Student president, reformed ‘outlaw’ shares how Cuesta College changed his life

A speech during Cuesta College’s commencement on Friday will be given by a man who has led a life ripped from a TV show.

Daniel Cadwell is a 53-year-old veteran who, after leaving the Navy in the mid-1980s, joined an outlaw motorcycle gang as a “nomad enforcer.” After killing a rival gang member during a drug deal gone wrong — and pleading guilty to every charge leveled against him — Cadwell was sentenced to life in prison.

Now, Cadwell is student body president, an instructional lab aide, a tutor and, as of Saturday, the proud owner of a bachelor’s degree in computer science from CSU Monterey Bay, with plans to attend Cal Poly in the fall for his master’s degree and then return to Cuesta as a professor.

“When I walk Saturday, I’ve shown it can be done,” he said. “You can do this. You can do this and change your life.”

No one knows more than Cadwell that his path to speaking at Cuesta’s commencement is unorthodox. After being released early from his life sentence in Florida for good behavior, he was transferred to California to serve another five-year sentence. When he finished that in 2011, he moved to San Luis Obispo, where his wife and in-laws were living, and discovered the local community college.

When talking with The Tribune this week at his and his wife’s home in San Luis Obispo as he prepared for his Calculus II final, Cadwell said he was aware that his life story could easily be sensationalized, but instead he wanted to focus on what he calls “the real story”: How Cuesta has given him and others a new hope for the future.

“They really are a school of a thousand success stories,” he said. “As a student body president, I get to talk to people that are my age, and the struggles they have with working full time and going to school — all the single mothers out there — it’s amazing. It makes my story look insignificant.”

Defying expectations

Cadwell — a heavily tattooed yet jovial man with a white-gray beard and big smile — isn’t exactly what you’d expect when thinking of a former “outlaw.”

Degrees, awards and certificates line the front wall of his home in what he jokes is his “wall of shame.” Three large dogs yipped and yapped and spun in circles in the yard, two of them acting like puppies because they didn’t have their service vests on. His wife, Lisa, sat at a desk in the living room working hard on her own financial accounting class assignment. She has plans to graduate from Cuesta College with two degrees next semester.

The Cadwells’ small home is full of people on a normal day. The couple operate a ministry, Living Water Recovery, and routinely open their house to recovering addicts, homeless individuals and those affected by chemical dependency and compulsive behavior. Cadwell supports them all through his work at Cuesta and side jobs repairing computers.

Throughout the interview, his passion for doing good is obvious, and his passion for Cuesta College even more so.

“I need to give back, for all those years not being a productive member of society,” he said. “That’s what attracts me to Cuesta. Because I’ve made a decision I’m going to give back for the rest of my life, any chance I can help. And Cuesta does that.”

An active student

Cadwell arrived at the school in 2011 with the intention of taking one math class he needed in order to attend Cal Poly. The class wasn’t offered that semester, however, and he ended up taking a full load of courses and falling in love with the school.

His list of accomplishments at Cuesta is long. He was involved with honor society Alpha Gamma Sigma and then the school senate, moving up through the ranks before running for student body president last year. As president, he’s been active at Cuesta College Board of Trustees meetings and has played an important role in many of its decisions.

He has served as site administrator of the school’s professional test administration center. In April, he and two fellow students won gold medals at the SkillsUSA California 49th Annual State Leadership and Skill Conference, qualifying for the national competition in June.

He was even offered a computer science residency with Google this year, but turned it down to attend Cal Poly in the fall.

Through it all, Cadwell said there were many instructors and administrators who contributed to his success, though he has a special appreciation for Cuesta College President Gil Stork for a specific incident that shaped Cadwell’s time at Cuesta.

In 2013, instructors Chris Akelian and Bret Allen asked him to be an instructional lab aide for their classes. The school requires a background check for its employees, however, and because of Cadwell’s past, his application was initially rejected. After taking it up with Stork, Cadwell said he was humbled by the administrator’s reaction.

“The man had me in tears,” he said. “I get chills when I think of that conversation because he made me realize I really could do something. I had the focus, and I knew what I wanted to do, but in the back of my mind it was, ‘Can I really do this with my past?’ And he let me know that I could.”

Stork said Thursday that Cadwell “has caught fire” since coming to Cuesta.

“Daniel entered the doors at Cuesta College appearing to be a typical ‘late blooming’ re-entry student — a previous life checkered with starts and stops, good decisions and bad decisions, and a fundamental streak of goodness with a desire to be better,” he said. “He has proven to himself and those of us who work with him that he is intelligent, courageous, possesses great leadership skills and, yes, is still a little rough around the edges. I am very proud of how Daniel has taken full advantage of the opportunities that Cuesta College has provided him and of what he has accomplished.”

Cuesta as a foundation

Cadwell graduated from Cuesta with an associate degree in electro-mechanical technology in 2014, but has remained at the school while enrolled in his online bachelor’s program with CSU Monterey Bay, which allows him to take some of the required courses at Cuesta’s campus.

On Saturday, Cadwell will drive to Monterey, where he will walk in the school’s commencement ceremony and also present a modified version of his Cuesta commencement speech.

He gave a preview of the speech Tuesday, ending with a poem by Nancy Scheibner (the poem is notably known for being read by presidential candidate Hillary Rodham Clinton in her own commencement speech when she graduated from Wellesley College in 1969).

“It is well at every given moment to seek the limits in our lives,” he read with solemnity. “And once those limits are understood, to understand that limitations no longer exist. Earth could be fair. And you and I must be free not to save the world in a glorious crusade, not to kill ourselves with a nameless gnawing pain, but to practice with all the skill of our being, the art of making possible.”

When he finished reading, he looked up and grinned: “So that’s that.”

Kaytlyn Leslie: 805-781-7928, @kaytyleslie

Facts about Friday’s commencement

▪ Cuesta College will award 1,301 degrees during its 51st annual commencement ceremony Friday — up 14 percent from 2015.

▪ A total of 590 transfer degrees are being awarded, up nearly 128 percent over last year, according to a Cuesta College news release. Additionally, 577 associate of arts and 134 associate of sciences degrees will be awarded this year.

▪ Of the graduates, 259 earned honors or high honors by achieving a grade point average of 3.5 or higher, including 22 who earned a perfect 4.0.

▪ According to the release, a total of 420 graduates came from local high schools, and 12 of those are Promise Scholarship recipients who received their first year at Cuesta College for free. They range in age from 15 (the second youngest Cuesta College graduate ever) to 67.

▪ A total of 26 veterans will earn a degree this year, representing the branches of Air Force, Army, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard.

▪ Students from four international countries, Canada, Cyprus, South Korea and Switzerland, are among the graduating class.

▪ The ceremony will start at 3 p.m. Friday at the Cuesta College gymnasium on the San Luis Obispo campus. The graduate lineup will begin at 2:30 p.m. Doors open for seating at 2:30 p.m. Guest RSVP and tickets are not required.

▪ Graduates of the registered nursing program will be honored at a separate pinning ceremony at 11 a.m. in the gymnasium on the San Luis Obispo campus.