TAMPA — Before Enrique Baza was a graduate student at the University of South Florida, he was a Marine.
He guarded U.S. embassies in Tunisia, Venezuela and Norway. Fought fires at airports. Became Sgt. Baza. He thought he would be a lifer.
But his interests began to shift. During his seven years of service, he got a business degree at an online school that awarded him nearly a semester's worth of courses for his military studies.
It helped propel him into a new career.
Now, in his second year studying global sustainability, Baza, 27, is who Florida lawmakers had in mind when they passed a law in April requiring publicly-funded colleges and universities to award college credit for some military courses.
Veterans like Baza are returning home, starting from scratch. In Florida alone, some 40,000 active duty military personnel list the state as home.
And many are wondering if they will be as lucky as Baza.
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Florida has one of the highest veteran populations in the country, behind Texas and California.
The newest version of the GI Bill will help, allowing full tuition reimbursement for in-state students taking classes at public colleges and universities.
But many challenges remain.
After six years in the military, former Army Sgt. Aaron Gonzales, 28, enrolled at USF to study history.
He got a single credit each for physical education, military science and first aid courses. None of the accepted credits applied to his degree.
"Some of the leadership and public speaking classes definitely could have been waived," said Gonzales, now a senior studying history.
But his military transcript was of little value.
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Florida lawmakers know it's a problem.
Regulations have been passed in many states, including Minnesota, Colorado and Texas, giving scholastic credit to time spent in the armed forces.
With the Florida Legislature's passage of a similar law in April, it is now left to the state's Board of Governors to create guidelines. It's not clear when they will take effect, said spokeswoman Diane McCain.
The board will lean heavily on the recommendations from the American Council on Education, which in 1946 created the first guide to awarding academic credit to veterans .
But there are no guarantees the new law will be more generous.
How the new guidelines are adapted will rest with each publicly funded college or university.
"We tell students, do not lean on your military transcript," said Larry Braue, USF's director of veterans services. "If you get some credit, then that's a bonus."
In the past, the trend has been against acceptance of military courses because they often focus on very specific skills.
Baza was grateful for what he got. He is now concentrating on water issues at the USF Patel School of Global Sustainability. He wants to work as an environmental manager, or do something that influences public policy.
He's proud of his military service. Although he does wish that somehow, the two points — his military and academic experiences — were better linked.
He hopes the push from several states to pass the service for college credit laws shifts the onus to the military itself.
"It could provide some motivation to the branches to align some of the courses," he said.
Michael Finch II can be reached at [email protected] or at (727)893-8804.