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Editor’s note: This article begins a series profiling winners of the 2011 Outstanding Alumni Awards, which will be presented at the annual American Association of Community Colleges convention in April.
Community college changed Elva Morales’ life, as her life has changed the lives of countless students. But she had to get there the hard way.
Born in Mexico, Morales was a month old when her mother reunited her and her two sisters with their father in the border town of Eagle Pass, Texas. The family, which eventually included eight children, lived in various Texas towns, her mother working as a housekeeper and her father finding jobs on farms, for a railroad and at an alfalfa/sugar beet mill. They finally settled in Deerfield, Kan., where he found steady employment at a meatpacking plant in a nearby town.
When her father fell ill during her sophomore year in high school, Morales’ parents allowed her to work at a meatpacking plant for the summer.
“I really liked the money [and] I was helping my parents,” Morales said. “I thought I could help them even more if I dropped out of school to keep working.”
Seventeen years later, a doctor diagnosed her with carpal tunnel syndrome and told her to quit her job.
“My whole life fell apart,” she said. “But the first thing I thought of was I never graduated from high school, and I’ve got to get the courage to go back.”
It took three visits for her to get up the nerve to actually go inside Seward County Community College (SCCC) in Kansas and talk to somebody about the GED program.
“They sat me down and started me right away in the GED program,” Morales said. “I got my GED, and they said I was doing so well, that they’d like me to enroll in a class there in the summer. I loved it, and from then on I never stopped.”
After earning her associate degree, Morales, who now was married and had a son, began working on her bachelor’s degree from St. Mary of the Plains College in nearby Dodge City. It was a busy time for Morales.
“As soon I would get off my job, I would drive home, pick up my son and drive to Dodge City—and he would do his homework outside my class,” Morales said. “My son has now graduated from college, and he is now assistant director at the adult learning center at SCCC. He tells people, ‘My mom did it, so you can do it.’”
A new career
Upon graduation from St. Mary, SCCC immediately hired Morales as an English as a Second Language and citizenship instructor, which is a true labor of love for her.
“When my parents came into the U.S., there was no one to help—no adult learning centers, nobody to guide them to English classes or show them how to become citizens,” said Morales, who over the past 20 years has prepared for U.S. citizenship nearly 2,000 foreign students from places as diverse as Mexico, Somalia, Laos, Nicaragua and Canada.
“Every week, three or four go into the immigration office—and they all pass,” she said proudly.
Morales’s day job for nearly 20 years has been a teacher at Washington Elementary School, a role that earned her selection as the 2000 Teacher of the Year by Hispanic magazine and Nordstrom department stores. Morales was rewarded with a trip to Washington, an opportunity to meet Roderick Paige, who was U.S. education secretary at the time, and a personal letter from Laura Bush, who wrote, “As a teacher myself, I understand the extraordinary satisfaction you derive from knowing that you have made a difference in so many lives.”
Since 2007, Morales has served on a U.S. Department of Homeland Security National Immigration Service taskforce to review the U.S. citizenship exam. She is the taskforce’s only representative from both a community college and a rural community. Morales has also served on the Kansas Board of Regents division of adult education and several community committees of the local school district.
Today, Morales serves as an “instructional coach” at Washington Elementary, offering support to schoolchildren who are falling behind, and otherwise maintains her usual hectic schedule: teaching children during the day, tutoring kids after school, teaching ESL classes at night, and giving citizenship lessons on the weekend.
Morales credits her success to her parents.
“They said, ‘We’re crossing that river, and we’re going to get you an education,’” Morales said. “I broke my parents’ hearts when I dropped out of school, but I came back.”
She also gave SCCC kudos for its role in helping her.
“There’s something about this college that brings out the best in us,” Morales said. “At SCCC you are not a number. The president comes by to say ‘Hi,’ and the instructors know your name. If you are overwhelmed, someone is always there for you. They say it takes a village to raise a child, and SCCC is like a village.”
Copyright ©2012 American Association of Community Colleges