Around the Hamptons: Easthampton resident named director of education at Warrior-Scholar Project

EASTHAMPTON — City resident Cassie Sanchez has been named the director of education of the Warrior-Scholar Project, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that helps enlisted veterans as they prepare for reintroduction to academic life.

Read the full article here.

Columbia University Cohort

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

As a kid, my teachers nicknamed me “the philosopher” — I was quite contemplative. However, I was also very energetic, which got me into trouble. I began my education by scoring the highest in my grade and receiving prizes. I also remember my first-grade teacher being so proud of me for scoring highest, but also one day aiming to hit me on my hands with an orange pvc pipe, but instead hitting my lips, that bled turned blue and then doubled in size. I also remember in third grade pulling my principal’s tie as he was forcing me down to hit the sole of my feet with another pipe.

So from the beginning, my educational experience has been so traumatic and emotionally complex, that I just avoid dwelling on any part of it and for the most part avoid school for the sake of my sanity and to preserve the little “philosophia” flame – love of wisdom and learning- within my heart. 

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

I have never participated in any virtual learning, but I loved how WSP organized it.

Why were you excited to participate in WSP this summer?

I was not excited to participate. I was anxious as I usually am with anything related to school, teachers, or organized learning. However, Columbia is one of the few happy places of learning for me. When I was in high school, I met a teacher there who allowed me to do what I wanted and respected me.

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

I have learned many things, but my biggest paradigm shift is becoming a heretical bibliophile. My idea of reverence for books was a sanctimonious effete tradition. A book that is not engaged with a pen, highlighted and dog earmarked won’t be passed down or inherited because its previous owner didn’t really own it. It was just a hollow shelf decoration. 

What were you looking forward to learning during STEM week?

While I always thought of physics as a spiritual pursuit akin to reading a mystical poem. I was never lucky enough to learn it in a class. I feel blessed to have had two great professors from MIT who had the patience to engage our ever-expanding curiosity. 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology Cohort and University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Cohort

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

I attended a local community college prior to joining the Army. After serving in the military for over four years, I lost confidence in myself as a student. After my service, I returned to the local community college, regained my confidence, and was accepted to Brown University. 

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

While attending a local community college, I had to switch from in-person classes to virtual learning via Zoom due to COVID-19. In comparison, I enjoyed the virtual learning with WSP fellows and participants more since everyone actively engaged and participated at all times. 

Why were you excited to participate in WSP this summer?

I was very excited and grateful to take a course at one of the top universities in this nation. More importantly, I was excited to participate in the WSP STEM curriculum this summer with my interest in environmental science. In addition, I am thankful to be connected with other veterans and fellows who are passionate about higher education. 

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

One of the most insightful experiences with WSP was how kind and willing other veterans are to help. It was nice to know that there are resources available to support and guide me through my journey in higher education. 

What were you looking forward to learning during STEM week?

I was looking forward to connecting with other veterans interested in obtaining a degree. I was especially interested in learning Python programming while participating in the research project during STEM week. 

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

My research project was on gravitational waves with guidance from Sylvia Biscoveanu. This phenomenal research project taught me how Laser Interferometer Gravitational-Wave Observatory or LIGO detects gravitational waves. Furthermore, using Python programming, we analyzed and interpreted LIGO data. From this experience, I learned to cherish teamwork as my peers helped each other understand the concepts and present the work we completed through a well-constructed presentation. 

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

All of the fellows and instructors were phenomenal. All the participants, including myself, felt very welcomed and comfortable in this healthy learning environment. 

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

Yes, WSP has helped me gain more confidence as a student. One of the more prominent realizations I experienced from this program is to let myself relax and have fun in academic settings by asking questions and sharing my personal experiences during discussions or seminars. Lastly, with studying skills and tips given by WSP, I feel more confident as a student.  

Princeton University Cohort

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

Prior to WSP, I was an average high school student from a lower-middle-class family in rural North Carolina who did not apply herself. I briefly attended a local community college, but I lacked the desire and discipline required for college at that time of my life. I joined the United States Air Force in 2001, and throughout my 20-year career, I did manage to complete two Community College of the Air Force associate degrees. I honestly believed a bachelor’s degree was an out-of-reach dream that I was not smart enough to obtain for most of my life. At least until 2018, when I applied and was accepted to Arizona State University (Online). 

