Williams College alumnus Wick Sloane has been an advocate for colleges doing a better job to serve veterans.
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — After eight years on active duty in the Marine Corps, Joseph Grillo was ready for a new challenge.
But he also knew that a college education posed different challenges for veterans like himself than it might for the "traditional" undergraduate.
"It's not the academics or rigor or the late night study," Grillo said recently. "It's the loss of camaraderie, the fear of fitting in. Then COVID hit, and the fear only doubled: What was I stepping into? Was this going to work for me?
"But I realized that courage isn't the absence of fear. It's putting one foot in front of the other when you're scared as hell."
That realization allowed Grillo to enroll at Williams College as a freshman in the fall of 2020, and it allowed him this summer to help lead the way for other veterans through the Warrior-Scholar Project.
Since 2011, the project has been working to "ensure that every degree-seeking enlisted veteran and transitioning service member succeeds in the transition to higher education and beyond."
This month, Williams hosted a Humanities Academic Boot Camp. Ten recent or soon-to-be-veterans participated in a series of remote seminars under the direction of Warrior-Scholar Project fellows.
The intensive program includes directed readings, workshops, research projects and lectures to help the veterans acquire the skills they will need to succeed in academia.
The Williams boot camp also included a guest speaker, journalist and author James Fallows, a national correspondent for The Atlantic.
The co-author (with wife, Deborah) of 2018's "Our Towns: A 100,000-Mile Journey into the Heart of America," told the class that the current decade, like the 1860s, the 1930s and the 1960s, will be a pivotal point in American history and that their generation of veterans will play a crucial role.
"I believe the 2020s will be seen as another of those times with what the pandemic is doing to the economy, with political tensions in the middle of a rise from where they were 20 or 25 years ago, when economic extremes are increasing again — it's not the worst we've seen, but it's nearing it.
"The American fabric, the way we all respond this year or the next five years is going to be part of the history book. And the military's role is going to be part of that. … You'll be ambassadors for what is still a minority part of the population. You'll be able to say, 'Here is what we stand for.' "
Davey Liu, six-year veteran of the Navy and current Columbia University student, was one of the fellows at last week's boot camp. He echoed Fallows' point about that ambassador role.
"In a lot of discussions in classrooms, my veteran background brought a fresh perspective that average college students couldn't offer," Liu said. "I think their perspective about the military was often negative. They never spent a big chunk of their time looking at how the U.S. military works.
"From what I've seen, a lot of their negative opinion is from a place of ignorance — not in a negative way, they just didn't know. Once I started explaining, it was a great way to integrate our perspective."
Fallows told the WSP participants that "non traditional" routes to a college degree are nothing new for veterans. He reminded them of the GI Bill that allowed millions of World War II veterans to attend college and the V-12 program that allowed Fallows' own father to earn his medical degree in an 18-month accelerated program during the Second World War.
Hearing that several of the veterans in the Zoom meeting are attending community colleges, Fallows noted that those schools play an important role in providing opportunities for deserving men and women like themselves.
"We're used to thinking about the big research institutions as being the crown jewels of American education — the Harvards, Yales, Princetons, Berkeleys, Michigans," Fallows said. "And in one way, they are, in terms of research heft and attracting students from around the world.
"Deb and I have come to think that the systems you all are involved in matter more. I'm talking both about community colleges and four-year institutions for people who are not age 18. These are schools that equip people who have more talent and potential than they have immediate opportunity. If you grew up in a fancy suburb of New York City and go to Brown right after prep school, you have more opportunities in front of you. If, on the other hand, you have more skill and potential than instant opportunity … this is the story of America: connecting people with skills to the needs of the moment."
Those "crown jewels" of academia have not always been focused on educating men and women who have served the nation in uniform.
Williams alum Wick Sloane participated in Thursday's virtual session and told the group about his experience as a teacher at Boston's Bunker Hill Community College, where encountered a number of veterans in his classroom.
