Chez plays host to Warrior-Scholar Project for second year
- Chez Veterans Center
- Warrior-Scholar Project
- Andrew Bender
- University of Illinois
- College of Applied Health Sciences
By ETHAN SIMMONS
For Chez Veterans Center director of operations Andy Bender, the function of the Warrior-Scholar Project is straightforward: Offer military Veterans a two-week-long academic “boot camp” to reacquaint themselves with the classroom environment before heading to a college or university.
“One of the hardest things a service member is going to do is leave the service,” Bender said. “We really enjoy having the Warrior-Scholar Project here because it reflects what we want to be a part of: Making that transition.”
In June 2023, the Chez Veterans Center, the hub for military populations at the University of Illinois, hosted a cohort of higher-ed-bound Veterans for the second year in a row.
The Warrior-Scholar Project partners with American colleges and universities to host brief, intensive, no-cost college prep experiences for both enlisted Veterans and service members transitioning into civilian life.
The Chez Center brought in Warrior-Scholars for the first time in 2022, with a week of STEM-centered coursework taught by Illinois faculty. This year’s edition doubled the session’s length, adding a Humanities track of classes for participants.
The cohort of 15 students and six fellows all hailed from outside of Illinois. Most hadn’t ever visited the Champaign-Urbana campus; though they may not choose Illinois for school, the experience still has a hand in their higher ed journeys.
The two-week schedule was filled with visits to various campus landmarks and labs, including the AHS McKechnie Family LIFE Home, and a robotics and automation demonstration at the Agricultural and Bioengineering research farm. Humanities seminars focused on the United States’ founding principles and documents that the Veterans were sworn to defend.
Assistant Professor of Political Science Alicia Uribe-McGuire led one of their first seminars, teaching an engaged class on the origin and execution of the U.S. Constitution.
“I've always thought that the more a student wants it, the better a student they are. And I think they want it,” Uribe-McGuire said shortly after her seminar discussion. “I've had Veterans in my classes before, and they're some of the best students.”
One frequent class contributor was Cody Lepp, an eight-year Navy SEAL who decided to return to school while still serving in the military. After three years taking online classes through National University in San Diego, Lepp is heading into his senior year and he wanted to use WSP to see how he measured up in the in-person classroom environment.
“I came in with an open mindset, hopefully I can learn some new things,” Lepp said. “What I hope to get out of it is practice applying my skills, seeing where I stand against the majority of my fellows.”
Jonathan Banasihan had spent seven years as a technician for the U.S. Navy when a new challenge—going back to school—entered his purview. The Warrior-Scholar Project seemed a great opportunity to refamiliarize himself with the flow of a classroom.
Banasihan, the son of Filipino immigrants, never thought college was an option. With a bachelor’s degree from American University and now planning to go to law school at George Washington University, Banasihan feels he left the academic boot camp with far more than advertised.
“I didn't think that I could do the things that I did in college until I came here,” said Banasihan, now a facilitator for the Warrior-Scholar Project. “The confidence that WSP gave me to not just be uncomfortable, but to stretch myself in ways that I never really expected or wanted to was huge.”
Banasihan is ushering through student Veterans who were in his same position.
“UIUC has been an incredible, incredible partner. I can't say anything but good things about this place,” Banasihan said.
Among Veterans’ challenges reintegrating after their service, higher education can be a “completely different animal,” Bender said.
“If you're like some service members—if you've spent four, five, six years—how long has it been since you were in a classroom? You might have some of those creeping doubts come in. Can I make it? Am I going to fit in? Is this going to be successful?” he said.
“(WSP) is providing the confidence to these service members that we can do it. That there is a future beyond my service time. That there is a way to make it.”