I am currently pursuing a degree in urban planning, and I found that I thoroughly enjoy learning and that it isn’t too late to learn. Even though I’m already attending school, WSP/Princeton Cohort was paramount in regaining my confidence in continued higher education. Even though I am close to completing my degree, I have experienced my fair share of setbacks and started to feel a bit stagnant and unworthy of my educational goals. However, through the Warrior-Scholar Project, I have regained a new sense of self-worth, for which I am so grateful. I really felt the positive vibes from all of the Fellows. I interacted with students, professors, and peers who shared their similar goals/journeys, which was such a relief. I am now looking forward to accomplishing my dream of receiving a Bachler’s degree, and I know that I am capable of more than I realize. 

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

I attend Arizona State (online), but most of my studies consist of slide shows and pre-recorded lectures. I have had very little interaction with my professors besides the comments posted on discussion boards or graded assignments. WSP was refreshingly different. I am not going to lie, the two weeks I attended were intense, morning to late evenings (with breaks in-between), and even though I was attending at home via Zoom—I felt like I did not see my family for two whole weeks. However, the fellows, professors, peers, and tutors were engaging and interactive; those two weeks went by fast. I was legitimately sad on our last day because I loved being a part of the experience and making connections with people I never thought I would have an opportunity to meet. 

Why were you excited to participate in WSP this summer? 

I was excited to see what it felt like to attend a top-tier school like Princeton, even just for a moment. I knew I would enjoy the humanities week, which I did. However, I was the most anxious about the STEM week, which I was nervous to try but really needed to help get over my fear of Math. In my urban planning studies, I have a lot of geographic information system courses, and though I find them interesting, I tend to struggle due to the math/science. The WSP STEM week was a great starting point for decreasing my anxiety and learning better studying techniques. 

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

The biggest takeaway was that is it is ok to ask for help. I know this seems like a simple concept, but asking for help or seeking tutors was so difficult for me. I’m not sure if it’s military pride or just an internal aversion. I know that my current school has resources, but I felt embarrassed to ask for help, which has been my biggest downfall. The WSP program and the atmosphere were set up so that I was able to reset my mindset. I learned that the educational environment is different than the military environment in that it is truly acceptable to ask questions.

I do not know everything. That’s why I’m in school–it is unnecessary to tough things out while in a learning environment. 

What were you looking forward to learning during STEM week? 

Truthfully, I wasn’t looking forward to STEM week; It was more like a necessity. I knew it would be the most challenging week for me. I decided I would go into STEM week with an open mind and realistic expectations. I knew I wasn’t going to become a math genius suddenly, but if I could at least try to see what skills I could learn without my usual negative thoughts, it would be a success. 

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

Our team had data exploration where we used coding techniques to study inquiries about particular subjects. In our case, we were studying the songs of 2018 Spotify top 100–What makes a song a hit? Is it the tempo? The danceability? We learned how to type code in Python to create scatter plot graphs and histograms for our research. 

I had zero experience with coding and had absolutely no idea what it was, but by the time we presented our project, I was able to create scatter plots and change color on the graphs. Our project lead was so patient and knowledgeable. I really enjoyed working on our project and learning about code. 

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

These two ladies, Ana Vidal (fellow) and Caroline Holmes (project lead), were my heroes. They were so patient when it came to explaining math problems and code, and they were just so impressively knowledgeable in their respective fields of study while being humble at the same time. 

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

WSP has played a huge part in raising my self-esteem, especially regarding STEM. My desire to further my education has been renewed. I am even thinking more about graduate school, which I never even thought was possible. I feel better in knowing that I am not alone; other military members/veterans are also passionate about education and face challenges along the way. I loved that my accomplishments were all on me but in a low-risk environment. There was no pass/fail hanging over me—this increased my willingness to learn. With my teammates cheering me on along the way, I felt so much pride at the completion of the course.

