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Ph.D. Student Pushes for Better Education Benefits for Veterans’ Dependents

January 24, 2024
UC Merced graduate student Karla Seijas siting on concrete wall.
UC Merced graduate student Karla Seijas’ passion for identifying and removing obstacles faced by military veterans and their families has turned into a new state law. Photo: Veronica Adrover

A new state law will make a difference in accessing education for the dependents of disabled veterans in California, thanks to the initiative of UC Merced Interdisciplinary Humanities graduate student Karla Seijas.

Seijas proposed the idea for a bill that would expand the CalVet College Fee Waiver for Veteran Dependents Program to increase eligibility for children of service-connected disabled veterans — known as Assembly Bill 1745.

AB 1745 raises the income cap definition from the federal poverty level to the California poverty level. This allows disabled veterans’ dependents the ability to earn money from a part-time job of 20 hours per week while furthering their educations using the tuition waiver benefit.

Seijas’ spouse is a service-connected disabled combat veteran, so she knows the unique challenges veterans and military families face, and that has fueled her passion to create policy solutions to improve others’ lives.

“As a military dependent, I’ve endured obstacles in trying to further my education due to our frequent moves,” she said. “Each move meant a stop in my career progression and education while I followed my active-duty-service-member spouse as he progressed in his career.”

A family of four walking
Seijas, her husband and their two children

AB 1745 was introduced to the California State Legislature by Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria in 2023.

“Education is the key to opportunity. It is important we ensure equitable access to higher education, especially for veterans’ dependents. It was an honor to have authored AB 1745,” Soria said. “The work we did with Karla is a great example of our community’s engagement and partnerships. She shared a problem and we worked to find a solution.

“The best transformative solutions come from uplifting the lived experiences and stories of those being impacted. I am grateful to have had the opportunity to make this happen.”

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed the bill into law on Oct. 10, 2023, and it took effect Jan. 1.

“It was great to work with Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria, who served as the chair of the California Assembly Committee on Military and Veteran Affairs,” Seijas said. “She cares about furthering access to higher education. I appreciate that she is solution focused.”

Through her research in the Department of Anthropology and Heritage Studies with Professor Robin DeLugan, Seijas is hoping to bring awareness to post 9/11 military families. Her broad focus is on how public policy affects post 9/11 military families, and her dissertation centers on how federal labor laws impact post 9/11 military spouse underemployment and unemployment.

“Post 9/11 military families have been impacted by years of war, and providing research and advocacy is important,” she said.

The work we did with Karla is a great example of our community’s engagement and partnerships. She shared a problem and we worked to find a solution,

Assemblymember Esmeralda Soria

The Merced native said she didn't know what she initially wanted to study in college, but an internship at a Central Valley congressional member’s office during high school at her father’s recommendation inspired her passion to help people.

“I realized that people came to the representative’s office with problems, and a call on someone’s behalf could change the trajectory of whatever issue they were experiencing,” Seijas said. “That's what made me want to study political science.”

She earned a bachelor’s degree in political science and a master’s degree in public policy from California State University, Northridge, before working in public policy and government relations in the Los Angeles and Sacramento areas.

In 2007, she married a man who was in the U.S. Army. They moved around the country, and he deployed to Iraq several times, each time for 15 months.

When Seijas’ husband retired from the military, the couple and their two children moved to Merced to be closer to her family.

She volunteers and serves as chair for the building committee at the Merced Veterans Memorial Building. Upon learning that the building didn't have air conditioning, Seijas rallied local veterans for the cause, and they attended a Board of Supervisors meeting to voice their needs and concerns.

“We got $1.5 million allocated to rehab all veterans halls in Merced County. And now they all have air conditioning and are (Americans with Disabilities Act) compliant,” she said. “I guess turning a problem into a solution is what drives me.”

On the job front, she began working on public policy research for UC Merced’s School of Engineering. When her contract ended, she worked as a graduate support staff member in the School of Social Sciences, Humanities and Arts, where she learned more about post-baccalaureate studies and eventually sought the opportunity to obtain a doctoral degree from the campus.

The original CalVet Tuition Fee Waiver is a generous benefit for the dependents of veterans with a service-connected disability; however, Seijas found its limitations.

“While navigating my own university enrollment process, I noticed the benefit had limiting restrictions for use,” she said. “I decided it would be beneficial for veteran dependents if updates were made to bring the CalVet Fee Waiver up to date with our current economy.”

Having decades of experience in public policy helps Seijas navigate the complexities of advocating for the post 9/11 military community, which is an important effort for her.

“I feel like we give a lot as military spouses, and our children sacrifice a lot as well,” she said. “Our spouses wear the uniform and deploy, but we sacrifice our personal and professional ambitions and face uncertainty while managing the home front.”