Sun Devil veteran hit the base before hitting the books

6 minutes

After completing his duty in a time-honored family tradition of military service, Christopher Bilandzija finished his journey with the U.S. Coast Guard and set out on a new path that led him to the Arizona State University School of Social Work. When Bilandzija got to ASU he dove into his school work and several extracurricular activities that allowed him to encourage other veterans. 

It all started with volunteering, but then Bilandzija, who is from Glendale, Ariz., landed a job at ASU’s Veterans Upward Bound, a program designed to support U.S. veteran Sun Devils. As a liaison for several veteran resources, Bilandzija advocates for low-income and first-generation student-veterans. He said it was rewarding to focus his work on “empowering those who have been disempowered by society.”   

“Advocating on behalf of VUB to other agencies in the community to get more students involved has been instrumental in educating veterans the importance of an education,” he said. 

ASU graduate Christopher Bilandzija

Bilandzija understands Sun Devil veterans and uses his shared experiences to bond with and mentor other veterans. Not only has he offered assistance to veterans looking to map out their academic plans but their professional agendas as well. 

“The feeling we get when a potential student shows up and does the work makes all the difference,” he said.

As he prepared to graduate with his bachelor’s degree in social work, Bilandzija reflected on his time at ASU and his advice for Sun Devils.

Question: What extracurricular activities were you involved with while at ASU? 

Answer: Opportunities to volunteer with Tempe Care 7 Crisis Response Team, the East Valley Regional Veterans Court, Stand Up and Save a Life, ASU Move In, and the National TRIO Day at the State Veterans Hospital were all inclusive extracurricular activities that I was involved in while at ASU. These were all good causes to volunteer for and things that I am passionate about and enjoy doing, in which I am grateful. It allowed me to connect with many different communities and make a difference in many people’s lives.

Q: What was your favorite spot on campus, whether for studying, meeting friends or just thinking about life?

A: My favorite spot to meet with friends was in the Veterans Upward Bound classrooms, conference room and office. Because we have many things in common, it was a great way to learn and get to know one another at the same time. And of course, because most of us served in the military, it was a time to share our experiences and build camaraderie among one another.  

Q: What motivated you to join the military?

A: I was motivated to join the military because both of my grandfathers served. One grandfather was drafted into the U.S. Army after World War II. My other grandfather served in the U.S. Navy during the Korean War. We have a long history in my family of serving our country. I chose to enlist in the Coast Guard because the Coast Guard mission is to save lives, and I thought there is nothing more gratifying than saving a life. ...

It was an honor and privilege to serve our country. It fulfilled my sense of civic duty. My father expected me to fulfill whatever my potential was in all the areas of my life. 

Q: What was your favorite part of your service?           

A: My favorite aspect of the military was the camaraderie amongst my fellow service men and women. The crews were all tight-knit crews, but we had a reputation of having a few smart guys and few really mean guys. The group was a great group to serve with. Those groups ended up being some of the most highly loyal shipmates in my life. I remember asking my boss early on when I got orders, “If you had your choice of going to a station or seeing the world, what would you do?” 

This ended up leading to the most memorable aspect of my service. A Navy sailor was experiencing some difficulties being underway and jumped overboard. After 24 or so hours of search and rescue patterns, we found him clung to a piece of driftwood in the middle of the Southeast Pacific Ocean and saved his life. 

Q: How did ASU support you as a veteran?

A: ASU has supported me by providing every opportunity for growth and change every step of the way of my academic career. It has allowed me to connect with many different communities who support, have a passion and want to see students thrive.

Q: What was your “aha” moment, when you realized you wanted to study the field you majored in?

A: My “aha” moment when I realized that I wanted to study in the field of social work was when I was working with many people struggling in addiction, having mental health issues and being involved in the criminal justice system. I thought to myself, if I can overcome the challenges, how can I help others who are in similar circumstances. I felt like it was my calling in life. I knew that I wanted to help people and make a difference in their lives and thought social work would be the best way to do so.

Q: What’s something you learned while at ASU — in the classroom or otherwise — that surprised you, that changed your perspective?

A: While at ASU in the classroom I learned to be nonjudgmental, empathetic and resilient. I learned to gain an understanding from many of the other students, teachers and view their perspectives as an opportunity to learn from them. I also think being open-minded, not to assume anything, and to find value in others.

Q: Why did you choose ASU?

A: I choose ASU because of my involvement in the Veterans Upward Bound Program. As a VUB student I knew that I would have the academic support as a benefit of the program. I also knew that ASU had a social work program that my brother, sister-in-law and nephew were going to, so why not carry on the tradition. 

Q: What’s the best piece of advice you’d give to those still in school?

A: The best piece of advice to give to those who are in school is to listen, take notes and have fun! With a little hard work, dedication and passion anything is possible at ASU. The very moment we decide to change our lives, dream, we commit to doing something that is greater than ourselves, we have the power within ourselves to do so. 

Q: What are your plans after graduation?

A: My plans after graduation are to continue in the MSW Advanced Standing program at ASU, work with and empower as many people as possible, and hopefully find a career that is rewarding. 

Q: If someone gave you $40 million to solve one problem on our planet, what would you tackle? 

A: This would be an opportunity of a lifetime, according to President Barack Obama: “The best anti-poverty program is a world-class education.” 

So there would be nothing more important than giving everyone the best education possible. I think if we could have teachers who inspire their students, pushing students to learn, grow and evolve and a government who supports the students, giving students the opportunities they deserve, we would live in a much more responsible society.

Alexis Young, Sun Devil Storyteller