Brenna Swift, The Union Democrat

Columbia College saluted a special group of students Tuesday - those who served in the military and returned to earn degrees.

The school's second annual Veterans Academic Achievement Celebration honored three veterans for their contributions to campus life and one veteran for overcoming challenges to succeed academically.

"The whole campus, actually, is a tremendous supporter of veterans," said Columbia College Acting President Leslie Buckalew.

In addition to the veterans receiving "Outstanding Classroom Contributor" awards, several dozen earned kudos for grade point averages of 3.0 or higher during either a semester or their entire time at Columbia College.

About 150 Columbia students are veterans, said Michelle Vidaurri, a financial aid specialist who processes their benefits. Many have their tuition, supplies and housing expenses covered by the Post-9/11 GI Bill.

They also come with a perspective many other students might lack, since being abroad helps them appreciate the attainability of education in America, said veteran and Columbia College student Ronald Hawkins.

"We've got a lot more life experience," observed Hawkins, a retired Air Force flight engineer and recipient of an "Outstanding Classroom Contributor" award.

Hawkins served in the Air Force from 1988 to 2008 and participated in operations Desert Storm, Desert Shield, Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom.

He said veterans can help teach other students to "think outside the box" and anticipate obstacles.

He won props from Columbia College faculty for "coming early and staying late," helping other students and paying attention to detail. He even rides a longboard around campus.

But it's not all fun and games for veterans coming home, many of whom suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder or cope with serious injuries.

Ryan McMillan, another recipient of the "Outstanding Classroom Contributor" award, said the most challenging part of returning to civilian life was learning to have conversations and make friends again.

Working with younger students can be frustrating at times, said McMillan, who served as an infantryman in the Army and was twice deployed to Iraq. He sometimes reminds them that having an iPhone run out of batteries isn't a worst-case scenario.

Some veterans have trouble fitting in on campus after returning from a deployment, since the looser structure of college is a jolt after the rigid rules of the military, Vidaurri said.

Then there's the coursework itself.

"I didn't lose my hair in the Army," quipped Mitchell Finn, a third-year Columbia College student and former staff sergeant. "I lost it in last semester's finals."

Columbia College started hosting annual awards ceremonies for veterans to acknowledge their hard work while drawing them together as a community, said Vidaurri, who also advises the Modern Veterans Club for Columbia students.

"Coming back to California and researching universities, I wanted to go to a college that would assist my ability to become a college student," Finn said in a speech at the awards ceremony Tuesday.

"I'm very overwhelmed with what Columbia College has done for its veterans," said Finn, who initially worried about being an outcast on campus

He said Columbia is helping him transition into the civilian world, where he plans to transfer to California State University, Stanislaus, for a bachelor's degree in computer science.

McMillan hopes to earn a bachelor's degree in social work and help other veterans.

Hawkins, who also enjoys riding motorcycles, wants to work for the U.S. Forest Service patrolling off-highway vehicles.

"I'm going to get paid to do my dream," Hawkins said.

Noah Martin earned Columbia's "Academic Determination Award" for veterans who overcame obstacles to do well in class, and Valerie Schuler was the third "Outstanding Classroom Contributor."

Martin and Schuler were not present at Tuesday's ceremony.