VENTURA, Calif. — Military veteran Sara Bergeron finished finals recently at California Lutheran University, one step closer to her goal of a bachelor's degree.
She partly credits GI benefits.
"Without my post-9/11 GI Bill, I wouldn't be able to go to school and support my family," said Bergeron, 22, of Camarillo.
She's one of 27 women using veterans benefits at the Thousand Oaks university and a growing number doing so nationwide.
A 2010 National Survey of Veterans found slightly more than a third of female veterans used their education benefits, about the same percentage as male veterans.
The percentage, however, was much higher with younger woman veterans — those who served in recent operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Slightly more than half of those women — 51 percent — reported using veteran benefits for education and training.
"The new GI Bill benefits enacted in 2008 may help make this the most educated cohort of women veterans," a 2010 report from the U.S. Census Bureau found.
"The type of women who join the military ... are so motivated and empowered. They're the ones that when they do get out, they want to go to college," said Bergeron, who is studying biochemistry and molecular biology.
While the number of women using veterans benefits has increased, women have been using the GI Bill to go to college for nearly 70 years.
Nearly 2 million men and women did so after the GI Bill of Rights was signed into law in 1944. Of those, about 65,000, or 20 percent of those eligible, were women, according to the Women's Memorial Foundation.
Mary Elizabeth Paine was one of those veterans.
Paine, now 92 and living in the veterans home in Ventura, enlisted on Feb. 23, 1943. She joined the Marine Corps Reserve after reading of the Sullivan boys, five brothers who died after a Japanese torpedo hit the USS Juneau.
Paine served at a recruiting center in Washington, D.C., and later at a Mojave air base, where she taught fighter pilots the science of shooting down the enemy, she said. She talked to the pilots as they worked in a simulator.
"After the war was over, all the women being reserves were discharged," said Paine, who left the service in May 1945.
There was never any question that she would go to college, and the GI Bill paid for everything, down to the pencils, she said.
"I'm a student. I've always gone to school, and I wanted to be an art teacher," said Paine, an artist and writer.
Her route through college took some detours. She initially started classes in the late 1940s but ended up taking 12 years off to work and raise her daughters. She later returned to college and got her associate degree.
"It enhances your life. You may have a dream that might come true," Paine said. "I want everyone to go to school."
Over the years, the GI Bill, which covers more than just education benefits, was updated. Bergeron said it was one of the reasons she enlisted.
After graduating from high school in 2008, she left her home in Texas for college in Chicago.
Soon after, she was overwhelmed by the cost of tuition, books and living expenses. She dropped out and enlisted in the Navy, knowing she could get another chance at a degree as a veteran.
"My family loves me going to college," said Bergeron, who started at CLU in the fall. "They're really happy that I got out of the Navy and that I'm doing what I set out to do — finish my degree."
Bergeron, who also works part-time at a clothing store, lives in Camarillo and takes care of her 7-year-old stepson while her husband, Adam, is deployed in the Persian Gulf.
She finished finals last month and will be a junior when she starts the spring semester. After getting her degree, she hopes to return to the Navy.
Without the GI Bill, she doesn't think she would have gotten the chance.
"There would be no way for me to go to school right now," Bergeron said. "At the age that I am and the responsibilities that I have, it would be extremely difficult for me to take on student loans."
Service members, veterans or their dependents can qualify for a range of education or training benefits. More than 21.8 million since 1944 have received $83.6 billion in GI Bill benefits for education and training, federal officials say.
The Post-9/11 GI Bill is available for those who served on active duty after Sept. 10, 2001. Depending on how long someone served on active duty, it pays tuition and fees up to $17,500 a year, plus a monthly housing allowance and up to $1,000 a year for books.
Bergeron said it covers all of her tuition costs and provides a stipend for housing and books. Even with financial help, however, she said the transition from military life to college had its ups and downs.
"When I first started at CLU, I felt that same panic I felt the first time I tried to go to college," she said. "I was just so afraid I was going to fail, that I wasn't going to fit in, or it was going to be too much for me to accomplish."
But she met Jenn Zimmerman, also a woman veteran at the college, and joined a veterans club. Zimmerman, 32, had founded the club a year earlier. She started at CLU in 2010, three years after her four-year stint in the Navy.
College benefits weren't a big motivator for her to enlist, but she said it was like having a card in her back pocket.
Zimmerman, a single mother of two young children, took her last finals in December and soon will get her bachelor's degree. Without the GI financial help, college may have been out of reach or taken years longer, she said.
She has a job lined up but also plans to continue volunteering and advocating for veterans.
"I was having a hard time connecting with everyone," Zimmerman said about her first semester at college. "I knew there were other veterans on campus, but I didn't know where they were."
The club can help them feel more connected.
"I'm still in the transition. But I think (the veterans group) definitely has helped me personally," Bergeron said. "I almost have all A's in all my classes. I'm happy that I stayed."