Panelists speak about their experiences

Veterans transition from soldier to student at Princeton summer program

Warrior-Scholar Project alumni (left to right) Vinnie Gallegos, Jessica Coutee, Kenny Simmons and Chris Connelly speak on a panel at the 2023 WSP Alumni Conference about their experiences completing a Research Experiences for Veteran Undergraduates (REVU) project, a program to expose enlisted veterans to academic research in the sciences. Simmons will matriculate at Princeton this fall. 

It had been about eight years since Meagan McIver had last seen a physics equation, and she will face a range of complex math and science when she enrolls this fall at George Washington University School of Nursing. McIver, who recently completed her service as a U.S. Navy hospital corpsman, decided to make up for the time gap in her studies — and to prepare for her transition from soldier to student — by joining the Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP), an intensive academic boot camp hosted at Princeton University and other schools across the nation.

“The most challenging thing is picking up where you left off in high school,” said McIver, a Phoenix native who served in the Navy for more than six years and attended the Princeton program this summer. “I felt like going into the Warrior-Scholar Project, I didn’t have the level of self-confidence that I needed. Then, as I progressed through the two weeks, slowly it started to dawn on me that I was supposed to be there, that this is something I am very capable of.”

An instructor helps a student

Princeton physics lecturer Jed Biesiada (left) works with U.S. Navy veteran Meagan McIver on a group research project investigating rockets in motion.

WSP-Princeton — now in its seventh year — hosted 13 service members on campus from July 16-28, who immersed themselves in an intensive writing, humanities and STEM curriculum designed to prepare them for the rigor of full-time classwork. They completed a week-long immersion in American democracy and political thought, culminating in a detailed research paper. They also took deep dives with Princeton faculty into essential math, problem sets and lab work.

Since its launch in 2012, WSP — a national nonprofit that helps enlisted veterans and service members to excel in furthering their undergraduate studies — has expanded to 21 colleges and universities nationwide including Princeton, and it has helped nearly 2,000 veterans get a head start in higher education. 

“You’re taking a bunch of students who have tended to be out of the classroom for a long time, and they have a lot of academic potential and aptitude, but the long delay in being in a formal classroom environment both creates the need for them to be able to reawaken those intellectual muscles and to reinspire their confidence,” said Keith Shaw, director of transfer and outreach at Princeton. “I think the Warrior-Scholar curriculum does a really good job at doing both of those things.

“One of the things you see with the students time and time again is that the program raises their level of ambition,” he said, “both in terms of where it is that they might apply to go to school and what kind of future career they might seek out.”

Students listen attentively in class; a student types into a laptop

Left: Service members attended rigorous academic classes in writing, the humanities and STEM over the course of two weeks. Seated, left to right: Christopher Wallace, Ellen Cheong and Brandon Cordero. Right: Navy veteran Keeyun Bae works on Python coding during STEM week of the Warrior-Scholar Project academic boot camp at Princeton. 

Overall support for veterans has increased at Princeton in recent years. Princeton reinstated a transfer program in 2018 aimed at admitting more veteran, community college and low-income students. The University is currently expanding that program.

McIver said the consensus among her fellow participants was that they feel much better prepared to enter a four-year institution.

“The professors, the tutors, the Ph.D. students, everybody that came out and helped us from Princeton was just amazing,” she said. “The fact that people were willing to give up their time and their energy to help us out was just so mind blowing. I know we all appreciated that.”

Support from Princeton and investments made by foundations, corporations and private donors cover the entire cost of the program for participants, including an accessibility stipend of up to $500 for travel, childcare and other expenses. Since the partnership began, 71 veterans have attended the WSP-Princeton academic boot camp.  

Students in listen to an instructor speak

Warrior-Scholar Project senior humanities fellow Harry Foster (far right) leads an activity while teaching notetaking during humanities week.

From Warrior-Scholar to Princeton undergraduate

Of the approximately 65 undergraduate U.S. veterans attending Princeton this coming academic year, roughly half have completed a WSP program, including two who attended Princeton’s program. Alumni of the program can return as fellows, mentoring active service members and veterans preparing to take the same path.

Luke Hixson, a current Princeton neuroscience major who attended WSP at University of California-Irvine, called his experience “a game changer.”

While on deployment as a U.S. Navy medic, he realized he wanted to become a doctor. “I have five years of experience with emergency and trauma medicine, and I realized that saving people’s lives is what I wanted to do,” Hixson said. “The only way to do it is to go to college and apply for grad school and go through that pipeline, so I started looking at how to apply to college.”

Hixson said WSP was instrumental in facilitating his transition, particularly in moving from a military culture and mindset to one that fosters academic growth. Now a Princeton student in the Class of 2025, he rejoined WSP last year as a fellow, offering support and guidance to fellow service members.

This summer, Hixson attended a six-week, early-assurance medical program at Rutgers Robert Wood Johnson Medical School for underserved students including military, then joined fellow WSP alumni on a Service to School panel at the second annual WSP Alumni Conference, which was hosted at Princeton July 28-30.

“I feel like it’s really important giving back to the community since I realize I didn’t get to where I am all by myself,” he said. “It gives me fulfillment to help the people I served with.”

Students listen to a lecture; right: students share a light moment amongst themselves.

Left: Whitney Cason, wife of Princeton alum and Sachs Scholar Shaun Cason, Class of 2023, gives a presentation on the Service to School program during the Warrior-Scholar Project alumni conference, held at Princeton July 28-30. Right: Jimmy Thyden, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran, catches up with fellow Warrior-Scholar Project alumni at the organization’s alumni conference.

Shaw called the alumni conference “a significant landmark” in bolstering and growing Princeton’s relationship with WSP. More than 200 WSP alumni, staff and current scholars attended.

The event provided current and former program participants with an opportunity to learn, connect, and walk away with tangible tools to help them successfully transition into higher education and the workforce. Discussions focused on leadership development, skills transfer, personal growth, professional development and networking.

“Besides being a really good networking opportunity, it allows the veterans to connect with a variety of nonprofit organizations that support both veteran education and career advancement, and to meet with a number of industry representatives who are themselves committed to being able to hire and promote student veterans,” Shaw said.

“Our investment in Warrior-Scholar is a way of being able to provide some of our expertise and some of our resources in a way that scales,” he added. “It’s a way for Princeton to create a broader impact.”