Summer studies at Stanford give military veterans an academic boost

Stanford’s Veteran Accelerator program, which accepted its first cohort in summer 2014, helps military veterans enrolled in community college programs to develop the academic, professional and personal skills needed to thrive at a four-year institution.

During his summer stay at Stanford, Garrett Gross took a sociology course on the power of social networks in everyday life, and learned how to write a persuasive, argument-based essay in a course offered by the Program in Writing and Rhetoric.

Garrett Gross, left, and Hugo Santos Parada, discuss an assignment

Garrett Gross, left, and Hugo Santos Parada, who are enrolled in the Veteran Accelerator program at Stanford this summer, discuss an essay assignment for their writing class. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

To ease stress and clear his mind, he also took a morning yoga class.

Gross, who served in the U.S. Army Infantry for six years, including a deployment to Afghanistan, is one of 15 military veterans enrolled in Stanford’s Veteran Accelerator program this year.

The program, which is offered as part of the eight-week Stanford Summer Session, offers full scholarships to veterans enrolled in community colleges who have set their sights on attending four-year universities.

Gross, who is pursuing an associate degree in computer science at a community college in Minnesota, said his time on the Farm has opened his eyes to university life.

“At Stanford, everyone wants to get to know each other and you’re surrounded by people who are eager to learn and very engaged in class,” he said. “It’s such a great environment because it motivates you to strive to learn more as well. Everyone is up all night studying, studying, studying, but somehow you make time to have a personal life as well.”

Gross also praised those teaching his courses – Michael Hahn, a doctoral candidate in sociology, and Christopher Kamrath, an advanced lecturer who teaches writing and rhetoric – saying both were committed to the success of each individual student.

“Each of them engages so much with individual students, making sure their voices are heard,” Gross said. “Their attitude is: Let us help you become a better student.”

Other veterans in the program, which includes 12 men and three women, echoed his admiration for those who taught their courses.

This summer’s cohort is the fifth group of veterans to participate in the program, which Stanford established in 2014. So far, 73 veterans have taken part.

During the program, the veterans can earn Stanford credits that may be used to pursue a two-year or four-year degree at other institutions. They take courses alongside other summer session students from across the United States and around the world, including Stanford undergraduate students.

Roaming the Farm, academically speaking

On Tuesday and Thursday mornings, all the veterans, who range in age from 23 to 38, gathered in a classroom in Wallenberg Hall for a required course, Writing in the University: Debates About the Politics and Technologies of Journalism.

Veterans Ritchie Garcia Jr. and Destiny Goddu work together during a small group activity during class. (Image credit: L.A. Cicero)

During the rest of the week, they fanned out across campus to attend an academic course of their choosing. The courses they chose spanned nearly a dozen fields, including philosophy, computer science, Japanese, psychology, and management science and engineering.

Andrew J. Hall, who served as an aircraft director and firefighter aboard a U.S. Navy amphibious assault ship, spent one evening a week observing stars, nebulae and galaxies at the Stanford Student Observatory, where he also took photographs of Mars, for an introductory physics course on observational astronomy.

Destiny Danielle Goddu, a Marine Corps veteran who repaired missile guidance systems for fighter jets, read Your Inner Fish: A Journey into the 3.5-Billion-Year History of the Human Body for the biology course she selected, Evolution: From DNA to Dinosaurs.

Ritchie Garcia Jr., a former Marine who protected high-ranking officials and diplomats as a member of a security force battalion, enrolled in a political science course, Ethics and Politics of Public Service. As a final project, he created a detailed funding proposal for a nonprofit organization devoted to the mental health needs of Native American youth.

Juan Alas, who repaired fighter jet engines for the U.S. Marine Corps, learned the Greek alphabet for extra credit for Greek and Latin Roots of English, which examined terminology used in medicine, business, education, law and humanities.

Field trips on and off campus

As part of the Veteran Accelerator program, the students visited the Virtual Human Interaction Lab, where they participated in simulations, and the Etkin Lab, which is exploring a variety of treatment options for post-traumatic stress disorder for veteran and civilian patients through a partnership with the VA Palo Alto Health Care System.

Savannah Enriquez, who worked on the flight deck of U.S. Navy aircraft carriers directing aircraft and preparing them for launching, especially enjoyed visiting the workshop of the Stanford Solar Car Project, where students design and build a solar car they race in the World Solar Challenge.

“The shop was full of students who were all motivated to create a product with their hands,” said Enriquez, who took Science and Engineering Problem Solving with MATLAB, a civil and environmental engineering course. “I see myself in them, because I really want to do more projects that test my skills and way of thinking.”

The veterans also attended workshops on academic writing, time management and communication. During off-campus trips, they met with veterans working at two local technology companies.

They also met with Tim Hsia, co-founder of Service to School, a nonprofit organization that provides free application counseling designed to help veterans get into the universities that best fit their needs. Hsia, a former Army officer, earned a JD/MBA at Stanford in 2014.

Immersed in life on a university campus

The students who participated in the Veteran Accelerator program said they appreciated the immersive nature of the experience.

“I ate in student dining halls, used the university gym, made friends with a few students of Stanford and elsewhere, and witnessed summer life on campus,” said Alas, who is studying mechanical engineering at Evergreen Valley College in San Jose, California. “I felt uncomfortable and out of my comfort zone – which was a good thing.”

Enriquez, who is studying civil engineering at De Anza College in Cupertino, California, said the main takeaway for her was the importance of immersing herself wholeheartedly in the program.

“When you immerse yourself, you challenge yourself to evolve and ultimately find others who are motivated and motivate you,” she said. “Stanford Summer Session has shown me, a vet going back to school after four years of active duty, that I am capable of surpassing the limitation I set on myself when it comes to education.”