WASHINGTON, D.C. — Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP) is excited to welcome Cassie Sanchez to the organization as its new director of education. A University of Massachusetts Amherst alumna, Sanchez brings decades of experience in curriculum development and academic advising to the role that will further enrich WSP’s free education programs. WSP is a national nonprofit that empowers enlisted veterans to excel at higher education via immersive academic boot camps at some of the nation’s top universities.

“We are beyond fortunate that Cassie has joined our team! Her thorough understanding of the support structure students need to succeed in rigorous college classrooms combined with her depth of teaching experience and knowledge of the unique challenges faced by military veterans make her the ideal candidate for this role. She will elevate WSP’s curriculum and programming to the next level,” said Ryan Pavel, CEO of Warrior-Scholar Project. 

Sanchez earned her Ph.D. in Education Policy, Research, and Administration from the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she also went on to serve the university as an assistant editor and research assistant. She then worked for 10 years as a senior writing associate at Amherst College, a partner university of WSP and where she first got involved with the nonprofit in 2017 as a writing instructor for the program. In 2020, Sanchez deepened her involvement with the organization when she joined WSP’s Academic Advisory team. Throughout her career, she has conducted various research projects focused on higher education access and academic support for students from underrepresented groups and nontraditional backgrounds, and she welcomes the opportunity to put her experience, interests, and skills in higher education to use by helping enlisted service members transition from the military to college. 

“One of the things I love about higher ed is being in a room of smart people doing great work — and that’s exactly what Warrior-Scholar Project is,” said Sanchez. “My role at WSP will go beyond teaching to examine our educational objectives and how we get there. I love that kind of big-picture thinking and am looking forward to enhancing the support we offer veterans on both their educational and career journeys.” 

Sanchez’s passion for helping students access higher education comes in part from her personal affiliation as a low-income student. Additionally, she is a military spouse and has an intimate understanding of the challenges veterans face when transitioning from the military to civilian life. 

About Warrior-Scholar Project

Warrior-Scholar Project (WSP) empowers enlisted veterans and service members to excel at four-year universities. Through intensive and immersive one- to two-week academic boot camps, participants gain skills required for success and support for the cultural shift from the military to higher education at top-tier schools. Throughout WSP’s free resident education programs, students are traditionally housed on campus, and engage in challenging discussions with accomplished professors, receiving tailored instruction on key skills like analytical reading and college-level writing. Warrior-Scholar Project is a national nonprofit with programs at public and private colleges and universities across the country. For more information, visit warrior-scholar.org.

University of Southern California Cohort

Where were you in your academic journey when you completed your WSP academic boot camp? 

I was wrapping up my community college courses and was applying to a couple of universities in my area.

Where are you now in your academic journey? If you are enrolled in school, where? What are you majoring in? 

This past winter, I just started business school at Santa Clara University, majoring in management and minoring in construction management.

How did what you learned at WSP help you get to where you are today?

As a first-generation college student, I felt like I didn’t have a lot of options or support when it came to pursuing higher education. As a result, I joined the Marine Corps, where I gained the grit and determination needed to accomplish whatever I set my mind to. However, I didn’t think that was applicable to higher education. WSP helped me realize my potential as a student veteran and reinforced that we can accomplish whatever we set our minds to as veterans.

What’s the best part of being a WSP alumnus?

While serving in the military, there was a unique sense of camaraderie and trust among one another. I am fortunate to have the same kind of people in the WSP alumni group. Whatever we need, we know that there’s someone that we can reach out to that will give us a hand. 

What advice do you have for other vets or service members who might want to pursue higher education?

If you think you are not smart enough. Have doubts about your ability to succeed in academia because of your past grades. Or, “insert whatever excuses you use”, that’s ok because I thought that too. What you’re feeling is entirely normal! School will not be easy, but you learn a thing or two in the military that you can use to succeed in higher education. There are many experiences, memories, and friends to make in this new chapter of your life, so keep an open mind and see where it takes you! 

Do you have a post-education career goal in mind? What is it?

As my time in the Marine Corps was ending, I began looking into entrepreneurship because I felt that I had learned how to lead a team and manage an operation. My dad has owned his business for the last 20 years, so I decided to join the team and grow the family business.