Brian Rodriguez had his mother along for support at Cal Poly Pomona recently while he researched tuition assistance. But the freshman didn't need reinforcements.
At the veterans center, students helped Rodriguez and answered questions about documents he would need for his Post 9/11 GI Bill education benefits.
"I had looked at other campuses, but they didn't have anything like the veterans center here," said Rodriguez, 19, who joined the Navy after high school. "It's been great from the get-go."
A few miles west at Cal State L.A., Gustavo Gonzalez said he's gotten bad advice about which classes to take and has been disappointed with the services for veterans.
"I do feel like I'm a bit behind and should have been finished with some classes I should have taken," said Gonzalez, 25, a former Marine helicopter avionics technician. "Our benefits are only good for 36 months, and they need to count more than ever."
Thousands of military veterans, such as Rodriguez and Gonzalez, are returning to California college campuses this fall, many home from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq and eager to use federal benefits to jump-start their college education.
While many colleges and universities are ramping up programs for veterans, services overall remain a patchwork. Some campuses offer cutting-edge psychological, physical and academic support, while others struggle to meet basic needs.
Gonzalez, for example, said the campus Veterans Affairs office advised him to enroll in high-cost extension classes after he missed an application deadline last year.
But he learned that he was taking too few units for full-time status and that two of the classes weren't required for his computer science major. As a result, Gonzalez wasn't able to use some of his benefits and believes he wasted money on classes that didn't count.
In June, a group representing many of the 400 veterans at Cal State L.A. voted no confidence in the administration, citing experiences like those of Gonzalez and others. They also complained that officials have failed to follow through on a proposal to establish a resource center that would provide a full range of counseling, orientation and other services.
Before he retired in June, President James M. Rosser declined to comment on the students' complaints. However, in a response to the vote, Rosser sent a letter to Cal State Chancellor Timothy P. White saying that he agreed "that we have not addressed the identified needs of our student veterans in a timely manner."
The campus planned to take "concrete actions to improve its commitment to our student veterans," Rosser said. The veterans office was moved to an expanded space this fall and the campus is partnering with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs to increase services, officials said.
Some colleges around the country have been lax in providing services, and when they do it is often after aggressive prodding by students, said Michael Dakduk, executive director of the Washington, D.C.-based Student Veterans of America. He said that when he was a student at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, veterans had to push hard for services before finally getting a resource center.
More than 1 million veterans nationwide attend college and 1 million more will enroll over the next few years. Some schools, Dakduk said, use the lack of financial resources as an excuse for not offering programs, even though such things as student organizations aren't costly.
"Many veterans are re-integrating into society and many are integrating onto college campuses for the first time, so the college atmosphere is very important," Dakduk said.
Cal State's 23 campuses enrolled nearly 7,000 veterans and active-duty service members in 2012. All but a handful of the campuses have established resource centers, spokesman Mike Uhlenkamp said.
More than 44,000 veterans were enrolled in California's 112 community colleges last fall, and that number is expected to climb this year. Nearly 40% of all California veterans receiving educational benefits attend a community college, according to officials.
Efforts to meet the growing demand have been hampered in a system still trying to recover from funding cuts of $1.5 billion since 2008.
"Despite very limited resources, 51 of the 112 colleges in our system have established veteran resource centers on campus where student veterans can interact with one another and obtain information and services," said Brice Harris, chancellor of California Community Colleges. "Although many noteworthy efforts have been made … additional investments would assist colleges in ensuring the educational success of their student veterans."
A 2012 report by the American Council on Education found that although many colleges are adding lounges, computer centers and veterans clubs, most are failing to train faculty and staff about such serious disorders as post-traumatic stress, brain injury, substance abuse and mental health issues.
Pasadena City College is among 93 of the state's two-year schools that have agreed to follow guidelines introduced by President Obama in August that include centralizing veterans services and training faculty and staff.
Some students said benefits have been delayed for weeks because there are not enough staffers to process paperwork needed by Veterans Affairs.
"The only vets not having issues are the ones who have money saved up," said F. Spencer Major, a former Navy navigational radar specialist.
Campus officials acknowledged the delays and added two full-time staffers to help process paperwork, spokeswoman Valerie Wardlaw said. The problems stem from an additional 300 veterans this semester — a 10% increase over last fall, she said. Officials are trying to determine the size of the backlog, and in the interim the campus foundation will provide money for housing, food, transportation and other needs.
The issues illustrate the stumbling blocks still encountered by many campuses serving veterans, even at a school that has generally received high marks. Military Times recently ranked Pasadena City College eighth nationally among two-year colleges for veterans services.
The veterans center has a dedicated academic counselor, one-on-one tutoring and mentoring. It also provides therapists, nutritionists and a volunteer attorney and is doubling its space this semester, coordinator Patricia D'Orange-Martin said.
The center is a refuge for veterans such as Randi Stenkamp, a former Marine ammunition technician who served two deployments in Iraq. It was a challenge coming from the military, where nearly every activity was dictated, to making her own education decisions, she said. At 28, she often feels old next to her classmates, whose tardiness to class and interrupting of professors can grate.
"The center is a great place to get away from the little things that annoy and be around people who understand," said Stenkamp, a sociology major who also works at the center. "Even something like having a massage therapist come in is so simple, but it's the simple things that add up and I think all of us appreciate."