Born in Madrid, Spain, to heroin-addicted parents who neglected and abused her, and as a teenage immigrant who spoke no English when she arrived in Texas in the late 1990s, Ivanka Canzius ’22, a U.S. Army veteran, has walked a long and rocky path to Harvard Law School.

“As an orphan child, Hispanic woman, female soldier, disabled vet, divorced wife, and single mother, I have suffered more than anyone should. Nonetheless my story is a happy one.”

Ivanka Canzius ’22

“As an orphan child, Hispanic woman, female soldier, disabled vet, divorced wife, and single mother, I have suffered more than anyone should. Nonetheless my story is a happy one,” Canzius told a packed audience on October 2 at the student speaker series HLS Talks, for which her 1L section nominated her to share her life story. “I am not going to lie, it took me a long time to feel at peace with the things that happened to me.” Yet those very experiences, she said, “helped me become the person you see today.”

When she was seven, Canzius begged a judge to let her to live with her grandparents. “Inexplicably,” the court refused, she recalled, and for weeks at a time her parents abandoned her and her younger sister, forcing Canzius to scavenge food from a neighbor and a restaurant. She began sneaking to her grandparents’ home for meals and clean clothes; when her father found out he beat her so badly she suffered fractured bones and internal bleeding. She ended up in an orphanage until her grandparents were granted custody. Her American-born grandfather and her grandmother then spirited her away to San Antonio, Texas, to be safe from her father.

“I owe them everything,” she says of her grandparents, whom she calls her “guardian angels.” Her grandfather wouldn’t allow her to use her difficult circumstances as an excuse for not excelling at school. He also insisted she go to college even though no one else in the family had.

But unclear on how to pay for it and worried about financially burdening her grandparents, she instead enlisted in the U.S. Army while in high school, over her grandfather’s strong objection. After training to be an Army paralegal, Canzius was stationed for five years in Heidelberg, Germany, in the post-trial division of JAG, where she processed post-trial motions in over 70 courts-martial and earned a commendation from the commanding general for exemplary competency. She also conducted training sessions for JAG attorneys around the world on courts-martial process and procedures, and was chosen for a legal team that traveled to Bosnia to complete property and personal injury claims related to U.S. military action there. Tasked with such a high level of responsibility at the age of 18, she says, it was “probably the best job I had in the military,” said Canzius.

In Germany, Canzius married a fellow soldier with whom she later had two daughters, Navanee and Kaelahni. Next stationed in Ft. Hood, Texas, she handled pre-trial work for courts-martial including preliminary victim and witness interviews, and training a team of six paralegals. She received more commendations for her professionalism and competency. But her husband returned from his third deployment to Iraq with a serious drinking problem and a propensity for violence. Worried about her girls being alone with him if she were deployed, Canzius left the Army and moved to San Antonio to be near her grandparents. With funding from the G.I. Bill, she double majored in psychology and criminology at Texas A&M in San Antonio while working full-time as a paralegal for a private law firm. Degree in hand, she took a job as a civilian paralegal with the Office of the U.S. Air Force General Counsel at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, where she handled complex commercial real estate deals.

Around the time her divorce was finalized, her beloved grandparents passed away, and Canzius, who felt she’d reached her full potential as a paralegal, decided to get her M.B.A. at Texas A&M while continuing to work full-time for the Air Force. A civilian attorney in the office recognized Canzius’ promise and urged her to go to law school, paid for her application fees, and once she saw Canzius’ impressive LSAT scores, insisted she apply to HLS. But as a single mom, Canzius decided that law school at the University of Texas in Austin would be easier logistically. When UT rejected her early decision application and placed her in the general admission applicant pool, Canzius was devastated and she took her daughters to Europe to regroup. In Spain, she finally met her father’s family.

“It was life-changing,” she said. They were “great people” who told her that her father was a good man prior to becoming an addict. Before her father died, at age 32, he’d asked his sister to someday tell Canzius he was sorry for what he’d done to her. “I felt a relief I’d never felt before,” Canzius said.

And in February 2019, while she and her girls were in Paris, Canzius got her acceptance to HLS, as well as a substantial financial package “that made it so I couldn’t say no.” Her daughters, now 14 and 11, attend Cambridge public schools. “The girls love it so much. They tell me all the time, ‘This is the best school ever.’”

She has also reconciled with her mother, who lives in San Antonio and has been clean from drugs for years. “Last year she tried for the first time to apologize,” said Canzius, 35. “She can obviously not be a mom [to me] but she definitely still could be a grandmother to my kids.”

Canzius hasn’t yet settled on her career plans. After serving ten years in the Army and five as a civilian paralegal with the Air Force, she says “a big part of my heart will always be with public service,” and she may return to the military as a civilian attorney at some point. Fluent in Spanish, once she has a J.D. in addition to her M.B.A., she sees herself as suited to international business and banking. However, “for my mental health and sanity I have to keep removed from a lot of the public service,” she said. “The things I would be interested in—working with human trafficking victims or abused children or battered women—I feel I have to keep my distance because it’s too close.

“I can never complain about my life. If you look at somebody who grew up like me, statistics show that person should be drug addicted or an alcoholic, or maybe dead,” she said. “I feel really, really lucky.”