Vet juggles student life, motherhood to pursue passion for helping others
Time management is no problem for the vice president of the Student Veterans Association at Arizona State University. Hillary Ceja is also a mother of two young sons, and a full-time nutrition student who commutes to both the Tempe and Downtown Phoenix campuses.
Ceja credits her time in the military – particularly as Operations NCO for her unit, monitoring and planning schedules – with giving her the skills necessary to balance work and personal life.
She puts those skills to good use now, maintaining a 3.25 GPA, raising her boys and working to help better the lives of student veterans at ASU.
Like many vets, the road Ceja took to get to where she is today was a long and storied one. It began in 2002, on her 17th birthday, when she called her local recruiting office in her hometown of Hollister, California.
Ceja was ready to get out and see the world, and saw joining the military as a way to do accomplish that. “It was the only way I could get out of that town,” she says with a laugh.
What she didn’t know then was that a chance meeting while she was deployed in Iraq would lead her right back to the West Coast she came from.
In November 2005, Ceja was stationed at the Kirkush Military Training Base, 12 miles from the Iranian border in South Eastern Diyala Province. As part of the Civil Affairs team, which helps with medical outreach missions and infrastructure development, Ceja found herself on a trip to Mosul to pick up some contractors to build a water purification and corn processing plant.
During the weeklong trip, Ceja decided to stop in at the local base store to pass the time. That’s where she met Matthew.
Matthew was in the infantry, like his father, an honor grad at West Point, and his grandfather, who served in the 101st infantry in WWII, had been before him. Matthew’s unit had just cleared Mosul so victoriously that they were extended and sent to Baghdad.
The two hit it off immediately and exchanged Myspace information. Their first date was at a Pizza Hut on base.
In May 2006, Hillary left Iraq and returned to her base in San Jose, California; it would be six months before they saw each other again, when Matthew returned in November.
Though Hillary was stationed in San Jose and Matthew in Fairbanks, Alaska, both ended up transferring to Fort Lewis in Washington, near Seattle. They married four months later, in April 2007.
Later that same year, Matthew was in training to join the Special Forces when his hip popped out of place. Upon questioning from the doctor, he admitted he had experienced other similar mishaps but had not reported them.
The doctor informed Matthew that what he was experiencing were symptoms of an autoimmune disease that had been triggered by an environmental factor; several other veterans returning from Iraq were also diagnosed with the disease. He was given 10-15 years to live.
Neither Ceja nor Matthew had planned on having children so quickly but when they received his diagnosis, Matthew expressed a desire to have the chance to see his children grow as much as possible before he passed.
The disease ended up progressing much more quickly than predicted, though, and Matthew passed away in December 2009, two years after he was diagnosed. At the time, their eldest son, David, was 16 months old and Ceja was pregnant with their second, Gideon.
At first, the family found it difficult to cope. David would become distraught when he couldn’t find his father, and later, when Gideon was in daycare, he asked where his father was on “dad day.” Ceja explained to him that his father had been a soldier, but was no longer with them.
She shows her sons, now six and four years old, pictures of Matthew and tells them stories about him to keep his memory alive. Though David, who is autistic, does not speak, both of the boys love the photos and the stories. “It’s so cute,” says Hillary of Gideon. “He loves telling people his dad was a soldier.”
In 2010, while still living at Fort Lewis, Ceja’s military contract expired. Instead of renewing it, she had decided that she wanted pursue a college degree while she was still young.
Looking to go into nutrition, Ceja researched the best schools in the nation for that field. She ended up with a list of 12 schools, three of which made her shortlist: Penn State, UC Davis and ASU. In the end, ASU won out because of its reputation within the field of nutrition and the attractive cost-of-living in Arizona.
When she isn’t studying or spending time with her family, Ceja devotes much of her time to the Student Veteran Association at ASU, part of SCA National, headquartered in Washington, D.C., a nonprofit that advocates for vets across the nation and also passed the new GI bill in Congress.
As vice president of the Student Veteran Association at ASU, Ceja is fully committed to its mission of making sure student vets know they “are not alone in this world,” as many veterans often feel when returning to civilian life.
“Our organization is important to me because I had trouble adjusting and making friends when I began college,” says Ceja. “I felt isolated and lost. I don't want anyone else to feel that way.”
To aid in that cause, the Student Veteran Association at ASU focuses on helping service members with the challenges they face in returning to civilian and student life through group events, a mentorship program and by spreading awareness.
Events include physical fitness activities, once-a-month social nights, which other university organizations are also invited to attend, and once-a-month community service events, which appeal to a veteran’s natural inclination to serve and also help them to accrue service hours for scholarships.
The association's mentorship program pairs an upperclassman vet with an underclassman vet based on similarities like major, disability, familial status or whether they are first-generation college students. The upperclassman helps to guide the underclassman through the college experience, and they both benefit from getting to know each other.
Set to graduate in May of 2015, Ceja is looking forward to continuing on with her education.
Influenced by the time she spent in Iraq assisting with the medical care of Iraqi refugees in dislocated civilian camps, Ceja is passionate about helping those in impoverished and disaster relief areas.
“I want to focus my master’s in public health on maternal and global health, and obtain a doctorate in nursing midwifery or obstetrics in order to assist refugees both when they are settling in the U.S., as well as when they are still escaping internationally,” she said.
For now, she’s taking it one step at a time, looking forward to the things that bring her joy, like volunteering with The Welcome to America Project and Refugee Focus in Phoenix and, of course, her family.