The University of Iowa

Spotlight: Overcoming obstacles to earn an education

December 1st, 2010

This spotlight from The Daily Iowan features Evelyn Cardenas, a UI student working toward degrees in business administration and international studies. Originally from Guatemala, Cardenas has studied in Japan, traveled to Mexico and participated in a Haiti relief fundraiser, among many other community service projects.

By Amy Tiffany, The Daily Iowan

When Evelyn Cardenas was only one and a half years old in 1976, she barely survived an 7.5 magnitude earthquake — capable of widespread damage —that hit her community in Guatemala.

Since then, the 36-year-old University of Iowa junior has continued to overcome obstacles.

“Even though my life has taken twists and turns, it’s gone in the right direction,” she said. “It’s just a little later than normal.”

Cardenas isn’t your typical UI student.

Married and the mother of an 18-year-old, Jason, and a 12-year-old, Yesenia, she is a full-time student in the Tippie College of Business. She earned an associate’s degree from Kirkwood Community College in the summer, and she finished two years’ worth of work in only one school year and two summers.

Cardenas also recently won the Pearson Prize for Higher Education scholarship — worth $10,000. Presented by the Pearson Foundation, the award recognizes exceptional students who have shown a commitment to community service while in school.

“She is one of those people who came into my class, and you wish you had 30 of them.”

Dale Simon, the executive director at Kirkwood’s Iowa City campus, spoke with Cardenas when she came to him in the summer of 2009. She asked Simon for permission to take 18 hours, which is what Simon called a “horrendous load,” especially for the summer.

“I was a big skeptic, but she blew me away with what she did that summer,” Simon said.

Cardenas’ business-calculus teacher at Kirkwood, Doug Gustafson, said, “She is one of those people who came into my class, and you wish you had 30 of them.”

Cardenas came to the United States from Guatemala City in 1982, a year after her father, who worked as a bus driver by day and learned to become an auto mechanic at night, moved to Chicago.

The family of eight was squished into tiny one- and two-bedroom apartments during Cardenas’ childhood. It was a difficult neighborhood for her to grow up in, but her family was still able to overcome poverty.

What brought Cardenas to West Liberty, where she and her family now reside, was a Spanish-speaking worship service at a local church she helped develop, which has a branch near her home in Chicago.

Cardenas, who married at 17, originally went to school after she wed and had her first child, but had to put her education on hold when Jason got sick. At the time, he required full-time care.

It was another obstacle. Once Jason got healthy, Cardenas went to work as an administrative assistant from 1997 to 2007, until her company went through a merger. A position was created for her, but because of internal managerial changes and a poor external economic climate, Cardenas was let go.

It was the perfect time for Cardenas to go back to school and get her degree.

“It is unbelievable to think that losing your job could be a blessing,” she said. “But for me, that is exactly what it has been.”

Now working toward a degree in business administration and international studies, Cardenas has a formal education she can grasp onto.

Gustafson noted her determination to take advantage of the opportunity she has been given.

“She was waiting for her opportunity, and when she got her chance, she was not going to waste it,” Gustafson said.