OCEANSIDE – Adam Frye, 26, a Marine veteran who did two tours in Iraq, was afraid to speak when he first arrived at MiraCosta College, just a few miles from Camp Pendleton Marine Corps Base.
"You feel a disconnect with people," Frye said, adding that in the military people often speak louder and with more sarcasm than might be acceptable in an academic setting. "I don't want to say the wrong thing and upset people."
Another veteran on campus helped Frye overcome his isolation and feel more at ease. That was in 2009. Soon after, Frye became president of student government. He plans to continue his studies at a four-year college with a goal of becoming an aerospace engineer.
Student veterans have become a major presence at college campuses nationwide in recent years as they return from Iraq and Afghanistan. Their numbers are expected to increase as veterans return to school and train for new careers.
California leads the nation in number of veterans, with between 25,000 and 30,000 returning home to the state each year. And many are using G.I. Bill education benefits, said Lindsey Sin, deputy secretary for women veterans for the California Department of Veterans Affairs.
The state's community colleges particularly have seen an influx of veterans – the number enrolled has grown more than 70 percent since 2008, according to the California Community Colleges chancellor's office. System officials last fall successfully urged passage of Proposition 30, in part to avert budget cuts that would have limited services to more student-veterans.
Community colleges are "more financially advantageous" for many veterans because of lower tuition fully covered by benefits, Sin said. And veterans can complete credits, if they had some college courses and want to transfer to a four-year school or seek vocational training, she said.
"Veterans are definitely looking at that educational piece as a means to become financially stable," said Sin, who returned to school in 2006 after military service.
Returning to school is rarely easy, particularly after facing the unpredictability and savagery of war. The challenges of navigating an overcrowded bureaucracy are daunting, from understanding benefits to getting classes and relating to younger classmates whose life experiences do not include war.
The number of student veterans has soared at colleges in the San Diego region, home to seven military bases.
Veteran and active-duty enrollment at MiraCosta College in North San Diego County has increased 150 percent in the last decade. Like other schools, MiraCosta has opened a veterans center – a gathering place where students study, socialize, tutor each other and ask questions. About 12 percent of students are veterans and their dependents. Under the post-9/11 G.I. Bill, some veterans can transfer their unused educational benefits to spouses and children.
Having a place to vent has helped James Cook, 23, who joined the Marines right out of high school. "We can be ourselves," said Cook, who plans to transfer to a four-year school and major in criminology.
Paula Sepeda, 23, said other veterans at the center helped her with the stress of starting at MiraCosta last fall. She said people learn each other's strengths and help one another. For instance, if she's having trouble with trigonometry, she goes to Frye.
"I kept the camaraderie and that family system and support," said Sepeda. She plans to transfer to a four-year school to major in kinesiology so she can eventually help amputee athletes as an occupational therapist.
Anxiety is common among veterans returning to school, said Nancy Diaz, veterans counselor at MiraCosta.
"It's heartbreaking when one tells you they'd rather be in Afghanistan than in class. It's very intimidating to come to school," said Diaz, whose son is a disabled Iraq war veteran.
The San Diego Community College District also has seen considerable growth among its student veterans.
Differences in how the district tracks student vets makes number comparisons difficult, but "we're definitely seeing an increase," said Lynn Neault, the district's vice chancellor of student services. "We anticipate that increase is going to continue."
It's estimated that more than 10,000 veterans, active-duty military and their families were enrolled in district classes during the 2011-12 school year, she said.
To meet the growing need, the district has opened a veterans center at San Diego City College and has tentative plans to open one at San Diego Miramar College in June. There also are veterans clubs, degree and certification programs and counselors specializing in serving veterans.
California's community college system has responded to the rising number of veterans by making assistive technology available to vets at 15 pilot-site campuses.
That technology has included tools such as a pen with a digital recorder and camera that can record lectures, especially helpful to students with any kind of brain injury, and computers and software equipped to help students with other disabilities, said Gaeir Dietrich, director of the system's High Tech Center Training Unit. The office hopes to expand availability to more campuses.
The system also has started an annual veterans summit to discuss needs, including developing career paths in the transition to civilian life.
Frye's studies at MiraCosta have inspired him. "Being in school, especially in physics class, you discover there is so much more out there," he said. "The more you learn, the more you want to know."
Journalist Marisa Agha is based in Southern California.