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Once an underdog, now a champion for others

Medical student is passionate about volunteering

Celeste Jilich and family
Celeste Jilich, second from left, with her father Jiri, brother G.W. and mother Jane at the Charleston Regional Business Journal's Health Care Heroes ceremony. Photo by Anne Thompson
Mikie Hayes | | March 23, 2018

Trailblazers come in all genders, colors and sizes. Add ages to that list. Perhaps it seems beyond the norm that a 25-year-old medical student would be honored during a month devoted to women who have made history. But when a self-described gentle, sweet, unassuming young woman comes out of her cocoon, sometimes what emerges is a passionate, powerful torchbearer whose flame is already burning.

Still, it’s hard for Celeste Jilich to see herself as lighting the way for others, although that is exactly what others believe she is doing. She never thought she was the type of woman who could be considered a role model, let alone celebrated by others during National Women’s History Month. And while some girls know early on they want to set the world on fire, Jilich has been circumspect, finding her voice, her passion and her calling a bit more purposefully…  yet some say boldly.

At 25, her life is something of a book in the making, from the assault she experienced as a preteen to a major life decision she made as a young adult to triumphing over adversity and focusing her energies on helping the vulnerable.

A picture is worth 1,000 words

A College of Medicine ID badge hangs from the third-year medical student’s lab coat. The photo, now four years old, was taken her senior year in college – the image, a young woman with long blonde hair. But if that’s who professors expect to see walk into their classrooms, there’s a surprise in store.

Celeste Jilich ID badge

Celeste Jilich in 2014.
If that picture were taken today, it would reflect the person she identifies with now. Gone are the golden locks, replaced with a darker crop cut, no makeup, less fitted clothing. But for Jilich, an accurately representative badge is about more than just a photo. On one hand, it allows others to recognize her as potentially part of the LGBTQ acronym. Going a step further, it offers a starting point for honest conversations around preferred names, photos and pronouns. 

Many colleges already have a student management system, she explained. With a small electronic change at MUSC, professors could access their students’ current photos and preferred identifiers that could prevent embarrassment and misunderstanding.

“The way it is now, every time you meet a new professor, you have to repeatedly share your preferred name and pronouns. This move allows everyone to be called the name they want to be called, like a nickname or middle name, and for trans people, for instance, to feel included, safe and not outed by having to explain their identity.”

It’s a situation she’s familiar with. “I changed my look for a number of reasons. For one, it makes me feel connected to my community. Plus, I don’t have to come out anymore, and that’s worth its weight in gold. It’s such an uncomfortable experience. You’re never sure where you have to or where it’s appropriate. You just want to be accepted, and you never know how people are going to respond. When someone doesn’t ‘look gay’ — like my old picture — the initial response I get most of the time is, ‘Oh I didn’t realize; you don’t look gay.’ Or, ‘You were so beautiful.’ ‘Are you sure?’ ‘Is it a phase?’ In essence, they want me to prove I’m gay.”

Jilich wants MUSC to be a place where people who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender or queer feel safe. After she came out, she recounts multiple experiences where she was treated badly, asked to leave groups, followed, threatened, assaulted, even spit on. Still, she holds no grudges and just wants better for all.

It was that type of resilience that earned her some prestigious accolades. In November, she was named a Health Care Hero by the Charleston Regional Business Journal for her volunteer and social justice efforts and received the 2017 Earl B. Higgins Leadership in Diversity Award for her relentless championing of underdogs.

No time for sleep

Jilich is currently running unopposed for president of the MUSC Student Government Association. The election will take place later this month. She already represents the Alliance for Equality on the SGA.

AFE is a campus organization that promotes equity for LGBTQ individuals. Last year, she and fellow classmate Keeland Williams served as co-presidents. Together, they introduced initiatives that took into consideration the needs of those who might otherwise be overlooked. First, they pushed for more inclusive language on the medical school application. The measure was approved.

“Now, a prospective student can share that they’re trans or share their gender identity or sexual orientation if they choose to,” she explained. “In that way they feel accepted, instead of a ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ mentality.”

They are working toward that language being included on the other colleges’ applications and hope the student management system will also become a reality.

Celeste Jilich, Cristina Lopez and John Sion

Celeste Jilich stands with Dr. Cristina Lopez and John Sion, fellow winners of the Earl B. Huggins Leadership in Diversity Awards. Photo by Anne Thompson
She is excited but slightly nervous about assuming the helm of the SGA. It’s a bit out of her comfort zone, she says. She hopes to work closely with an initiative-driven executive board to promote ways to make the MUSC student experience more inclusive for all.

Things are off to a good start. In November, she and Williams proposed a new SGA office — vice president for diversity and inclusion. Williams won the special election. Already a gender-inclusive bathroom has come out of their joint efforts and put an end to hurtful experiences Jilich and others have had. What might seem like a small win has gone a long way in letting people know their needs matter at MUSC.

