You could say attending the University of Arizona runs in Alexis Morales' family.
His oldest brother, Isidro, graduated in 2010 with a bachelor's degree in sociology. His sister, Bertha, earned her bachelor's in psychology in 2013. And his middle brother, Juan, is attending the UA's Agricultural Technology Management program in Yuma, Arizona, with an expected graduation in 2020.
The Moraleses were all born and raised in San Luis, Arizona, a border town about 40 minutes south of Yuma. Many of San Luis' approximately 32,000 residents make their livings working long hours hand-harvesting vegetables in farm-rich Yuma County, and Morales' parents, Norma and Isidro Sr., were no different.
Morales' father held higher hopes for his children, and he encouraged them to look beyond San Luis as they entered adulthood. When Isidro became the first in the family to attend college, the expectation was set: The Moraleses would be a "Wildcat family," their father decided.
"I told him, 'Don't worry about me, I'm going to the U of A. You're going to see all of us with a degree,'" Alexis recalls telling his father.
Morales began his studies this fall as an electrical and computer engineering major in the UA College of Engineering, though his path to Tucson hasn't always been easy. In high school, Morales became a three-season athlete, worked in the fields, and participated in 4-H and FFA, all fueled by one of his dad's mantras: Be the best that you can be.
Succeeding through sports
When Morales found himself at a large, unfamiliar school on the first day of his freshman year at San Luis High School, he turned to sports.
He tried out for cross-country and made the team. On the first day of practice, he kept pace with the leading group of mostly upperclassman runners. His coach took notice and before long, Morales was finishing runs first, which was unexpected for a freshman.
"That's when I decided to stay in running," Morales says, adding that it was the "lightbulb" moment he needed to realize he could be an athlete throughout high school – if he put in the work.
Soon after, Morales dove into soccer. He was talented enough to keep pace, and his coach liked his leadership skills so much he made him team captain that year. And as if a full slate of sports in the fall and winter weren't enough, Morales added track and field to his repertoire in the spring.
Determined to become the best athlete he could be, Morales tailored his lifestyle to do just that. His weekdays typically began at 4 a.m. and included two workouts planned around classes and practices for either cross-country or soccer, depending on the day.
Weekends in the fields
After a packed week of classes and sports, Morales rose as early as 2 a.m. on Saturdays and worked for 11-12 hours harvesting crops like spinach, lettuce and broccoli. His reasoning for the side job was simple – his mother had taken out a loan for a car that she intended to share with Morales, who had just turned 16.
"I thought, 'You know what, if I'm going to be using the car, I have to take some responsibility and wake myself in the mornings when no one else is going out there and just do what I have to do,'" he says.
Working in the fields reminded him of his childhood, when Morales' parents would take him to work with them. The work was tough on his parents, Morales says, but he still recalls those trips with a fond eye. Watching the crops grow stoked his interest in agriculture, and his high school gave him an opportunity to chase it.
The classes led Morales to join 4-H, where he combined his interest in agriculture with his love for competition. Arizona 4-H is administered by the UA Cooperative Extension, part of the UA Division of Agriculture, Life and Veterinary Sciences and Cooperative Extension.
Morales grew strawberries and tomatoes and entered both in competitions at the Yuma County Fair. Although he didn't earn any ribbons, the lessons he learned fed his curiosity.
"I just learned a lot of things that I don't think I would have learned if I wouldn't have done that," he says.
As he entered his junior year, Morales shifted his focus from 4-H to Future Farmers of America, an agricultural science program that is part of school curriculums across the country. Through FFA, he learned about agricultural mechanics – the intersection of agriculture, a topic he was beginning to understand well, and engineering, which had long intrigued him.
He competed throughout high school at the county level, and was on the first FFA team from San Luis High School to qualify for the state conference, which he attended in the spring of 2017. The experience helped him find his calling as an engineer who could serve people working in the agriculture industry – people like his parents.
"I think it's cool in agriculture that you're bringing food to the table or you're part of the source – you're a factor in that community," he says. "You help feed families and help the world go around. That always stuck in my mind because as I was growing up, my parents, they were trying their best to bring food to the table, bring money to the house and just keep us going. But I'm thinking, 'How can I help the business, how can I help manufacturers, and how can I help in a way that makes their lives easier?'"
Finding his way at the UA
Morales is only through his first semester at the UA, but just like his time in high school, he's tapping into resources that can help make him the best student he can be.
He visits the THINK TANK, an academic support service provided through Student Success and Retention Innovation, to get help with class papers. He is a member of the UA's student chapter of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers, which keeps him connected to engineering as he works through his general-education courses.
Morales isn't finished with sports, either. He says he plans to try out for the UA's club soccer team for a spot on next season's roster.
Morales is on the way to helping realize his father's vision of creating a Wildcat family, and when he graduates, he'll have his father on his mind, if not by his side – Isidrio Sr. died in 2014 from brain injuries resulting from a fall while at work delivering water.
Morales, who was 14 when his father died, recalls feeling a greater sense of responsibility immediately afterward.
"Once he passed away, I was like, 'I'm getting my degree no matter what,'" Morales says. "I always think about that."
Morales also thinks a lot about what he wants to get out of his time at the UA, and his dad's advice still serves him well: "Just be the best that I can be here."