A student leans over a desk writing on paper. A binder next to him says Warrior-Scholar Project, and he is in a classroom setting.

From Service to Scholarship

From Service to Scholarship

“Is the United States a democracy? How would you know?”

The questions, posed by leadership and political science professor Mason Williams, kick off a vibrant discussion among the class—eight students from different branches of the U.S. military, all of whom are either veterans or active service members nearing the end of duty.

Professor Williams has been leading the two-hour summer session, a mini-course called “The Declaration in Context: The American Ideal of Democracy” for four years, ever since the college began hosting a weeklong academic “boot camp” for military personnel interested in making the transition to college or finding support as currently enrolled college students.

Organized by the Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP), the intensive boot camps consist of daily seminars on various aspects of democracy, each led by a different teacher; writing workshops in which students craft a paper in response to assigned readings; and focus and study groups led by alumni from the WSP program. Whether the participants are just thinking about college or have already begun their studies, the WSP can help them navigate college applications, transfers and resources for finding the support they need.

Williams College is one of 21 colleges nationwide partnering with WSP to host the boot camps, providing lodging and meals and identifying faculty, staff and alumni from the community to serve as teachers.

“Especially since I’m not teaching these days, it’s an opportunity for me to work with these potential students in the classroom and not just in the dean’s office. I’m extra happy that one of the pre-assigned readings was Frederick Douglass’ ‘What to a Slave Is the Fourth of July?’ That’s one of my favorite pieces to teach, and to teach it so close to July 4 is great.”

Gretchen Long, dean of the college and American culture professor

While Williams—or any college—won’t be every WSP participant’s next move, Dean of Admission and Student Financial Services Liz Creighton ’01 sees value in adding to the community students whose military careers have already given them a solid foundation in leadership, problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork. “We want student veterans to know that Williams is actively seeking them out, and we’re always looking at ways to support them once they’re here.”

Adds Alex DiAddezio ’11, senior assistant director of admission, who focuses on veteran admissions: “We are proud to serve as a WSP host campus as part of those efforts. The boot camp experience provides excellent academic skill-building and an important community, and it’s a critical resource in students’ ability to thrive in their next steps—at Williams or elsewhere.”

A number of Professor Williams’ family members benefitted from educational support after serving in the military. And during an experience teaching veterans before joining the faculty, he “found that they generally had fresh and insightful ways of looking at American history.” So when Creighton asked him to teach a WSP boot camp unit in 2020, Williams didn’t hesitate. “I’ve taught every year since,” he says, “not only because it’s been meaningful, but also because it’s a blast. The history of American democracy—and the questions, issues and problems at the heart of that history—take on a particularly tangible quality when teaching students who have served. It helps me keep a certain breadth of perspective on the subject.”

“The service members and veterans in WSP bring to the classroom a set of life experiences that aren’t very common among the student population at Williams, which means they ask questions or offer perspectives that I don’t hear much or don’t often get the chance to consider. It not only broadens my horizons to understand how those who have lived and worked in an institutional/organization climate far from my own conceptualize the promise and challenges of American democracy, but it also pushes me to keep my own thinking on familiar subjects like judicial review, money in politics and partisan polarization fresh.”

Justin Crowe ’03, leadership studies and political science professor

Each day’s lesson invites boot camp participants to conceptualize an ideal system of government. Williams says he relishes teaching on the first day, knowing that the second day’s unit will be led by Chair of Leadership Studies and Professor of Political Science Justin Crowe ’03. That means the conversation Williams started with the cohort about the U.S.’s Revolutionary heritage will be continued as they discuss the U.S. Constitution. “It feels like we’re giving them a real glimpse of what it’s like to study at Williams,” Williams says.

After the daily seminars, participants spend three hours each day in writing workshops—an essential component of the boot camp, since most haven’t had a chance to practice academic writing during their four or more years of military service. Sharpening those skills can give participants a boost of confidence before applying to college. Julia Munemo, director of Williams’ Writing Center, guides participants of all levels to develop their ideas into college-level essays with properly attributed quotes and citations that support their points of view. Service members’ “lived experience is so different from the lived experience of most of the Williams students I interact with,” Munemo says.

A teacher sits in a classroom with long tables arranged in a square as students sit and listen, some taking notes.
Writing Center director Julia Munemo leads writing workshops throughout the week.

The boot camps also help participants navigate other challenging aspects of college life, such as developing relationships with professors, learning what an active role as a student looks like, getting involved with student groups, managing their time around studies, composing a research paper—and dealing with the complexities of being out of sync with more traditional students who entered college immediately after high school.

Daisy Rosalez ’25 felt academically prepared when she was admitted to Williams after serving in the Air Force. But she struggled in her first year, saying it was a “huge shift from being a part of a close-knit community—I had my unit, my squadron—with whom you automatically have shared experiences and life experiences.”

Rosalez learned about WSP and took part in a STEM boot camp at MIT the summer before her sophomore year. “Doing that weeklong thing is just the beginning—the spark,” she says. “After that, you build a network. I came back to Williams a lot more motivated after that summer.”

Joey Grillo ’24, an eight-year veteran of the Marine Corps, completed a boot camp at Columbia University in 2019 before enrolling at Williams in 2020. Last summer, he served as a senior WSP fellow—a mentor who facilitates the boot camps at various colleges, including a cohort he was assigned to at Williams. He says he was able to see how much confidence the participants gained about their own intelligence and abilities after interacting with the faculty, learning that “professors are people, too, not these scary gatekeepers of academia,” he says. “It’s the very first time a ‘true academic’ saw us as belonging in these spaces.”

“I have a son, David, who recently retired from a 20-year military career. I’ve met many of his friends, and I got to go on a tiger cruise [a sea voyage on a Navy ship open to civilians]. I was impressed by the character of the military personnel. I knew about [former Williams provost] Cappy Hill’s ’76 involvement on the board of WSP, and I usually do what the college asks me to do. I believe that veterans give a different insight to any class they’re in.”

Paul Neely ’68

Grillo also says faculty seem to relish the chance to teach in the boot camp, often joining their students for lunch and attending the closing reception. Even President Maud S. Mandel taught a unit last summer, he says.

That passion for teaching was evident to Jackie Chen, who served in the Marine Corps for four years and took part in this year’s boot camp. It “was very infectious and motivated me to want to learn,” he says. “They fostered an environment of the exchange of ideas and discourse. I truly felt like this is where I want to be—learning from great professors and peers who share that passion for learning. I told my fellow veterans in the course that this is probably the first time I’ve ever looked forward to doing homework.”

Adds Grillo: “The faculty should know how much they mean to us as participants, fellows and WSP as a whole. We were forever changed at WSP, and it was because someone believed in us enough to willingly and enthusiastically volunteer to prove we are worth believing in. Our veterans finally see for themselves that their voice isn’t just valued—it is wanted.”

A group of people in business dress stand in front of a bank of windows.
The 2023 WSP cohort and faculty members shared a final dinner together at the end of their boot camp.


Teachers for the 2023 WSP boot camp at Williams were Justin Crowe, Chair of Leadership Studies and Professor of Political Science; Gretchen Long, Dean of the College and Frederick Rudolph ’42-Class of 1965 Professor of American Culture; Keith McPartland, Associate Professor of Philosophy; Julia Munemo, Director of the Writing Center; and Paul Neely ’68; and Mason Williams, Assistant Professor of Leadership Studies and Political Science.

Top two photographs by Jay Corey. Bottom photograph courtesy of Warrior-Scholar Project. Regina Velázquez is an associate editor and senior writer in the Office of Communications.