Leadership is not an abstract construct for J. Carlos Cervantes. In fact, for much of his career, sound leadership quite literally meant the difference between life and death – for him and his teammates. Cervantes spent nearly three decades serving the nation in the U.S. Army, including multiple tours of duty in the Middle East as part of Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom. In that time, he discovered that leadership is not about holding a particular title or rank; it’s about building teams that are cohesive, trustworthy and engaged. Good leaders, he found, are transparent, offer vision, humility and integrity; they use words and actions to affect the best outcomes for the organizations to which they belong.
Cervantes retired from the military in 2016. However, he continues to draw on his understanding of what it means to guide others in his current role as director of student services at the Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center (S.E.O.C.), a division of the State University of New York System that offers no-cost academic and vocational instruction to area residents. Cervantes could have parlayed his military experience into a lucrative consulting job, but that would not have been nearly as rewarding for him as the work he is now doing. Every day he oversees a team of professionals helping new Americans learn English, single parents gain the professional skills necessary to find meaningful work, and young adults who dropped out of high school earn a High School Equivalency Diploma. He’s lost track of the number of times one of these students has hugged him and says “their success feeds my soul.”
“Many of the students we work with have faced a lifetime of rejection and disappointment, and simply need a victory,” says Cervantes, a first-generation American who was raised by his single mother in Los Angeles before going on to earn a bachelor’s degree and two master’s degrees. “It is tremendously rewarding to help them toward that victory. I find a lot of satisfaction in assisting and advocating on behalf of those who need our help.”
Cervantes is bringing all of his experiences to bear as he pursues a Doctorate in Executive Leadership (Ed.D.) at Le Moyne. Launched in 2019, the Ed.D. program enables professionals in business, education, healthcare and other sectors to become true agents of change. The program is centered on the four pillars of transformative leadership, social responsibility, scholarship and communication, each of which reflects the College’s commitment to preparing its graduates to become men and women in the service of others. Among its most distinctive features are its small class sizes and numerous opportunities for one-on-one mentorship and advisement, in keeping with the College’s Jesuit mission of cura personalis, or care for the whole person.
When Cervantes first learned about the program, he thought it would be a wonderful complement to the work he is currently doing at the S.E.O.C., as he seeks to provide students with a safe and non-judgmental environment in which they can succeed. He knows that not all adults are best suited for a traditional college pathway to success; they need alternatives to self-sufficiency, including skilled trades such as construction, manufacturing, plumbing and auto repair. To that end, one of his chief goals, both as a professional and student in the Ed.D. program, is to “inform and influence” the way people think about these professions. They are dignified careers, they pay well, and there is a tremendous demand for them. Yet they don’t always receive the respect and prestige that they deserve. As a doctoral candidate, Cervantes is researching what can be done to promote a better understanding of what factors influence a student’s decision to enroll in college or pursue a skilled trades career, especially when a student demonstrates the interest or aptitude for success in those fields.
“The men and women who come to the Syracuse Educational Opportunity Center are ready and eager to succeed, they just need to be given that chance,” he says. “I am looking forward to using the skills I have developed over the course of my professional life, and which I am further strengthening at Le Moyne, to help them unlock that potential.”