Student Spotlight: Corey Theiss, U.S. Air Force

Princeton University Cohort

What was your educational experience prior to WSP? Would you consider yourself a confident student?

As veterans know, you have to be a 24/7 Airman, Soldier, and Seaman when you are a service member. This means that education is a supplement to your military career; a means to an end, not a goal pursued for its own sake. My education experience before WSP was always a compromise between pursuing opportunities for growth through academia and fulfilling the obligations of my day-to-day maintenance career responsibilities. As a student, I felt confident in getting good grades; I worked hard, maintained a 4.0 GPA, and always kept the goal of post-military education insight. However, I feared when starting WSP that it would be difficult to maintain that vision in a collegiate environment where distractions and stressors are constantly present. Ultimately, I knew I had to go from a 9 hour day job in a consistent environment to a flexible, self-directed study schedule with an ever-changing environment as new topics are introduced within the scope of the curriculum. This is what I expect in the physics undergraduate program I start this autumn; suffice it to say, it is very different from my previous education experiences, even if I have been successful as a student previously.

Have you participated in any sort of virtual learning before? If so, how does your WSP experience compare to that?

Yes, I did participate in a virtual program: an online version of Airman Leadership School (ALS). This is where US Air Force personnel are given a month and a half long course on leadership and communication skills upon promotion to the non-commissioned officer tier. I am happy to say that Warrior-Scholar Project adapted to the new environment brought about by CoVID more successfully than that of ALS. Despite running six full classes and a full year of preparation and feedback, the military struggled to overcome the challenges imposed by an online format. There was not the personal touch in their work that I came to identify with WSP by the end of my two weeks.

There was also a clear dedication to the quality of the education provided, an emphasis placed on fostering a comfortable environment and passion the Princeton 2021 fellows demonstrated in tutoring and mentoring us. As in all things over this last year, everyone would have preferred to be together in person, but that did not stop our classroom from forming genuine connections.

Why were you excited to participate in WSP this summer?

I have gladly worked these last 5 and a half years in the Air Force knowing at the end of my contract, I would finally begin the academic journey that was not financially possible for me straight out of high school. I like to think that Warrior-Scholar Project was my official start as a full-time student. For me, school represents an opportunity to learn, not obtain a degree, certification, or credit. I want to master the material presented to me and use that knowledge to engage with the bigger world positively. As I entered WSP and began to transition out of active-duty military service, some doubts began to creep in. Despite my preparation, desire and motivation, I asked myself: was I making the right choice? Would I be able to afford to pursue what is effectively a dream? When we began our two-week experience at Princeton, I was hoping WSP would assuage that burgeoning pessimism. I made the right decision to leave the military, but I had to prepare myself for the plunge. 

What have you learned so far that you think will be helpful as you pursue your degree?

Physics! I honestly underestimated how far the fellows and teaching staff would challenge us to dig deeper and work harder on topics many of us felt uncomfortable with. I did not expect to learn the maths behind 2-dimensional motion in our one-week STEM course, and I did not. The topic was too deep, and there was not enough time. However, I realized my capability as a math and college student. Alien topics suddenly made sense, and subjects that had previously overwhelmed me became quite sensible when I gave them the time and attention they deserved. There is nothing given in this world, and everything is earned. Unfortunately, I never had that mentality with school. Sitting down and devoting myself to disciplined study for two weeks put into perspective what college will be. Warrior-Scholar Project helped me realize my academic intentions are not based on optimistic potential but tangible possibility. Anything can be accomplished when the effort is made; I cannot imagine a more valuable lesson to be learned.

What were you looking forward to learning during STEM week?

STEM week at Princeton represented an intense academic challenge and pivotal opportunity. To be taught by great minds and mentored by passionate peers was a privilege. I did not have any expectation that I would learn the plethora of material we were exposed to. It was of far greater interest how successful students– like the fellows we worked with throughout the week– came to learn the concepts we all find so challenging. They are veterans just like us, spending years of our lives thinking along fairly rigid lines. Since we all evolved from the same environment, I wanted to know how it was possible for them. What strategies were they employing? What advice could they share? Like I said in the previous point, I can confidently say that learning how to be a student was the most valuable lesson from the week.

What research project did you work on, and what did you learn from that experience?

My research project was concerned with the “Tsiolkovsky rocket equation”: an elegant, simple, beautiful mathematical principle of proportion. In practice, the equation states that it takes a lot of mass to get into space, but more mass makes it hard to go more fast. The experience was incredible and without a doubt the most enriching academic experience I had over my two weeks at Warrior-Scholar Project. Our instructor and research lead was Jed Biesiada, a former PhD from Princeton who went on to work at CERN– the exact research institute I indicate when people ask where I hope to go with my education. He wasn’t just available as an educator, but to field questions related to the field of physics and how he got into the positions he previously held. WSP proved to me again that it was just as much about the individuals you meet through the program as it is about the material. Rather than being a stifling environment where questions could not be asked, as students, we were treated with respect and the necessary patience to learn completely unfamiliar material.

Are there any instructors or fellows who have made a difference for you this week so far?

There was Manny Johnson, Harry Foster, and Ethan MacDonald during the humanities week; we had Michael Bollinger, Dylan Pancoast, Ana Vidal, Patrick Hollenbach, and Logan Allen for the STEM week. I mention every fellow that was present because they left an impression and made a difference in how I viewed the course. All being wonderful individuals, it became abundantly clear that WSP welcomes back alumni who invested themselves in the program during their time. Whether it was being instructed through confusing math principles or casually discussing life and mutual interests, the fellows were always available to make the participants feel welcome and encouraged engagement every step of the way. Each and every one of them improved the experience in their own way. Their presence made the experience that much more enriching.

Is WSP having any effect on how confident you feel as a student?

I look forward to the next four years of school with excitement because of Warrior-Scholar Project. Again, I feel confident from the work we did not because of the material I learned. Prior to WSP, I was willing to step into the college environment and figure it all out along the way: effective study skills, true analytical reading and strategies for problem set solutions. I know I would have learned through trial-and-error as I began my first year as a full-time student, but it would not have been ideal. Now, I can step into a physics major with the confidence that I have done the groundwork to set myself up for success. WSP helped me develop the skills I mentioned above. Having the fundamentals in mind, I can build on those skills and become a leader in my academic environment. Knowledge is only as valuable as it is shared.

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