Stanford gives military veterans an academic boost

Eleven U.S. military veterans are participating in a summer program at Stanford designed to prepare them to transfer from community colleges to elite four-year universities.

L.A. Cicero Jonathan Kong, left, and Ryan Cotter, who both served in the Navy, engage in a discussion during their academic research writing course.

Jonathan Kong, left, and Ryan Cotter, who both served in the Navy, engage in a discussion during their academic research writing course.

Jonathan Kong, who treated U.S. Marines for battlefield injuries in Afghanistan, hopes to become a doctor specializing in emergency medicine.

Susana Murillo, a behavioral health specialist in the U.S. Army Reserve, also has set her sights on a career in medicine – as a pediatric psychiatrist, perhaps, or a heart surgeon.

They are two of the 11 veterans enrolled in Stanford 2 to 4: A Veteran's Accelerator, a new summer program designed to prepare veterans to transfer from community colleges to elite, four-year universities. The students, four women and seven men ranging in age from their mid-20s to 36, represent every branch of the military.

During the eight-week program, which ends Aug. 17, the veterans earn Stanford credits while learning academic skills they will need to thrive at four-year universities. Stanford provided scholarships that covered tuition and fees, private bedroom accommodations in shared campus suites, a dining plan and book stipend.

In addition to a course on academic research writing, each of the veterans is taking one or  two electives – choosing from the 40 courses offered to visiting students by the schools of Humanities and Sciences, Earth Sciences, and Engineering in Stanford Summer Session.

The program was conceived by William Treseder, '11, who served in the Marines for 10 years, and further developed in collaboration with Summer Session, as well as Stanford alumni, current students and faculty.

Jess Matthews, the associate dean and director of Summer Session, said everyone who has interacted with the veterans has been impressed by their maturity, focus and intelligence.

"They are wonderful students who are taking advantage of everything they can at Stanford," said Matthews, who oversees the program, now in its first year of a three-year pilot. "They are so excited to be here. They are so grateful for the opportunity."

Kong, a Navy veteran and a student at De Anza College in Cupertino, Calif., set the ambitious goal of completing Stanford's two-quarter introductory chemistry sequence – Chemical Principles I and Chemical Principles II – in just two months.

"I've got to admit, it's pretty fast paced and on a whole other level from what I'm used to," Kong said. "It was my first time ever taking chemistry and my math is a bit lower than what the course recommends, so it's been a constant battle to keep up. But with office hours and tutoring I've been able to hack away at the material and managed to get a B+ for the first half."

Murillo, a student at Riverside City College in Southern California who is serving in the U.S. Army Reserve, is taking an introductory neuroscience course. In addition to studying the neurobiology of behavior, the class is learning about neuroscience research techniques. During a field trip to the Stanford Center for Cognitive and Neurobiological Imaging, the class observed post-mortem brains.

"It was a humbling experience to see and handle a brain," Murillo said. "It's not every day that we get such an amazing opportunity. Since I am fascinated by the brain, when I saw one of our instructors pull one out from a bucket, I felt like a little kid that saw the cosmos in plain darkness for the first time."

The courses the other students in the program are taking reflect a wide range of interests:

Some of the students are working on an ongoing study of the Etkin Lab at the Stanford School of Medicine. The lab has partnered with the Palo Alto Veterans Affairs Hospital to explore a variety of treatment options for Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD).

Writing like scholars

Twice a week, the veterans meet as a group – in a small classroom in Wallenberg Hall – for a two-hour class on academic research writing.

The course includes three major writing projects: analyzing three journal articles within disciplines of their choosing; creating a proposal for a research project; and producing an 8- to 10-page research-based argument. All major assignments go through multiple revisions.

L.A. CiceroVeterans Adam Lorta, left, and Claudia Acosta discuss their papers during an exercise in the Stanford summer writing class

Veterans Adam Lorta, left, and Claudia Acosta discuss their papers during an exercise in the Stanford summer writing class

"One of the main goals of a writing course is to create a community – a safe space where students feel free to talk about their work – and that was easy with this group, because they were already connected through their shared experiences and from living in the same dorm," said Erica Cirillo-McCarthy, a lecturer in the Program in Writing and Rhetoric who taught the course. "They really have a lot of respect for each other."

She said the program has helped the veterans see they can be successful at the elite educational institutions that can help them achieve their long-term goals.

"The thing I hear a lot from these students is: 'I want to go to Stanford, I want to go to Harvard, I want to go to Yale, so that I can make a difference,'" Cirillo-McCarthy said.

Ryan Cotter, who served as a sonar technician aboard a fast attack nuclear submarine and is now in the U.S. Navy Reserve, chose the treatment of national security whistleblowers as his research topic – without knowing that Daniel Ellsberg – an activist and former U.S. military analyst who leaked a top-secret Pentagon study in 1971 that revealed how the American public had been misled about the Vietnam War – was coming to campus.

Cotter said that hearing Ellsberg speak after the campus screening of the 2009 documentary, "The Most Dangerous Man in America: Daniel Ellsberg and the Pentagon Papers," helped his research immensely.

Cotter, a student at City College of San Francisco who plans to earn a bachelor's degree in sociology, said he learned an incredible new set of theories and ideas for understanding humanity by taking Introduction to Cultural and Social Anthropology at Stanford.

He also enjoyed the campus.

"Going to the gym nearly every day, running The Dish three times a week, going to Hoover Tower and most of all visiting the Cantor Arts Center, are things that I will never forget," he said.

Tobias Wolff on creative writing

During the program, the students gathered for a writing workshop with Tobias Wolff, a professor of English at Stanford and author of the memoirs This Boy's Life and In Pharaoh's Army, as well as two novels and four collections of short stories.

Wolff, who served in the Army from 1964-68, including a year in Vietnam, spoke briefly about his transition to civilian life. He told funny stories. He shared his approach to writing.

"I gave them the advice I give to every young writer, or to someone who's just starting to take writing seriously, and that is to make up their mind before they put a word down that anything they write they're going to rewrite," he said.

"To try to write something perfectly the first time out and to not have decided that you're certainly going to rewrite is to tie yourself in knots. Once you say to yourself, 'Oh, I'll be rewriting,' you give yourself a lot of freedom. That was something I was at pains to share, because that's been an important part of my experience as a writer. I had to learn that."

Army veteran Claudia Acosta, who attends Santa Monica College in Southern California, said Wolff's talk made her realize that veterans of every generation share similar struggles adapting to civilian life. She said his writing advice was reassuring.

"He told us that sometimes when you write and rewrite your draft, you may delete a large portion of it – but that's okay," Acosta said. "I realized I wasn't the only one that did that."

Wolff, who was involved in bringing the first cohort of Stanford 2 to 4 veterans to campus, said making veterans part of the university community benefits everyone.

"These veterans will greatly enrich the experience of the people at Stanford who meet them, and I'm talking about faculty as well as other students," he said.

"Veterans bring a breath of fresh air to the university. They bring a sense of reality of life outside academia that for most of us is conjectural or theoretical. I have been impressed by the intelligence and humor and sensitivity of the vets that I've met here – not just the ones in this program, but other veterans I've met at Stanford."