Raúl Cárdenas

Dr. Raúl Cárdenas was the founding president of South Mountain Community College.

Dr. Raul Cardenas with student researcher Matt Spadafino (center), and faculty sponsors Dr. Travis May & Liz Warren, Fall 2018

From the time he was a young boy growing up in the small town of Del Rio, Texas, education has played an important role in Raúl Cárdenas’ life. His parents, both native Mexicans, ensured that he and his seven siblings attended private Catholic schools up throughout high school. After receiving his bachelor’s degree from St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, Cárdenas decided to take a teaching position at a middle school in order to save money for law school. He married in 1962, and moved to El Paso, Texas for a teaching position at a junior high, where he was eventually promoted to assistant principal. This is where he discovered his true passion was in the education field, and continued to pursue better opportunities for himself. In 1971, he was selected to be the founding dean of students for El Paso Community College. Six years later, he moved to California to become the Assistant Vice Chancellor of University of California, Berkeley. While working there, he completed his doctorate at the University of Arizona.

Source: Phoenix Gazette, January 21, 1981

When he received news that he had been nominated to become the first president of a new community college in South Phoenix, he was unsure about whether or not he wanted to take the position. There was a lot of tension at the time about whether or not the college would be built, and there were community members and  state board who felt the school would fail due to low enrollment. Although he knew this would be a challenge, Dr. Cárdenas accepted the position and he and his family moved to Phoenix in 1977. Preparing for an uphill battle, he formed a citizens advisory committee to help navigate through the political storm they were facing.

Dr. Raul Cardenas describes the political origins of SMCC

The State Board held a final meeting to make a decision on green-lighting the college. While they normally held their meetings in the East Valley, they held this one in Casa Grande, in an attempt to discourage South Phoenix community members from attending. Dr. Cárdenas gathered his committee, and they made several phone calls to members of the state legislature as well as Governor Bruce Babbitt, who had several appointees on the State Board. To the State Board’s surprise, several South Phoenix community members arrived in Casa Grande, in support of the school. Their hard work paid off, because the State Board approved the college, and South Mountain Community College was a-go, making Dr. Cárdenas the first Hispanic president of any college or university in Arizona.   

Dr. Cardenas discusses how SMCC influenced perceptions of South Phoenix and higher education.

Dr. Cárdenas set many personal goals for himself when he became president. South Phoenix had a very negative perception, including the educational system. He was determined to change that image. He wanted to ensure that the doors of South Mountain were open to anyone who wanted a higher education. He was persistent about strengthening community involvement; involving both the school within the community and both the community within the school. He wanted South Mountain to be an area where everybody, not just students, could come and visit and share community pride. This was the vision that took the school and community to extraordinary places.

Dr. Cárdenas believes his most important decisions lied in the faculty members that he selected. Heart, determination, caring: these are the qualities that he sought after in his initial staff. These community members shared the same vision that Dr. Cárdenas did. They took pride in their school and their community. They were passionate about what they were doing and knew that they were making a difference in students’ lives. It was with this staff that set a precedent for future South Mountain faculty.

Dr. Cardenas remembers the groundbreaking origins of the Achieving College Education (ACE) program.

A crowning achievement of Dr. Cárdenas’ role as president was helping create the ACE Program. Achieving a College Education is a nationally recognized scholarship program funded by the Ford Foundation. It was created in response to the high school dropout rate in South Phoenix among at-risk and underrepresented populations. Since 1988, The ACE Program has helped more than 2,600 students in Maricopa County achieve higher education.

The Ford Foundation’s review of SMCC’s ACE Program
Source: Phoenix Gazette, July 4, 1984
Image provided by South Mountain Community College

Dr. Cárdenas was president of South Mountain until 1992. Now retired, he is living happily in Mesa with his wife, Alicia.* He has four kids and ten grandkids. He has a son who is following his footsteps in the education field, and is currently the President and CEO of Mullen High School, in Denver. His family is what he considers to be his proudest accomplishment. He is also very proud of what the South Mountain community has blossomed into. He predicts massive growth in the area over the years to come. Our community continues to build and grow because of the groundwork laid by Dr. Raul Cárdenas and his dedicated staff.

*Alicia Cárdenas passed away in 2020.

Works Cited

  1. “History.” South Mountain Community College… A Phoenix Tradition, www.southmountaincc.edu/about-us/history/.
  2. Lobaco, Julia. “School Chief Aims High for Himself, Students.” The Arizona Republic, 28 Sept. 1983, p. 168.
  3. Lobaco, Julia. “Head of College Shakes Shackles of Ivory Tower.” The Arizona Republic, 30 Sept. 1983, p. 42.
  4. Lobaco, Julia. “Decade of Expectation: Valley Hispanic Leaders Assess the ’80s.” The Arizona Republic, 2 Jan. 1985, p. 125.
  5. Medlyn, Beverly. “College Leader Serves District.” The Arizona Republic, 8 Sept. 1999, p. 21.
NarratorRaúl Cárdenas
Place of OriginDel Rio, Texas
Place of ResidenceMesa, Arizona
RoleFounding President of South Mountain Community College.
Years Active in South Phoenix1977 – 1992
Recording Duration1:01:51
DateFall 2018
LocationSouth Mountain Community Library
Interviewed ByStudent Researcher: Matt Spadafino
Story Written ByStudent Researcher: Matt Spadafino