There’s no quit in Caesar Garduno ’21. The journey hasn’t always been easy, but he stayed on task and earned his bachelor’s degree in economics with minors in sociology and psychology from Illinois State University at the age of 26.

After growing up in Reno, Nevada, Garduno found himself in a strange, new land called Illinois. His parents, Caesar and Cindy, moved for a National Guard assignment near Belleville at Scott Air Force Base.

After high school, Garduno had tried college back in Reno but eventually dropped out and worked for a couple of years. The experience provided some needed focus.

“I worked a number of random jobs, but the worst was landscaping,” he said. “The pay was decent, but I didn’t want to do that for the rest of my life.”

From there, he headed back to school, first community college at Southwestern Illinois College before transferring to Illinois State. There’s been no looking back since. One of his economics professors, Dr. Susan Chen, praised Garduno for his perseverance and passion for humanity. She should know since she taught him in three classes, including his senior capstone project. In addition, she supervised his independent study to complete his degree.

“We are truly proud of him,” Chen said. “Although most of his time at ISU was virtual because of the pandemic, he wasn’t defeated and strived to succeed.”

In June, Garduno was accepted into and attended a prestigious pre-doctoral summer workshop hosted by the University of Chicago. The program included panels and training sessions led by current pre-doctoral researchers and featured professors and researchers from Stanford, University of Chicago, the Federal Reserve Board, and more. It was an opportunity to hear about pre-doctoral opportunities and the path to a research career. While Garduno recently started a graduate program at Colorado State University (CSU), he’s uncertain yet if he’ll pursue a Ph.D., but his accomplishment was not lost on Chen.

“We are very excited that an ISU student was accepted, especially given the scope of the competition,” she said.

At CSU, Garduno is in a two-year master’s program in public policy and administration. He’s looking forward to applying a lot of the knowledge he gained in his undergraduate years at Illinois State.

“I’m a big fan of interdisciplinary programs,” he said. “I would major in everything if I could.”

His career ambitions include possibly working in government or for a nonprofit that aligns with things he cares about. No matter his path, Chen sees success in Garduno’s future and isn’t surprised by the track he’s put himself on; she could see the trend pretty early.

“Most of his time at ISU, Caesar took online classes, however, he still stood out among his peers,” she said. “In both spring semesters of 2020 and 2021, he never missed a single class and always participated actively.”

For his hard work, Garduno was in the Honors Program. He was also the winner of both the Scott M. Elliott Undergraduate Scholarship and the COUNTRY Financial Scholarship in 2020, the latter awarded to only one economics student.

Chen expects that her former student will thrive in his new adventure as a graduate student and believes his training in both economics and political science at Illinois State will serve him well after that.

“I would expect him to be one of the most passionate, knowledgeable, confident, and disciplined political leaders that this country badly needs in the near future,” she said. “I am fully confident that he will one day be one of our most successful alums. I look forward to that.”

How a kid from Reno picked Illinois State is pretty simple. He came for a solo tour and had a good experience that day. He liked campus, especially the Quad, and found a place that offered quality academics at a good value. He later discovered that Illinois State was up to the task of helping its students during a pandemic.

“The support of the school’s resources, the professors, and my friends gave me an environment where I could grow and reflect to get myself out of dark places,” he said of the challenge of being a student during the pandemic. “My two years at ISU were a good experience—even during COVID—because of the people and the classes, good friends, and good professors.”

At home Garduno’s support system includes his hard-working parents and the example they have set, especially his father’s 32 years of military service. In addition, his older sister, Alexis, is currently in a Ph.D. program at the University of California, San Diego. Rounding out the family is Sierra, a mixed rescue dog.

While Garduno appreciates his time at Illinois State, he is happy to be back in the West among the familiar mountain scenery of his youth. He loves the outdoors and enjoys hiking, running, and biking. One unexpected hobby he picked up while living in the Midwest he continues to pursue in his new Colorado home.

“ISU is where I started rock climbing at The Rec,” he said of Campus Recreation’s climbing wall. “It’s ironic to have learned that there, especially after having lived in Reno where I never did any rock climbing.”

Garduno has learned a lot in these last few years, much of it outside the classroom. He now knows that hitting the reset button is the right option sometimes.

“It’s OK to take a step back and evaluate what you’re doing,” he said. “Go back to the start of the mountain instead of continuing on. The break from school taught me that money was not what I wanted to be chasing. I discovered that I prefer to follow my curiosity rather than dollar signs.”