April 2, 2013
Guillermo Morales had to overcome more obstacles than most to get to college. His parents were from Mexico, where his mother traveled five hours to the nearest college to become a teacher. She was pregnant with Guillermo when she crossed illegally into the U.S., risking her life and his so he could be born here. As a child he spoke only Spanish and knew no English when he started kindergarten in Oklahoma City.
When he got to middle school, Guillermo faced a prevalent gang culture – 80-90% of students at his school were involved in gangs. “Like any other teenage kid, I wanted to fit in,” he remembers, “so my friends and I got exposed to gang activities when we were really young. I was in lots of fights, trying to stand out in middle school.”
In high school, things got worse. He began to hang around with older gang members. “We were those people you see in movies and on the news,” he explains. One of his friends was arrested for murder and several were kicked out of school and wound up in jail.
“I realized things were getting out of control,” he says. “I could see the pain I was causing in my family as they were struggling with me. I couldn’t go anywhere by myself because I would be at risk. There were people out there with guns. I was scared for my family and it hit me that this is not a life to live; there was nothing fun about it. By my junior year in high school I realized one of my teachers was right when she told me I would either end up in jail or dead. At that point, those were my only two options.”
He knew he had to change, but the gang culture was all he’d known. He essentially had to give up his identity and stop being who he was. It was far from easy. Fortunately, he had always gotten good grades in school and had supportive teachers who told him he could do much better. He began to focus more on working in school during the day and at his uncle’s restaurant at night to help his parents pay bills. With Sunday as his only day off, he managed to stay out of trouble.
During his senior year, Guillermo began to talk about going to college and he applied for scholarships. He also began to voice his dream of working for NASA. When he went to Atlanta for Scholars Weekend, he was at first uncomfortable being around the top scholars, but then he began to think that maybe he belonged with them after all. He came back home more motivated and entered Oklahoma University that Fall.
“From the time I applied for the scholarships to the time I got to the university, everything happened so fast,” he explains. “I have to honestly say that God had a better plan for me – there was no way I could have made all those good things happen by myself.”
Guillermo chose to go into aerospace engineering and was shocked at the challenges he faced. “I graduated from high school with over a 4.0 average, but I was not prepared for what I needed to be an engineering student. My high school was really small and we did not have the resources for that kind of education,” he recalls.
“What the school did teach me, though, was if you work hard, you can achieve whatever you want. My teachers and principal prepared me for the fact that it’s not easy, but I could do it.”
He was behind from the start, but he stuck it out through tough engineering courses. “I kept telling myself I didn’t come here to graduate in four years, I came here to be an aerospace engineer. I pushed myself and eventually I learned to love the challenges and realize that’s what it takes to be an engineer.”
He did achieve his dream through a summer internship at NASA Langley. He also immersed himself in campus organizations that advocated for Hispanics and he participated in undergraduate research. Because of his Coca-Cola Scholarship, Guillermo didn’t have to hold a job while he was in college. He was able to focus on his coursework and giving back to his campus.
“When I got to NASA Langley, I met a Coca-Cola Scholar and it opened my eyes to the impact the Coca-Cola Scholars Foundation has,” he says. “They are doing something right in selecting strong leaders who are doing amazing things. With this huge network of people, we can truly say Coca-Cola people are changing the world.”
Today, on the eve of his college graduation, Guillermo says he is overwhelmed and humbled to think about what his family and others have done to help him get where he is. “People told me that college is not for Hispanics like me, but I proved them wrong. If you stay focused and dedicated to what you believe in, great things will happen.”