Cockroaches ran across Cyndia Morales' face.
Sitting in her office at UCF's Multicultural Academic and Support Services, Morales wears a black suit with curly amber-red hair and French tip fingernails. She sways from side to side as she continues to describe her childhood. The tickle of tiny roach legs is what Morales remembers of growing up in the projects of Brooklyn, New York.
"I remember wearing three or four different pairs of pants at the same time and sleeping with my coat because it was freezing in the building," Morales said. "Then roaches would run across my face at night, and it was just really bad and scary. I would hear the mice running on the floor when I was sleeping."
Despite living on public assistance and having parents who had no college education and didn't speak English, Morales managed to go to her dream university — UCF — as a first-generation student. She has worked her way up and gained recognition for her outstanding personality and work ethic.
"She knows what it's like to go from nothing and become something," said Kristan Aviles, a UCF student adviser for the Latin American Student Association.
At the age of 27, Morales graduated from UCF with a doctorate degree. She currently serves as the assistant director of the Multicultural Academic and Support Services and has been recognized by the Orlando Business Journal with a "Women Who Means Business" award. Additionally, she has been honored with the "Mujeres Destacada" award by La Prensa Newspaper of Orlando and was awarded "2014 Don Quijote- Professional of the Year" by the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce of Metro Orlando and the Hispanic Business Initiative Fund.
"I'm really not surprised of all the awards she's won because when you have her drive and you have her passion that's going to be the positive consequence that you're going to get," said Elizabeth Santiago, an advisee and former student of Morales.
Morales has been an adviser for several student associations, such as the Latin American Student Association, and is project coordinator for the "Engaging Latino Students for Transfer and College Completion" project. Through this project, UCF, in partnership with Valencia Community College, is working to create a summer bridge program for Hispanic transfer students. Morales understands the struggles Hispanics and transfer students face, which is why she involves herself in programs that will help these students succeed.
"She keeps making strides in the Latino community as well as the UCF community," Santiago said. "Not only does she have all of these awards, but she also finds a way to make other people to get their dreams and have their awards."
Morales has become somewhat of a magnet for students such as Andrea Prado, an advisee of Morales and a staff member of the Office of Student Involvement. In addition, Prado states that she wouldn't be where she is now personally and academically if it wasn't for Morales. Prado aspires to be like Morales, and she has become Prado's mentor.
"She has proved [to] herself [that] she could do it, and she got an education. She's thrived from that humble beginning." Prado said.
Not only has Morales captivated students, but she has also gained respect and admiration by faculty, such as Maria Santana, an associate professor and program director of UCF's Women's and Gender Studies.
"A person who is reliable, who is professional, who is ethical, who has great energy and is positive … You have to give her an award; she's a role model," Santana said.
Regardless of living in a low-income neighborhood and living among drug dealers, student dropouts and shootouts, she exemplifies that with intelligence, tenacity and dedication anyone can make it.
However, Morales has not let her success change her. She is still connected with her roots, her culture and has not forgotten where she came from. Instead, Morales' past has molded her into the woman she is today.
"At the root I'm still Cyndi from Brooklyn, Cyndi from the block, and I'm still there," Morales said. "I'm still the same little girl who would have to translate for my mother and who would see the mice run around the apartment; that's still me."
Nydia Diaz is a Contributing Writer for the Central Florida Future.