“There was a lot of justification for a gender-neutral bathroom, but it was a nightmare to get passed,” she said. “Even people in diversity roles didn’t think it was necessary, but they weren’t the ones to see what happens. I present pretty masculinely, and that can cause genuine confusion. Sometimes people don’t realize I’m a woman.”

The human connection

Like most third-year students, Jilich’s schedule is grueling and the hours long. Still, she manages to serve humanity in a number of ways. Her SGA position is just the tip of the iceberg. She’s driven by an unrelenting social conscience and heart that beats to help others, and, in many ways, the need for a human connection.

“The first two years of medical school are very lonely. If you’re always studying alone in the library, and there’s no patient interaction or opportunity to practice medicine the way you wanted to when you decided to go to med school, you lose sight of what you’re doing here — why you wanted to become a doctor. Volunteering reminds you why,” she said. “I needed to feel like I had a purpose beyond getting good grades. I wanted to feel close to people.”

Her work with the student-run CARES Clinic goes a long way toward fulfilling that wish. Last year, she spent 20 hours a week as its director of operations. This year she’s an advisor and provides hands-on medical care to its uninsured patients. It’s one of the reasons she became a doctor.

“I wanted to help people, and being a doctor is one of the only places where you can help people in a way that is so incredibly vulnerable for you and the patient. People are literally showing you their sores, they’re taking off their clothes, they’re telling you they’ve been assaulted or that they’ve stopped wanting to live. There are a lot of ways you can help people, but being a doctor seemed like the greatest thing I could do.”

That sensitivity is critical in her volunteer work with People Against Rape, a local advocacy program for survivors of sexual assault. It was something she wanted to do for a long time but wasn’t ready, she said. Now she’s been involved for four years.

Jilich has a personal reason for caring. She’s suffered the unimaginable, not once but twice, at ages 12 and 22. She channels these traumatic experiences into compassionate support for others who also have suffered. She also cofounded Break the Cycle, End the Culture, a student organization that provides education about domestic violence and sexual assault.

These experiences helped her pinpoint the area of medicine that she’s most passionate about.

Providing a safe place for the vulnerable

Jilich wants to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology, focusing on the gynecological side. She is excited about the prospect of working within the sexual assault arena and talking to patients about healthy relationships, sex and consent — topics that often get skipped or glossed over.

“I think this idea of consent – whether it’s sexual, physical, romantic – it’s so much bigger than that, and we don’t do it justice in terms of teaching people consent or healthy relationships. If we talked more about it, we’d have less blurry lines around sexual assault, and people would be more empowered to say the things they want and need in life.”

This field, she feels, will provide her a unique connection with women and non-males — people who are trans, genderqueer, not quite strictly a man.

“I could work with trans people who identify as male but still have a vagina and breasts that need to be checked. I realized that is an area I do outside of medical school, and I can also do for my job. Not only is it something I am so passionate about it, but I’m pretty good at it. I spend a lot of time understanding the vocabulary and knowing how to have these conversations with people. I could really make a difference in it.”

She pulls up the “Genderbread Person” chart, a takeoff on a gingerbread man, which defines sex, orientation, identity and expression — terms that are important in her line of work but that confuse many.

She broke it down. Biological sex, she said, are the parts you’re born with, the chromosomes that you have. Biologically, she said, you are either male or female, or in rare cases, intersexual, a combination of male and female biological characteristics.

Sexual orientation is about who one is attracted to and includes terms like lesbian, gay, bisexual, queer. Identity, she explained, is about how someone feels internally, irrespective of anyone else. How you categorize yourself. And expression is how people express the identifies they feel – how they dress, the activities they participate in.

This newfound confidence belies the fact that Jilich once attended Ashley Hall and often felt like an underdog and one of the weird kids. That is, until her outside and inside synced.

“I’m a very sweet, caring and gentle person. I get lost in a crowd sometimes. I’m not one to step over anyone else and not one to demand anything. I find myself more comfortable in a support role, so I can make sure everyone is comfortable. But changing the way I look has allowed me to still be gentle, and still be radical, and still be powerful, and still be noticed and still have people know who I am and want to follow.”

It was hard for her to wrap her mind around being honored for Women’s History Month.

“I was surprised and flattered to be considered a woman that people want to celebrate. I don’t necessarily look like all the women here, and I think that broadens the definition of who fits into that. It allows people who aren’t super feminine, people who aren’t straight, people who don’t have women’s parts to be a woman still.  Sometimes when you get an award, it’s because someone wants other people to see you and be able to emulate you or find you and ask you questions. I was just surprised that someone thought that could be me.”

March is Women's History Month. MUSC is celebrating by featuring a few of the remarkable women on campus in the following stories:

Carla Jones: Persevering through loss

Townsend Langley: Analyst opening doors, making strides for women through technology

L'Tanya Wright: She loves to help pharmacy patients save money

Suggest a story to MUSC News



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