, math, and science “that are going to allow them to succeed whatever their next institution is,” Shaw pointed out that “it’s important that WSP exists as a confidence-builder and invites them into a very effective extended professional and academic network. We are definitely in communication with the students for years after they finish the program. That’s part of the point.”
The students remain in touch with WSP staff and alumni, Shaw said, and they know that faculty and staff are happy to pick up the phone, to write recommendations, and to give guidance, whether it’s helping them to think through an application essay or plan the next steps in their lives.
Princeton University has been steadily increasing its population of transfer, veteran, and nontraditional — usually older —students as part of its overall undergraduate expansion, and about half of the student veterans now at Princeton are WSP alumni.
Shaw described the excitement of teaching his WSP class on American history and democracy during the weeks when the January 6 commission was holding its hearings and then on the final day of his class when the Supreme Court’s abortion decision came down.
“That was a strange and poignant moment,” he said, “related to everything we’d been talking about. And it was a really interesting group, because they had obviously sacrificed a lot for the Constitution. They believe very much in the American project. Politically they are quite a range, so they have different reactions to what they’re reading, and that’s what you want. The best thing about it is that it’s the kind of place where they can look through the texts and think through and argue together about what they mean, and disagree about that in an environment where they’re all committed to learning together. In some ways it’s an ideal liberal arts experience.”
Astrophysics graduate student Goni Halevi, who taught a group of WSP students about exoplanets and guided them in an independent research project, agreed with Shaw in her comments on the students in the program.
“The students were extremely engaged and enthusiastic,” she said. “They asked great questions, participated wholeheartedly in our discussions, and picked up on material that was brand new to them very quickly. I was so impressed by what they were able to do in a single week.”
She pointed out some of the most valuable attributes of the project. “Bringing students who often couldn’t picture themselves at a place like Princeton to campus, to live in dorms and interact with Princeton faculty and staff, can enhance their confidence and ability to imagine themselves in a similar academic environment,” she said.
In watching the students’ presentation of their projects on the final day, Halevi reflected, “It was a wonderful demonstration of how knowledge is synthesized and the power of non-traditional classroom settings, where learning happens collectively rather than just being passed down from instructor to student.”