Graduation Brings New Opportunities

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frank_cejaMOLINE, Ill. – Frank Ceja has watched his fellow correctional officers lose their jobs and knew that if he had a college degree, he would have a better chance to move on and up when more cutbacks came.
After working for 18 years as a correctional officer, he is ready to change careers. The 37-year-old graduated May 17 from Black Hawk College with an associate in science degree. In June, he will move his wife and family from Moline to Michigan where he will pursue a bachelor’s degree in criminal justice at Michigan State University. He already has a job interview lined up with the Michigan State University campus police.
His ultimate goal? To become a lawyer and work in a U.S. Attorney’s Office. Having escorted prisoners to court and observed the court
system from the corrections side, he now wants to work in the court system. “I find it intriguing,” he says.
Frank, who graduated with a 3.22 GPA, is a first-generation college student. He will be the first of six children in his family to graduate from college. As the oldest child, he dropped out of high school at age 17 to get a job and help his divorced mother support his siblings.
He earned his GED shortly after he left school. Frank knew he would need to go to college eventually, but put off college in order to work. He got his first job as a correctional officer at age 19, working in the Pontiac Correctional Center, a maximum- and high medium-security facility in Pontiac, Ill. He spent 4 ½ years at Pontiac, then worked at the East Moline Correctional Center for 2 ½ years. The last 11 years he has commuted from Moline to Hill Correctional Center, a medium-security correctional facility in Galesburg.
In 2000 at age 30, Frank began attending Black Hawk College. For two years, from 2004 to 2006, Frank and his wife were both students as she completed an associate degree in dental hygiene at Carl Sandburg College. They juggled their college classes, work schedules and their kids’ school and sports schedules.
Frank participated in the SMART program (Student Minority Advising Retention) at Black Hawk and took advantage of training offered by the program, such as time management and financial planning. Since Hill Correctional Center is a 40-minute drive from Moline, Frank quickly learned the art of time management. He would tape record his instructors’ lectures, then listen to them in the car as he drove to and from work.
“Education is so very important. If you don’t have it, you won’t go very far,” he says. A father of four and stepfather of three, Frank lets his children know that a good GPA is important. “I preach to them to keep their grades up and continue moving forward no matter how tough they might feel that it is,” he says.
Karen Taylor, coordinator of the SMART program, describes Frank as a positive student, a family man and someone who she thinks will eventually run for office.
“He is one of our shining stars. He’s awesome,” she says.

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