Camerina Morales, a chicanx from the small town of Orange Cove, CA, grew up going to school with all the same people. In her dominantly Hispanic town, less than four percent of residents pursue a bachelor’s degree, as higher education was not an expected ‘next step’ after high school. Her teachers encouraged her to go down a certain path if she wanted to pursue higher education.
“When I was younger I neglected a lot of my culture. I felt like I needed to fit in with the dominant white culture my whole life growing up, and that’s how they told me I would make it into education. They told us ‘You have to be in these classes. You have to do this. You have to act this way.’ So growing up I was very neglectful towards who I was, even when it came to the color of my skin,” said Morales.
After high school, Morales decided to move away and pursue a bachelor’s degree at UC Merced. She experienced push-back from her parents but her counselors helped her start the conversation with them. Once she moved to UC Merced, she started developing her identity.
“Embracing my culture during my undergraduate college experience was difficult since I had a deeply ingrained mindset that I needed to fit white culture to be successful in society,” stated Morales. “Listening to my professors speak, reading articles from authors of color, and being in spaces that allowed me to speak my voice was one of the most enlightening experiences of my undergraduate career.”
During her undergrad, Morales struggled financially and academically. Her family was not knowledgeable of higher education or the financial aid process. Morales ended up working two to three jobs just to pay her bills.
“I have never been financially literate and I feel that’s another thing that happens to low-income communities, specifically ones of color,” stated Morales.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in sociology, Morales’ parents expected her to start making money and help out, but she knew that she needed to go further with her education to reach her goal.
Moving closer to home, Morales enrolled in Fresno State’s M.A. in Education – Higher Education, Administration, and Leadership (HEAL) program.
“Accepting my admission into HEAL was based on my eagerness to continue my education in hopes of a better job and financial stability, but it gave me so much more. Through HEAL I have grown personally, academically, professionally, and in ways that I do not even know how to put in words. I have learned so much from my cohort who constantly shares new ideas, lived experiences, and work alongside my faculty who continuously pushed me to think outside the box. Having faculty of color changed my life in terms of who I am, and who I want to be in my profession,’ stated Morales.
While pursuing her graduate degree, Morales started working with the Center for Leadership at Fresno State. She has worked with leadership programs such as the Emerging Leaders Retreat, the Graduate Student Leadership Institute, and the Bulldog Leadership Conference.
Working on campus, along with studying in the HEAL program, allowed Morales to explore higher education. She was able to find her passion and create the steps necessary to work towards her goal of being employed with an identity development center.
“What made me want to go into [identity development], is the fact that I didn’t take pride in who I was for the longest time,” stated Morales. “Once I finished my first semester, I could not believe all of the identity development curriculum, readings written by people that looked like me, and the faculty in my program, Dr. Susana Hernández and Dr. Ignacio Hernández, who shed light on their culture and allowed me to feel comfortable sharing mine without any resistance. Through [the HEAL] program I have been able to grow as a scholar, love who I am, and advocate for others.”
Seeing faculty of color who have succeeded in life has made Morales realize that she can be herself and still pursue high dreams.
“I am so proud of Camerina and the daily work she does on behalf of students,” stated Susana Hernández, Associate Professor and Chair of the Educational Leadership Department. “She is an active member of the campus and Fresno community and is deeply invested in student success. She has worked tirelessly in her capacity to center social justice issues on campus and provide opportunities through the Center for Leadership.”
All of Morales’ hard work has not gone unnoticed. Dean Alamillo, of the Kremen School of Education and Human Development, has selected Morales as this year’s Graduate Dean’s Medalist, an honor recognizing a student’s academic excellence, community involvement, and other outstanding achievements.
Morales is graduating with her master’s in higher education, administration, and leadership and is prepared to make a difference in students’ lives.
“The people in my life really allowed me to grow, learn and re-learn who I was, and truly take pride in who I am as a Latinx, queer, womxn in higher education. I stand tall when speaking about my salient identities, but never in my life did I think that I would and it was thanks to my community, partner, faculty, and staff who created brave spaces for me to learn and truly be myself,” stated Morales.