Source of Support

Carlos Cervantes ’97, EdD ’08 has a stake in the success of college students

By Rebecca Trounson

Carlos Cervantes ’97, EdD ’08 remembers the day his career path became crystal clear.

He and other candidates in the Educational Leadership doctoral (EdD) program at USC Rossier were listening to a faculty presentation on college student retention.

As the professor spoke, Cervantes said, he and a friend looked at one another and said, “This is it! This will set us up for the rest of our careers.”

Cervantes, now the associate dean of academic support and retention services at the University of La Verne, about 30 miles east of Los Angeles, would write his dissertation on the impact of learning communities on the academic integration of Latino students, a subject that he is still passionate about.

Carlos Cervantes ’97, EdD ’08.

Carlos Cervantes ’97, EdD ’08. Photo by Brian Morri.

At La Verne, which enrolls 8,300 undergraduate and graduate students, Cervantes oversees academic advising for the university’s 2,800 “traditional” undergraduate students, those between 17 and 24 years of age. The university, with a Latino student population of nearly 50 percent, is also a federally designated Hispanic Serving Institution.

Cervantes helps lead La Verne’s retention task force, a major initiative aimed at bringing together everyone on campus who has a role to play in making sure students persist to graduation.

“My view is that everyone has a stake in the success of students,” he says. “And this has to be institutionally driven. It takes building relationships on campus, primarily with faculty, but also with co-curricular professionals — coaches and athletic personnel, housing staff — they all work with us. Even staff from the financial aid office or registrar; their relationships with students really matter.”

His own life experience, and the mentors who helped him along the way, have also shaped his research and his advice to young people.

“I come from a similar background as so many of our students,” he said. “I’m able to use a lot of storytelling from my life to relate to students, with the hope that something will stick.”

Cervantes was born in Mexico and moved to the Los Angeles area with his family when he was 6. His parents supported the family through minimum wage jobs in manufacturing, his father at a plant that made commercial walk-in freezers and coolers, and his mother at a clothing factory.

Cervantes and his brother attended Catholic elementary schools, then Santiago High School in Garden Grove. “That’s where things for me really changed for the better,” he said, crediting a cohort of caring teachers at Santiago and one very special adviser.

Carolyn Rust ’65, a USC alum, was Cervantes’ high school counselor and made it clear from the beginning that she believed he was college material. “She said she knew I had potential,” he said, his voice cracking with emotion. “She changed my life.”

Rust advised him on his college applications, set up informational sessions with several USC alumni and even drove him — and other students — to those meetings, he said. He was stunned when he was admitted to USC.

After 23 years, he has remained close to Rust, who is like a grandmother known as “Mama Rusty” to his two children.

At USC, he majored in political science and international relations and found other key mentors.

He went on to earn a master’s degree in Latin American Studies at the University of California, San Diego, then was recruited back to USC, becoming an academic adviser in the Spanish and Portuguese department.

About 2004, he decided to apply to USC Rossier’s EdD program with his wife’s encouragement.

“The Rossier faculty was amazing and very clear in what they wanted to instill in us as professionals and change agents,” he said. “They really showed us that we could make a difference for students and schools in this area — and that came through in the curriculum and even the spirit of the school.

“It has made such a difference in my life.”

This article appeared in the fall/winter 2016 issue of USC Rossier Magazine.

*Thank you to all of our donors who generously supported USC Rossier during fiscal year 2016 (July 1, 2015, to June 30, 2016).

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