Warrior-scholars explore the relevance of 'Our Declaration'

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2017 Cornell Warrior-Scholar Project participant
Patrick Shanahan/University Photography
2017 Cornell Warrior-Scholar Project participants discuss the Declaration of Independence.
Dean Gretchen Ritte
Patrick Shanahan/University Photography
Dean Gretchen Ritter holds a discussion with 2017 Cornell Warrior-Scholar Project participants July 24.

Whether they served in the Army, Navy, Marine Corps or Coast Guard, the 15 veterans and reservists of the first 2017 Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP) class agreed they gained a greater appreciation for democracy in the United States by seeing people from other countries aspire to a way of life many Americans take for granted.

Gretchen Ritter ’83, the Harold Tanner Dean of Arts and Sciences at Cornell, used this observation July 24 to launch a two-hour discussion of the Declaration of Independence. She challenged Warrior-Scholar students to “never go into a class without an agenda of your own. What do you want out of that class?” she asked. “How does it apply to your work?”

The WSP, launched at Yale University in 2012 and now offered at 15 colleges and universities, helps veterans and enlisted service men and women leverage their experience, training, drive and discipline to transition from active duty military service to academic life. With a curriculum that deals with topics familiar to veterans, WSP focuses on analytic reading, college-level writing and the types of study skills needed for success at a top-tier college or university.

Ritter led the students through a discussion of their assigned readings from Danielle Allen’s “Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence in Defense of Equality.” Allen wanted her readers to see the relevance of the Declaration of Independence to their own lives, not just as a historical document. WSP students explored the language of the declaration, the ideals of equality and freedom, and the gaps – and bridges – between those ideals and their realization in everyday life.

“This was a phenomenal session,” said former Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Ian Britt. “Just going over the Declaration of Independence and clarifying different concepts helped me see democracy from a new perspective.”

“My mind felt alive,” said Coast Guard Petty Officer 2nd Class Wilson Obrero. “It was good to be in an environment in which the conversation was so deep.”

Ritter asked participants to consider how Facebook and other social media platforms have changed how people communicate with each other.

“How many of you make a point of exposing yourselves to perspectives you are likely to disagree with?” Ritter asked. “What keeps you from doing so?”

“The dean made us challenge our own ideas and encouraged discussions as a means of analyzing differing viewpoints,” said Private 1st Class Husna Ahmed, Army National Guard in New Jersey.

Cornell Warrior-Scholar Project participants
Patrick Shanahan/University Photography
2017 Cornell Warrior-Scholar Project participants discuss the Declaration of Independence.

Education and the military provide opportunities to be exposed to and appreciate multiple perspectives, Ritter said, because both bring people together from different backgrounds, races and ethnicities for a common purpose. Through their military service, WSP students “have learned to navigate in a world of differences,” she said.

“I have taught in this program for all three years that it has been at Cornell and I can tell you that it is one of the highlights of my summer,” said Ritter. “The students are an inspiration to me: they talk about democracy and citizenship in insightful and grounded ways. I am grateful to them for what they have taught me in these sessions.”

Other WSP seminars included: discussions of the U.S. Constitution by John Siliciano, deputy provost and professor of law; ancient Greek authors by Michael Fontaine, professor of classics; the Gettysburg Address and Abraham Lincoln’s second inaugural address by Shirley Samuels, professor of English; and addresses by Martin Luther King Jr., Dwight D. Eisenhower and John F. Kennedy by Penny Von Eschen, L. Sanford and Jo Mills Reis Professor of Humanities.

The “academic boot camp” also included afternoon writing classes; guided study time; workshops taught by student tutors and staff from the national WSP; and discussions on the college application and financial aid process and transition to a higher education environment.

Two WSP graduates are enrolled at Cornell: Piragash Swargaloganathan ’19 and Luke Opyd ’18, Cornell campus program coordinator for WSP.

“The project also provides warrior-scholars with peer support and opportunities to network,” said Judith Appleton, vice provost, whose office sponsors the project. “Cornell is committed to supporting those who serve in the military, and has strengthened its outreach and networking efforts,” Appleton said. “The WSP not only helps those who are transitioning, but also provides those in higher education with an opportunity to see their familiar world through new eyes.”


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Nancy Doolittle