Beacon of Hope

Written by: 
Clifford Steven Morrison

Clifford Morrison (Photo by Gary Payne)My family doesn't have a long-standing tradition of attending the University of North Texas. To be fair, my family doesn't have a tradition of attending any institution of higher learning.

In fact, when I graduate from UNT on Aug. 9, 2014, I will be the first person in my family to earn a college degree. This isn't because my family isn't interested in higher learning -- rather, it's more representative of the socio-economic conditions in which my siblings and I were reared.

My mother, like any other parent, wanted the best for me, my sister and brother. But the prospect of a college degree simply wasn't in the cards dealt to us as children of a single-parent household. I am the youngest of three children, but I was the first person in my family offered the opportunity to attend a university when, in 2010, I was selected to be part of the inaugural class of Terry Scholars at UNT.

With the financial and moral support I received from the Terry Foundation and UNT's Emerald Eagle Scholars program, I am managing to graduate completely debt-free. Being free of a financial burden in college has allowed me to focus on what matters most to me -- research.

This passion was kindled in UNT's Honors College when, as a freshman taking Honors chemistry, I was encouraged to do research. I then joined Dr. Rob Petros' laboratory in the Department of Chemistry to help study targeted drug delivery in pancreatic cancer cells.

Aside from the research itself, Dr. Petros taught me the spirit of humility in research. It's easy to have the expectation that you'll get a certain result from an experiment, but sometimes the results fail. And we can always learn from that. My most successful experiments could have been perceived as a failure. It's so exciting when you're in a lab doing research that perhaps no one has done before. It's a different kind of learning.

As a student in UNT's McNair Scholars program, I blended research with my academic curriculum, which made my undergraduate experience wholly hands-on and enriching. I am thankful for this insight I had into academia as an undergraduate.

Through opportunities such as attending conferences with other institutions, I've become more acquainted with some of the challenges that academia has faced with equal representation and will continue to face as I transition to graduate school. Equal opportunity in education and positive LGBTQ representation in the scientific community are two causes that are close to my heart.

With the inclusionary environment I've experienced at UNT, I look forward to making constructive contributions to these campaigns as a gay scientist.

Thanks to the tremendously generous support I received as a UNT student, I will graduate with bachelor's degrees in chemistry and biochemistry with minors in mathematics, biological sciences and history. I will begin work on my fully funded Ph.D. in chemical engineering, with a focus on metabolic engineering, at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y., this August. I hope to help make the production of biofuels more sustainable.

I owe a debt of gratitude to my mentors and other supporters from the various enrichment programs at UNT.

I never would have dreamed as a child that higher education would be a part of my future. But UNT has truly served as a beacon of hope, and proof that an excellent college education was within reach after all.

In August, Morrison will be UNT's first undergraduate to earn a degree as an Honors College student, Emerald Eagle Scholar, Terry Scholar and McNair Scholar.