Photos courtesy of Yesenia Morales (pictured above).
Since she was a kid, Yesenia Morales strove for excellence. From singing as a child to a fun sibling rivalry, Morales always invested in her passions with focus and drive.
“She always wanted to pass her brother up,” said her mother, Karla Morales. “It was a good sibling rivalry.”
Yesterday, Morales was the first member of her immediate family to graduate from college.
The Long Beach native didn’t just graduate from California State University, Long Beach (CSULB)—she graduated as president of the Associated Business Students Organization Council (ASOC) with honors, a job offer from Toyota and a trip to China lined up—and with no debt to speak of.
“It’s very unusual for students from her background to graduate without student loans,” said CSULB Adjunct Lecturer and Student Center for Professional Development Director (SCPD) Howard Fletcher. “She had two jobs the entire time [she was a student],” said Fletcher, and three jobs this last semester to pay for her trip to China.
Fletcher served as her mentor for 18 months through the CSULB business school’s Corporate Mentoring Program. He said he noticed she was “someone driven to succeed” when she served as executive vice president of the Hispanic Student Business Association (HSBA).
“She has a desire to excel, to succeed and make something of herself, in the community and relationships with other people,” Fletcher said.
Morales was born and raised in Long Beach by her mother, a retired medical records assistant, and her father, a cook. She attended Wilson High School and elected to stay in the city after her parents moved to Chino, California.
Neither her parents nor her older brother attended college, but Morales knew she would go. She had an aunt who attended Occidental University who helped guide her in her college choices and finding ways to pay for school, as her parents were unable to fund her college expenses.
After her acceptance to both California Polytechnic University, San Luis Obispo (Cal Poly) and CSULB, financial opportunities pushed Morales in the direction of CSULB—a choice she is happy to have made.
But how did she find a way to pay for everything, including living expenses?
Through scholarships, grants and a lot of hard work, simply put.
“A lot of students think, ‘oh, I probably won’t get that,’” when applying for scholarships and grants, said Morales. “I had that mentality too. But surprisingly, I’ve received a lot of grants. A lot of people can get that help—they just need to look for [the opportunities].”
Morales said she saw donors wishing more people applied for the scholarships she applied for; that not as many people went after the existing scholarship opportunities.
Of course, it wasn’t easy. Morales also budgeted and worked jobs, sometimes at the expense of her grades, she said.
“My sophomore year, I was working 30 to 40 hours a week during school, and it kind of affected my grades,” she said. “I thought... if I need loans, I’ll do it. I also applied to scholarships and grants, and I did work full-time over the summer.”
As it turns out, she got the grants. And scholarships—including a sizeable scholarship from the Port of Long Beach that she was recognized for this week.
With the financial support, she was able to focus more closely on her studies and building professional skills, something she realized was essential.
“A lot of people think it’s what you learn inside the classroom, which there is some definite truth to,” Morales said. But, she said, it was her experiences outside of the classroom, building relationships and professional schools, that she will value the most.
Morales’ embodiment of such values, combined with a commitment to her community, led to her election to leadership positions, both at HSBA and the Associated Business Students Organization Council (ABSOC), an umbrella organization that encompasses CSULB’s student business organizations.
Fletcher said he was impressed by her leadership style and ability to maintain a “humble” and “modest” attitude.
“She’s a quiet leader,” said Fletcher. “She leads by example; she’s subtle, what you may call ‘leading from behind.’”
Both Morales’ mom and Fletcher say she’s a positive influence on her two little brothers.
“Her older brother didn’t go to college, but her younger brother will, with her guidance,” said Fletcher.
However, despite all she’s achieved, Morales’ most exciting chapter is sure to be what lies ahead. She’ll go to China and Thailand as part of a study abroad elective, for which she chose to postpone her diploma.
“I wasn’t able to study abroad during the school year,” she said, though she loves experiencing “different cultures and seeing how people conduct themselves in different countries.” She’ll be in China for three weeks, teaching local universities about cultural differences regarding business in America. Then she’ll return for two classes at CSULB in the fall, before officially receiving her diploma.
The next few months are for her to enjoy the fruits of her successes these past four years, including that job offer from Toyota when she’s done in December.
Her family and friends arrived in Long Beach for her graduation yesterday, primed for a celebration of good food and memories after the 2:00PM ceremony. Morales said she, like every graduate, was grateful for the experiences she had and the relationships she made—something she was happy to be at CSULB for.
Before she stopped to take photos by the Walter Pyramid on Thursday, she said she was grateful her family and friends were on hand to support her.
“It’s definitely emotional,” she said. “And I’m not the emotional type at all. I’m grateful to all those who have helped me."