Harlig Medina-Vallecillo (photo by Saint Peter’s University)

Harlig Medina-Vallecillo ’25 was born in Managua, the capital of Nicaragua, in 1980. From his perspective, it was not easy to grow up in such a poor country: the importance of survival was instilled in him at a very young age.

Due to political persecution, his father left when he was only two years old. In Medina-Vallecillo’s words, his mother was his only salvation and still serves as his motivation to strive in life.

Medina-Vallecillo came to the United States when he was 12 years old. He was briefly taken in by his long-gone father, but the stay did not last long. He found himself alone again with his mother, who was fending for him, and a little brother with cerebral palsy. Medina-Vallecillo quickly learned English to help his mom translate whenever they were at the hospital. In the long run, it helped him significantly because he found himself outperforming classmates in similar situations in English class.

As a high school freshman, Medina-Vallecillo was racially profiled for committing a shooting. The actual shooter was ultimately caught; however Medina-Vallecillo was still expelled. He lost his first year of high school, but was later accepted at a lower-income school. “The school was one that fit my color and demographics a little better, I guess,” he said.

During his tenure at the new school, he made it his purpose to regain the school year he had lost. He decided to join the Army ROTC because it gave him the extra credits he needed to graduate on time.

“As a Cadet, we would meet at lunchtime to eat and learn Army doctrine,” explained Medina-Vallecillo. “I never really had a “normal” lunch period, but I did not care because I was making my mother proud and I was earning my country’s respect.”

His experience in the ROTC inspired him to pursue military service, and he joined the U.S. Navy in 2000. After 9/11, he was quickly deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of Operation Enduring Freedom, where the mission was to detain any vessels coming in and out of the Gulf, and search them to ensure they were not transporting weapons, ammunition, or terrorists who had been identified by intelligence officers. Medina-Vallecillo said, “The crew was exhausted and we did not have enough supplies, but we pushed through.”

It was then that he learned of an opportunity to volunteer on search missions with the ship’s Visit, Board, Search and Seizure team. When he finally got back from the deployment, he wanted to do more. Medina-Vallecillo volunteered for anything and everything, from going to Rescue Swimming School, to getting his qualifications to use every weapon on the ship.

Over the next ten years, Medina-Vallecillo found himself deploying six more times. He ended his military career after fourteen years; for his service, he was awarded the Navy Marine Corps Medal four times, the Navy Deployment Medal six times, the Global War on Terrorism Medal, the Commendation Unit Medal, and the Naval Sea Duty Medal three times, among others.

After leaving the Navy, Medina-Vallecillo found himself disoriented. He had no civilian work experience and it became very difficult for him to provide for his three children. “I fell into depression and anxiety,” he said. “Months went by and after a couple of years of doing construction and menial jobs, I decided to take on the opportunity to go to school while working. I found that school was the one place that brought me peace, security and control.”

Medina-Vallecillo is currently pursuing a health science degree from Saint Peter’s University and is the beneficiary of a gift from a donor who specifically wanted to support a Navy veteran.

“Someone like me was never steered toward seeking scholastic achievements, less dreaming of a degree [and] a well-paid career,” said Medina-Vallecillo. “My experience in my academic endeavors has been met with new challenges; however, failure or not, I welcome the opportunity to educate myself. I do not take my downs as failures, but as opportunities to learn and become better every semester that goes by.”

Stories like Medina-Vallecillo’s serve as a continued inspiration to Saint Peter’s to support the unique needs of veterans, service members, and their dependents. The University provides assistance with admissions, academic advisement and registration, student support and advocacy, internal and external referral services. and veteran educational counseling and processing.

In October 2021, Saint Peter’s hired Frank Rivera to serve in the inaugural role of director of military and veterans services. Rivera is a veteran himself, who served eight years in the United States Air Force. In November 2021, Saint Peter’s was presented with the New Jersey Governor’s “We Value Our Veterans” Academia Award in recognition of the University’s efforts in this area. In March 2022, Saint Peter’s earned the 2022-23 Military Friendly® School designation. And in September 2023, the University was named among the “Best Colleges for Veterans” by U.S. News and World Report.

Veteran support programs are deeply rooted in Jesuit education through the legacy of St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Society of Jesus. St. Ignatius, a soldier himself, dedicated his life to service for and with others. Veterans at Saint Peter’s like Medina-Vallecillo continue to do that today.

In Medina-Vallecillo’s words: “My reason to see this until the end is the times that I have been blindsided or denied knowledge. But more importantly, it is the call that I feel to help others in need. I am very thankful for those who had faith in me and have helped me stay in the fight to become a better man for my family and society.”

By Angeline Boyer, Director of University Communications, Saint Peter’s University