The Warrior-Scholar Project is a strenuous program, even for those accustomed to the rigors of military life. This two-week academic boot camp for returning veterans runs from 8 a.m. to 10 p.m., with no interruption other than occasional meal breaks.
“It was the hardest thing I’ve done since basic training,” said 56-year-old Nigel Unarie, a former U.S. Air Force vet now studying applied mathematics at the Community College of Rhode Island
WSP prides itself on bridging the gap between the battlefield and classroom for enlisted military veterans, giving them the confidence and skill sets necessary to make the transition to a four-year undergraduate program at their college or university of choice. The program is donor-funded; students receive free room and board, as well as books and course materials.
This summer, four CCRI students enrolled in the program, all traveling to different locations to take advantage of the program.
WSP offers two options – one week focused primarily on liberal arts and humanities (reading comprehension, essay-writing, etc.) and two weeks geared toward STEM – science, technology, engineering and math. The idea is to offer veterans a college-prep workload and support system to help ease the transition to the classroom.
Unarie, born in Fiji and raised in Pawtucket, attended the two-week program at the University of Oklahoma, one of 12 host sites in 2017. Cranston native Arnold Castillo, a 27-year-old business student and U.S. Army vet, took the one-week curriculum at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, after a friend urged him to enroll. Former CCRI students John Mortimer and Joseph Jackson also enrolled in WSP this summer and since have transferred to Columbia University.
Jackson, a 27-year-old Navy vet who attended Cranston East High School with Castillo and spent six years as a hospital corpsman with the U.S. Marine Corps in Afghanistan and Southeast Asia, used the one-week WSP course at Cornell for its powerful networking potential.
Following his discharge in May 2015, he enrolled at CCRI the following semester, starting with just one writing course.
“I wanted to get more out of my college experience,” Jackson said. “With the Warrior-Scholar Project, you get to sit with admissions officers and learn what they’re looking for from prospective students.
“The most valuable thing was giving me the confidence that Ivy League schools were looking for veterans, plus it reaffirmed my confidence that CCRI had set me up with a good foundation to continue to pursue a higher level of education,” he said.
Despite his a background as a medic, Jackson is pursuing a career in political science as he enters his third semester at Columbia.
“I’ve always felt like if I go into politics, I can better people’s lives more than if I’m a doctor,” he said.
Castillo hopes to follow in the footsteps of his peers and study business management at a four-year university such as Bryant or Bentley or at Rhode Island College. He credits the WSP with helping him sharpen his time-management skills, an important aspect in balancing his college workload with his responsibilities as CCRI’s Student Veterans Organization president.
The 14-hour days included lectures in the morning and writing papers in the afternoon. “The first couple of days I had a hard time adjusting. ‘When should I do this? At what time should I do this?’ I was having a hard time,” he said. He realized he needed to work on his time management skills. “I think it definitely made things easier. When I came back here and started the semester I was like, ‘Man, this is a breeze!’”
Castillo will graduate from CCRI in December, no small feat considering his first go-round at the Knight Campus lasted one semester before enlisting in the Army in 2012.
“I did horribly,” Castillo said. “For one semester, I had no GPA. It was a zero.”
Thanks to a “humbling” experience with WSP, Castillo is more focused than ever as he nears his graduation date. In addition to the college-level curriculum, the professors working with WSP guide military vets toward their re-entry into society, which can be difficult following long years of service overseas or in combat.
“They don’t want you to be that person who talks about the military constantly, shies away from other people, kind of a loner,” said Castillo, who spent nine months in Kuwait during his time in the Army. “They talk about being involved in the classroom. You can talk about your military experience, but also keep an open mind and listen to other people. Just because you have other experiences doesn’t mean these 19- or 20-year-olds don’t have experience. You never know what they’ve gone through. Maybe they’ve gone through worse.
“When I first came back I was going to be that person that wasn’t going to mingle with anybody. I was just going to come to school, do my work and go home,” he said. “Then I started working at the SVO and the next thing you know, here I am now.”
