First-generation college students face a myriad of challenges when they are the first in their family to take the leap from high school to higher education. College can be exciting, but it can also be filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Most of these college students don’t have anyone in their families to offer support and first-hand advice on how to succeed in post-secondary education. Many first-generation students are also members of an ethnic minority group, and not only need academic advice, but guidance necessary to navigate day-to-day campus life.
Student Development and Enrollment Services staff member, Dr. Cyndia Morales serves as the assistant director for Multicultural Academic & Support Services, where she coordinates the programs, First-Generation and Multicultural Transfer. She is passionate about her work and understands these students as she was a first generation college student as well. She persevered through life’s barriers – financial, personal, emotional, social and educational – to achieve her dream. Now she guides and advocates for first-generation students to continue their education.
Morales, a daughter of Puerto Rican parents, was born in Brooklyn, New York in an area known as Bedford-Stuyvesant. She was raised in a Spanish-speaking home and had to learn the English language when she began school. Morales said she took pride in doing well in school and enjoyed the attention of being student of the month and certificates she would receive. Her parents, who completed 4th and 7th grade levels, were not able to provide her with academic guidance, but were extremely supportive of her education.
“My neighborhood motivated me to further my education,” said Morales. “It was inner city poverty, where most families were on public assistance….you would hear gun shots fired frequently. My parents were treated badly, they were invisible; my mom didn’t speak English.” Morales had overheard some commentary about college over the years and thought, “I needed to do something good, make my family proud.”
As a high school senior, Morales went to her guidance counselor to inquire about applying to Binghamton University, but was discouraged to do so, because of her SAT scores, and was recommended to apply for a community college. Luckily, a visiting counselor from a local non-profit organization saw her crying and asked her why she was upset. He advised her to inquire about the Educational Opportunity Program, a six-week summer bridge program, in the State University of New York system. The EOP is similar to UCF’s Access Program (SOAR and Pegasus Success ─ 6-week academic, on-campus summer programs for selected groups of freshman who receive additional academic preparation before attending classes in the fall.) The visiting counselor told her everything she had to do and assisted her in filling out the forms including FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid). He even placed them in a stamped envelope for her to mail. Everlasting friendships are made when someone makes a positive impact in one’s life. Morales and the visiting counselor are still in touch today.
A few months later, she began her college classes at SUNY Binghamton by way of the EOP program. Campus speakers would talk about the resources and offices that would be helpful to students at the program’s forums. Most of all, the bridge program helped prepare her for the “cultural shock” she was going to experience. She grew up in New York City always surrounded by people “like” her. Morales said, “The program prepared me to face the fact I would now be part of the ethnic minority…that there may only be 1 to 2 Latinos or blacks in my classes.”
Having successfully completed her summer bridge program in 2003, she went on to pursue a Bachelor’s in Sociology. During her time at Binghamton, she served as a Resident Assistant and pledged a sorority. In 2005, she was accepted into the McNair Scholars Program, a federal TRiO program dedicated to assisting underrepresented minority and first-generation, low-income students in gaining admission to graduate school.
With the support of the McNair Scholars Program, Morales went on to pursue a master’s degree in 2006 at St. John’s University near her home. She was fortunate to receive a research assistantship through this program that covered her tuition; she also received a stipend. Frank Biafora, director of St. John’s McNair Program at the time, encouraged Morales to go on for her doctorate at a different institution, as it would demonstrate open mindedness and a will to take risks. While at St. John’s University, she also had the opportunity to study abroad to the Dominican Republic, as a Fulbright-Hays Scholar.
A year later, she was admitted to UCF to pursue her doctoral studies, and was awarded both the McNair Graduate Fellowship, as well as the McKnight Doctoral Fellowship- a fellowship dedicated to the sponsorship and development of African American and Latino PhDs.
She says she feels fortunate to have the opportunity to work with and for multicultural and first-generation students in MASS, advocating for their needs. Morales inspires students when she shares her story. She attributes her success to the caring individuals who believed in her and the support programs that provided her with the necessary steps and resources to move forward. She is proud of her accomplishments as a first-generation Latina and aspires to pave the way for others.
Morales advice to first generation students is “It starts in you, ‘I can do this.’ Believe in yourself and convince yourself you are worthy to go to college. Make a decision and set goals, be proactive, intentional, follow up and be consistent. Take advantage of the resources to help you succeed. Surround yourself with positive people who have your best interest in mind.” Most of all, she says it is persistence and resilience that is needed, “You’re going to make mistakes, but those set backs are not the end.”
Morales understands the students in MASS, she has walked in their shoes. She knows how to help them and is a pillar of inspiration of “You can do it!”
MASS is located in the Student Union room 154. For more information, visit: mass.sdes.ucf.edu.