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Cal Poly Biology Student Receives CSU Trustees’ Award and $6,000 Scholarship

A young man in a shirt and tie holds a certificate while standing between two older men in black suits
Written By Jay Thompson

A Cal Poly biology senior who overcame childhood homelessness and dyslexia to pursue a career in science has received a 2019 California State University Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement.

The Outstanding Achievement Awards are presented annually to one student from each of the CSU system’s 23 campuses. Like his counterparts throughout the state, Nathaniel Morgan, 25, was selected for superior academic performance, personal accomplishments, community service, and financial need. As part of the recognition, he will receive a $6,000 scholarship as the state’s Trustee Emeritus Kenneth Fong Scholar.

“It is an honor to receive this award, because it means that someone out there recognizes the hard work I have been putting into my education over the last few years,” said Morgan, who moved to Atascadero to attend Cuesta College about five years ago. “I feel that for college students, having someone remind you that you are working hard and putting in the effort is important, especially during those times when you are tired and feel like you have been in school forever.”

Morgan and the other awardees were recognized during the CSU Board of Trustees meeting in Long Beach on Sept. 24.

“These 23 student scholars wonderfully embody the ideals and values of the California State University,” said CSU Chancellor Timothy P. White. “They have demonstrated brilliance, tenacity and extraordinary resolve in overcoming many obstacles in the pursuit of their academic goals. It is inspiring to consider the collective future impact they will have on their families, communities and the state of California.”

Cal Poly President Jeffrey D. Armstrong was pleased to nominate Morgan, who is entering his second year as a biological science major in Cal Poly’s College of Science and Mathematics. Morgan, who studies include a concentration in ecology and evolution, envisions a career researching population genetics and evolution.

“He has overcome socio-economic disadvantages and personal challenges to be a successful and involved student at Cal Poly,” Armstrong said.

Morgan and his siblings were raised by a single mother in the Los Angeles area. After becoming homeless, the family of four lived out of a four-door midsize sedan. Morgan adjusted to the new accommodations while in kindergarten and through first grade.

“I feel like, in a way, kids are better at dealing with things,” he said. “As a kid it was like, ‘Oh, we’re just staying in a car.’ You don’t really think about it. If you’re an adult, you realize that would be devastating. But as a kid, it’s life now — you roll with it.”

After 18 months in the car, his family found space in the first of two homeless shelters. They stayed in shelters for the next four years until Morgan finished fifth-grade. The neighborhoods were in high-crime areas, and the boy soon learned to recognize the sound of gunshots.

In middle school, he said, he didn’t “think much about my future. I didn’t think it would be a good future because basically my family didn’t have a good track record.”

However, transitioning to more secure Section 8 housing — the family’s first rental included a yard, which Morgan never before had — helped to begin transforming his outlook. And despite financial obstacles and his dyslexia learning disorder, Morgan developed motivation as a student. By high school, he started to think about college and continued to devote more time to his schoolwork.

“It’s funny,” he said, “but just a little bit of effort goes a long way.”

After high school, Morgan spent a year at Mt. San Antonio College in Walnut, Calif. — “just getting my English skills on par,” he said — before moving to Atascadero, where an aunt lives, and enrolling as a biology student at Cuesta.  

Living on his own was highly motivating, but the idea of completing college in four years was sidetracked by paying the rent. He secured a job at Paso Robles High School tutoring math and working as a teacher’s assistant. And even though it took five years to finish his associate arts degree in biology at one school, there was a silver lining to working as a tutor during that time at another.

“Teaching math and science really helped me with my math and science,” he said. “I also saw a lot of students like me who had just no motivation. It made me realize that motivation really is what it all comes down to. 

“There were a lot of kids who I did see slowly over time realize that school is important. That was really great. I really think that I helped them.”

Morgan’s part-time student status changed when he transferred to Cal Poly last fall. A project researching population genetics led to the professor offering him a research assistant job on campus that also provides academic credit. 

“I thought Cal Poly would take the same amount of time as Cuesta. But because I’ve been getting so much support financially from Cal Poly, I’ve been able to become a full-time student,” he said. “I think I’ll be able to finish next year. My first ‘two years’ of college took five-and-a-half years, and now this ‘two years’ looks like it’s only going to take two years.”

Morgan joins more than 360 students honored with the Trustees’ Award since the scholarship program was established in 1984 by the William Randolph Hearst Foundation. In 1999, the foundation partnered with the CSU Board of Trustees to supplement the endowment with contributions from CSU Trustees, CSU Foundation Board of Governors and private donors. Each student scholarship bears the name of a donor.