Colleagues at WSP noticed he seemed reticent. “I wasn’t quiet because I didn’t know what to say, but more because ‘I can’t believe I’m here listening to these professors.’ I was kind of living in the moment. I would never think I’d end up near an Ivy League college sitting in a classroom listening to these professors talk.”
Unarie, a U.S. Navy vet who spent five years serving in California, Spain, New Mexico, Korea and Turkey, built and serviced B-1 bombers as a flight control mechanic following his discharge in 1984.
Over the next two decades, he owned 25 percent of a synthetic marble manufacturing plant, sold life insurance, survived a divorce and the death of an adopted child, and “made a ridiculous amount of money” before eventually “spending a ridiculous amount of money” – all of which brought him to CCRI this spring in hopes of finding a new career path.
He applied to Brown University in 1994 and still has a copy of the rejection letter, which he sent with his application to the WSP in July after hearing about the program through other students at CCRI’s SVO office. He earned the 15th and final spot in his class in Oklahoma.
He originally planned to pursue a career as a cyber insurance claims adjuster – “When a company gets hacked, I go handle the claims,” he said – but fell in love with applied mathematics during the STEM portion of the WSP boot camp and changed his major.
“I’m a solutions guy,” Unarie said. “The first thing they taught us in Oklahoma is, ‘You don’t have an opinion. We’re training you to be a scholar.’ They call it Warrior-Scholar for a reason. It’s not Warrior-Student,” he said. “What they drilled into our heads was, ‘Scholars don’t have opinions. They have positions based on well-researched evidence.’ We went from, ‘I think …’ to what the books says and, because of that, ‘My opinion is …’
“Once they taught us about applied mathematics and taught me why I flunked trigonometry in high school, I said, ‘I can do this.’ Now if I’ve got an opinion based on data, this makes sense now. I can solve more problems with that.”
Unarie says the WSP is a game-changer because it empowers veterans and natural leaders who otherwise wouldn’t have the confidence or skill set to pursue an education at a four-year undergraduate program.
“Now you’re getting these guys in classrooms who have a different intensity and know they can do it,” he said. “When you take 15 veterans – one of the guys in my class had lost 26 of his men in 15 months in Afghanistan – the intensity level was beyond anything I’ve ever experienced.”
During the first week of the two-week program, Unarie embraced the concept of “ninja reading,” which the WSP describes as a method for reading complex texts actively and retaining the information to avoid having to cover the same material repeatedly.
“It’s intense, and if you do it, it works,” he said. “It’s what is saving me this semester.”
Like many who’ve served in the military, Unarie has dealt with problems that continue to plague veterans of all ages, from the negative perception of others – “We were garbage, we were stupid, friends laughed at you,” he said – to bouts with homelessness and depression. He lived out of his car and storage unit after returning home from Oklahoma before securing stable housing through Operation Stand Down Rhode Island.
At 56, Unarie said, “I don’t need president or vice president on my resume.” He’s made a lifelong commitment to helping other student veterans who’ve been in his shoes and will ultimately lead by example, first by reapplying to Brown when the time is right, more than two decades after his first attempt.
“If you graduate from CCRI, people listen. If you graduate from URI, people listen,” Unarie said. “If you graduate from Brown, people listen differently.”
The WSP has proven beneficial for thousands of student veterans. The testimonials are genuine and powerful, whether it’s from a former Navy vet looking to reinvent himself in his late 50s or traditional-age students pursuing their dreams at four-year universities. The assurance and motivation gained in a mere seven to 14 days has driven them outside of their comfort zone to new, uncharted heights.
“I think Warrior-Scholar gives students the confidence to not just go to school but to be successful at any school they go to,” Castillo said. “It doesn’t matter if you go to Rhode Island College or Brown. I tell Nigel in 10 to 15 years there are going to be a lot of leaders leading major corporations and many in the government who are veterans.”