In an era of change for college sports — with name, image and likeness money available and the opportunity for athletes to move from program to program — it can be easy to overlook a more traditional reward from a college scholarship: an education.
Members of the Portland State women’s basketball team who are first-generation college students know that a sport can be life-changing. About one-third of team’s 14-player roster come from families with no background of college educations, according to Vikings coach Chelsey Gregg.
It’s a point of pride to be a first-generation college student, according to sophomore guard Esmeralda Morales, something she and her teammates use to encourage each other on the court and in the classroom.
“It's crazy how we’re all here in Portland, at Portland State,” Morales said. “We all have a goal. We're all first generation. So we know it's not the easiest. Our parents didn't have the opportunity to go to college, so it puts a chip on your shoulder. Yeah, we're here for a reason.”
Morales and fellow sophomore Mia 'Uhila each credit their parents for stressing the importance of education, even though they themselves didn’t have the chance to attend college. Though they haven’t yet experienced a lot of wins at Portland State — they won a Big Sky Conference game for the first time on Jan. 7 — 'Uhila and Morales are leaders for a young team and each earned all-Big Sky Conference recognition for academics as freshmen.
Morales’ parents are of Mexican descent. She noted that her parents had to go to work as teenagers and didn’t have the opportunity to go to college. But, from a young age, they stressed the value of a college opportunity.
“They knew the struggle, so they always told me and my siblings: go to college, go to college. It's not gonna be easy, but go to college and get a degree (in a subject) that you're gonna like,” Morales said.
That basketball is Morales’ education vehicle is a bit unique. The guard, who leads the Vikings in scoring, is listed at only 5-foot-5. She also was a successful soccer player, but enjoyed basketball and wanted to try a sport that, unlike soccer, has fewer Hispanic players.
Morales not only starred on the basketball court at Bethel High in Spanaway, Washington, where she was the South Puget Sound League co-MVP as a senior, she also won numerous academic accolades. At PSU, she’s studying applied health and fitness. She isn’t yet sure what she wants to do after college, but said working with athletes or in fitness and health are options.
Morales said her parents expected mostly As, so she learned to stay on top of her studies.
“I like the challenge. I like learning about the human the body and how it works. But it is hard because in college everything's faster, faster, faster. If I could just go a little bit slower I would enjoy it more. But I like learning. I like expanding my brain,” Morales said.
Her father, Juan, did not attend college, but he made the most of an opportunity to study airplane mechanics. Her mother, Rebecca, is a drug and alcohol prevention specialist at a local high school.
Morales said her parents and older sister Yvettem, who recently graduated from Central Washington University, are role models. Seeing how hard her parents worked instilled the understanding that nothing is accomplished in life without toil.
“They showed us the hard work is and that life isn't easy. To get things it's not going to be easy.”
Morales isn't yet sure what she wants to do with her degree, but she lists as one option working with athletes in a fitness or nutrition role.
Morales especially enjoys the partnership between Portland State and OHSU that gives students a real experience.
“I love how when I go to labs, like I see people in my scrubs and just really see the real life,” Morales said. “I really like how the hospital is connected and the science is huge here.”
Morales said she wouldn’t want to take anatomy class again, but that despite the challenging assignments it’s her favorite college class, so far. “Learning about the bones and the muscles, that really interests me,” she said.
'Uhila (pronounced oo-HEE-lah) is of Tongan descent. She spent much of her childhood in Hawaii but her family moved to Alaska where her father works for the railroad. Motivated to earn a college scholarship, gave up soccer in high school to focus on basketball. 'Uhila thrived in leading Anchorage’s Bartlett High to a state title and was Alaska’s Gatorade Player of the Year as a high school senior.
“My parents wanted us to care for our education and find something for our future. So my goal going into high school was that I wanted a college scholarship so my parents didn't need to worry about paying for college tuition,” 'Uhila said.
'Uhila said her mother, Alapasita, and grandmother are role models who “strengthen me and keep me driven,” she said.
‘Uhila said her mom works cleaning planes at the airport from 5 a.m. until 3:30 in the afternoon, a challenging schedule. Her father works for the railroad and is often gone for weeks at a time.
‘Uhila admires her parents’ work ethic, but said that seeing how hard they must work provides motivation for her to get her degree. She is studying business and marketing and dreams of having her own fashion business.
The biggest challenge, 'Uhila said, is being so far from family.
“I'm a big family-orientated person. So having my family at a distance takes a toll on me,” she said.
The transition to Division I basketball and to college level classes has been a challenge, but have strengthened her resolve, ‘Uhila said. “It teaches me how to like handle myself and handle every challenge in a positive way.”
Portland State University puts an emphasis on attracting first-generation college students. PSU estimates that 37% of its students are first-generation university students, so the women’s basketball team reflects a campus-wide commitment. In March, PSU was named a First-Gen Forward Institution by the Center for First Generation Student Success, a nonprofit that advocates for education opportunities.
Coach Gregg said it’s rewarding to see all of her players take advantage of the opportunity a college basketball scholarship provides, but that it’s especially impactful for student-athletes who are the first from their family to go to college.
Gregg said stories like those of Morales and 'Uhila show the power of sport to enrich lives in many ways.
“It’s more than a game. It is such an awesome vehicle for these young women to obviously get a great education from outstanding research university in Portland State, but also play the game that they love and do it while on scholarship.”