Graduate’s GCU takeaway is to keep giving back

March 08, 2022 / by / 0 Comment

Cesar Cardenas, a health center director in Ajo, Arizona, says GCU taught him to be a servant leader.

Editor’s note: This story is reprinted from the February 2022 issue of GCU Magazine. To read the digital version of the magazine, click here.

By Mike Kilen
GCU Magazine

Cesar Cardenas had badly injured his back. Bed-ridden, he had two thoughts on changing his life:

Adopt a baby boy, and listen to mentors who told him to get an education to go with nearly 20 years of work experience.

Since age 16, when the Tohono O’odham Nation member and ranch worker joined the emergency medical service as a first responder, he had been a paramedic and captain in the Indian Health Service.

But the Ajo, Arizona, man quickly acted on his thoughts, adopting Luke at 2 weeks old and in 2012 enrolling at Grand Canyon University, a private Christian university that at first he couldn’t see himself attending because its requirements made him unhappy.

He didn’t think core classes on Christian worldview and servant leadership had anything to do with his life. He traveled to the campus, lodged a complaint and was surprised to be met by a whole team of people who showed him a firm kindness. Over the next couple of years, Cardenas began to change.

“It helped me grow inside as a person,” said the Director of Operations for Desert Senita Community Health Center. “And now everything I do here is based on those two core classes. It was different to me to accept to be a servant and have faith. I laughed because I said one day, ‘I found my purpose. Wait a minute, that’s our school motto.’”

He began to see the purpose behind the larger mission of helping an underserved community and traveled to assist health care providers in Nevada who were short of workers. There, he was inspired to create a capstone project on delivering emergency medical care to rural and tribal areas. The project became the model for some rural fire and EMS services in the Southwest, said Cardenas, who earned his bachelor’s degree in health administration in 2016.

“But the only way to make change is to become a policymaker, so I went back to GCU,” he said.

His Master of Public Administration with an Emphasis in Government and Policy put him in high demand, but his grounding in those core classes stuck with him.

“I stopped taking the dollar. I had a chance to stay with IHS and make $200,000 to $250,000,” said Cardenas, who instead took a smaller salary at Desert Senita to help bring health care to an underserved population in Ajo, his hometown.

He could spend more time with Luke while overseeing everything at the health center from parking lot grading to making sure that every patient – or customer, as he calls them – has a positive experience. He learned to be a servant leader.

“GCU teaches you the pillars of business. But those two classes are the foundations of how I approach a project at work,” said Cardenas, who is leading Desert Senita’s effort to open another health center in Arizona City in 2022.

He is a servant leader tackling the community’s health challenges by realizing you can’t do it alone.

“We are a collective, we are a group,” he said. “I can help you understand and change perspective and still not lose sight of your perspective. I accept you for who you are. Let’s work together and figure out how to come to a conclusion that will help everybody.”

 Grand Canyon University senior writer Mike Kilen can be reached at [email protected] or at 602-639-6764.

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