"I called my schools, Williams and Yale, and asked them how to teach them, and they said, 'Why are you asking us? We don't have any veterans as underclassmen,'" Sloan said. "I asked why not. And they said, 'Why should we?' That was 2008."
Sloane, who taught at BHCC from 2006 through his retirement in 2019, wrote extensively about the issue of educating veterans in the publication Inside Higher Ed.
In November 2019, his Veterans Day column for the publication reported his findings from a survey of the nation's 36 most selective colleges. He found that just one, Columbia University, had veteran enrollments in triple figures (477). By contrast, Harvard had just 17 and Williams fewer than 10.
On the other hand, Sloane's survey showed those numbers trending up. The aggregate for the 36 schools in 2013 was 180; six years later, it was 885. Williams reported no veterans among its underclassmen in 2013 and 2014 but some number less than 10 in the following five years.
This summer marked the second straight year Williams has hosted a Warrior-Scholar Project boot camp.
"Williams is thrilled to continue working with Warrior-Scholar Project to support student veterans on their journey to and through college," Williams President Maud Mande said in a news release from the WSPl. "Student veterans are highly valued members of our campus community and have had an outsized impact on all areas of academic and community life on campus. Through ongoing work with WSP and other dedicated partners, we look forward to supporting even more student veterans in their educational and life pursuits."
Grillo said last year there were three veterans, including himself, on the Williams campus. This year, he expects that number to jump to five. He said there is a support system among the small veteran and non-traditional student community on the Williamstown campus, but there is only so far it can go.
"It's a support structure, and it's there to help you, but they're also struggling," Grillo said. "So if I bring my problems to them, I'm doubling down on their problems. So I have to balance that."
The good news is that he has found more support from his "traditional student" peers than he expected.
Joseph Grillo celebrates his acceptance to Williams College while serving in the Marines at Camp Pendleton in California.
"Another of my biggest fears: Living in first-year dorms I was really nervous about living with a bunch of 18-year-olds with limited life experience and me coming in as a 30-year-old," said Grillo, who was serving as a fellow in a WSP boot camp at Notre Dame this month. "That was nerve-wracking. But I made some really good friends. Some of those 18-year-olds are incredible human beings, and we've formed a support system among ourselves.
"Even though I felt at first like I was moving into a junior barracks … there's a huge difference here in the caliber of individuals. Those 18-year-olds, 19-year-olds are so intelligent."
And Grillo found that his life experience could benefit some of his classmates in ways he did not anticipate.
"An individual I knew was starting to struggle in his classes and every day I would give him grief because his room was super disorganized," Grillo said "I told him, 'Dude, if you're having trouble keeping things in order and making deadlines, clean your room. Start there.' One morning, I showed up with trash bags, cleaned his room, taught him how to make his bed.
"He sent his parents pictures of his bed, and they said, 'We have to meet this guy.' "
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Williamstown Board of Health 'Strongly Recommends' Masks at Town Meeting
By Stephen DravisiBerkshires Staff
WILLIAMSTOWN, Mass. — The Board of Health on Monday morning strongly recommended that attendees at Tuesday's annual town meeting wear masks and relayed that masks will be available for anyone who arrives without one.
But a groundswell appears to be developing for that meeting to be adjourned to a new date and location in light of the continuing COVID-19 pandemic.
The town moderator said last week that he has no intention of unilaterally postponing the meeting or adjourning it to a "date certain" at a different venue. And on Friday, the town posted a statement on the issue on its website.
Such an adjournment is possible if an attendee moves for one at the outset of the meeting (identifying a time and location for the meeting's resumption) and that motion passes.
Residents will meet on May 17 at 7 p.m. at Williamstown Elementary School to tackle a 49-article meeting warrant that includes 10 bylaw amendments put forth by the town's Planning Board.
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Albany, N.Y.'s, Channel 10 will do a live broadcast of its "Wake Up With 10" morning show from the lawn in front of the Williams Inn at the south end of Spring Street from 6 a.m. to 9 a.m.
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