Second in a series of stories highlighting the diversity of the Cedar Valley.
WATERLOO --- Those arriving on Hawkeye Community College's campus during the past two years who sought out the student-veteran support group likely would have encountered Angie Torres.
The 30-year-old Cedar Falls woman, a U.S. Air Force veteran, was one of the first people to join the college's chapter of Student Veterans of America. She served as its president during her last semester at Hawkeye before graduating with an associate degree in the spring.
Torres has since transferred to the University of Northern Iowa, where she is a pre-med biology major, serving on U.S. Rep. Bruce Braley's advisory committee on veterans' issues. Braley asked Torres to join the committee --- which is still getting started --- after she sat on a student panel he moderated at UNI early this year that looked at the state of higher education.
The veterans support group started during Torres' first semester at Hawkeye, with five active members, and helped her transition into college.
Torres served in the Air Force in Texas, Nebraska, North Dakota and California from 2000 to 2005. She and her husband, Steven, have a daughter, Marion.
Torres tried to sit in the back of classes and not be seen when she first arrived on campus. Being involved with Student Veterans of America "really made it easier to sit through those classes," she said, and make friends. "It made me less afraid of going to school and being with kids who are a lot younger than me."
Torres added, "Now I only sit in the front. It drives me crazy to sit in the back."
Veterans are the fastest growing demographic at Hawkeye, said Robin Knight, the college's veteran services coordinator. Last year, Hawkeye enrolled more than 200 veterans, many of whom made use of the college tuition benefits available through the G.I. Bill.
The number of veterans at the college has increased by 180 percent since 1997, when there were 76. Between fall 2010 and February 2012, their numbers grew by 34 percent. By last spring, the Student Veterans of America chapter had more than 20 active members. It was the second-largest student group on campus after the student senate.
Torres said the group has "become a small family" that does many activities together: raising money so the daughter of a veteran who was having financial difficulties could go to camp, participating in the University of Iowa Veteran's Association Warrior Challenge 5K run and sponsoring a bone marrow registry drive.
The group also has plans to provide more direct help to veteran students.
"It's still in the works, but we want to plan to do a veteran-to-veteran tutoring program and a peer mentoring program," Torres said.
The group has been important for her and others because they are often more comfortable with other veterans or members of the military.
"We learn differently, we interact with people differently," Torres said. "I think I stayed involved because it helped me become me --- not just that out-of-place 30-year-old college student."