28 Days of Black Excellence: Michelle Morrow
Michelle Morrow is the director of scholarships at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago. At UIC, she previously worked as an academic adviser in the College of Business Administration. She received a Doctor of Education degree in educational leadership with a concentration in higher education administration from Argosy University, Chicago; a master’s in inner city studies education from Northeastern Illinois University; a bachelor’s in English from UIC, and an associate degree from South Suburban College. She is the current national board president for the Association of Black Women in Higher Education. She’s also a member of UIC’s Umoja: Black Legacy Alumni Coalition, NEIU’s Alumni Advisory Board, and the Inaugural Associate Board for Resilience of Chicago, which empowers sexual assault survivors and provides preventative education.
Tariq El-Amin 00:01
Welcome to Black Excellence at UIC Office of Diversity, Equity and Engagement with Dr. Aisha El-Amin.
Recording of Dr. Martin Luther King 00:09
[Applause] Believe in yourself and believe that you’re somebody.
Clips from 1995 movie “Panther” 00:17
That we study and master a bunch of different things.
Why are you here?
Study and master a bunch of different things.
I’m proud to introduce our new Minister of Information
Aisha El-Amin 00:26
I’m Dr. Aisha El-Amin
Tariq El-Amin 00:29
Welcome to Black Excellence.
Aisha El-Amin 0:35
Greetings, UIC family and friends. I welcome you to UIC’s “28 Days of Black Excellence.” I am Dr. Aisha El-Amin. UIC’s associate vice chancellor for equity and belonging. And it is my great honor to celebrate Black excellence with some powerful, inspiring and informative conversations with UIC’s alumni, some of our past faculty and our past staff. Each day will have a new guest who will share their story. And I am extremely excited and honored today to introduce Michelle Morrow from the class of 1992. She was in LAS [College of Liberal Arts and Sciences] and majored in English. And I’m going to ask her to just kind of start us off by telling us a little bit about what you’re up to, what you’ve been doing, what drives what you’re doing. Let us know a little bit about you, Michelle.
Michelle Morrow 1:29
Thank you, Dr. El-Amin for this opportunity. It is my honor, as well, to be here with you for this series. This is very exciting. Let’s talk about how did I get to UIC. So, I started at UIC as a transfer student from South Suburban College. So, I always like to share with students since I work in higher ed. They see us in our positions, and they need to know that at some point, we were like them.
Michelle Morrow 2:00
So, I always share with students that I was the student in high school who was not planning on going to college. I saw college as an extension of high school, and I figured I’m just going to find a great job. I’m going to move out of my parents’ house and I don’t need college. So, after graduating, that is what I thought my plan will be. But life sometimes teaches you something else. And so I decided, maybe I’ll try college. I’ll give that a try.
Michelle Morrow 2:32
I started out at the community college and found a job on campus. So, as soon as I started college, I found a job. I couldn’t find a job during that whole time. I started taking my general education requirements and started taking business courses. And then I started thinking about going further where I wanted to go, and once I completed my associate’s degree, UIC was one of the top schools I wanted to go to. And I was admitted and ended up attending there.
Michelle Morrow 3:06
And as soon as I started there, I found a job on campus because I had left my other position. And that is one of the things that I would say to any student in terms of being connected to people on campus. That was another thing that really helped me. And as I tell students, I never left college because here I am working in the field. So, I completed my degree, and I actually started my higher ed career as a professional at UIC. So, I started first in what was the College of Architecture, Art and Urban Planning [College of Architecture, Design, and the Arts]. And I worked in the undergrad affairs office, and I was an admissions officer. And so that’s how I started. And then I actually went back to the office that I worked in as a student worker, and I became an academic adviser. So, that was the Office of Minority Affairs that’s no longer there. But it was the Office of Minority Affairs in the College of Business. And I worked with African American and Latino students. So, working on retention issues, academic advising issues, career issues.
Michelle Morrow 4:27
So, it was a great opportunity, working with students there, and soon after that, I moved on to Illinois Institute of Technology, where I was the assistant director of records and exams at the downtown campus. So, the law school and all that, and then I moved on to Kendall College when it was in Evanston. And I was the registrar there. And then I made my way to where I am now, Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, where I am the director of scholarships, and I’m an alumna of NEIU as well, too. So, I’m here working in the role of director of scholarships in the Office of Financial Aid, Scholarships and Student Employment, and we wear a lot of hats as well. We’re very much involved on campus.
Michelle Morrow 5:18
So, higher ed was not my intention; I was going to do something else with my English degree. But I have been able to find and have a rewarding career in higher ed, and also have been able to do some other things outside of the university working in other organizations, such as I’m currently the president, national president for the Association of Black Women in Higher Education. That’s another passion of mine of working with Black women in the academy at all different levels, helping them to achieve their goals to connect with other women. That’s something that I enjoy. I am also a member of the Associate Board for Resilience in Chicago, which is an organization that supports sexual assault survivors. I am on their inaugural associate board and serve as chair of their DEI Council. And I’m also a member of the Umoja of UIC. Many years ago, a group of us started another group, the UIC Black Alumni Advisory Council. And so when I received the call from Christina to come back I was thrilled to be able to again connect to Black alumni at UIC.
Michelle Morrow 6:46
So, it’s like you leave, then you come back. So, I would tell anyone, ‘Come back.’ That would be something that I would say to Black alumni: Maintain that connection with the institution. And also it gives you an opportunity to have a connection with a staff such as yourself and students. So, that would be my advice.
Aisha El-Amin 7:09
Oh, my gosh, you have done so much. So, you are not only a student, but you’re also a previous staff member, and I didn’t know of these. So, when you say the college used to be what?
Michelle Morrow 7:23
So, in the College of Business, there was an Office of Minority Affairs.
Aisha El-Amin 7:28
Michelle Morrow 7:29
And so as I mentioned, that was that office. And it’s interesting how I found out about the office as a transfer student, and I was a business major. I started out as a business major. And so someone told me, I can’t remember how I found out about the office, but someone told me about it. And I completed an application to participate. And so there was a little questionnaire and one of the questions was, ‘are you working?’ And I had listed that I have previously worked on campus at South Suburban. I remember the secretary, her name was Valerie, she was reading my application. She says, ‘Oh! You have experience working on campus? We need a student worker.’ I’m like, ‘I need a job.’
Michelle Morrow 8:17
My mother was not happy when I told her that I quit my job at South Suburban. I’m like, ‘I’m gonna find another job. I swear I’ll find another job.’ And so that’s how I started working on campus. We had a director, we had a recruiter. Also there were two other academic advisers when Monica Gonzalez, who to this day, she’s like a big sister. We’re still friends. And I have another friend who worked in the office. She was another student worker, lifelong friends at this point. But yeah, we had a tutoring program. We had graduate students, Black and Latino graduate students, MBA and PhD students who worked as tutors. They tutored students in the core requirements such as IDS and accounting, also math. So, yeah, it was a full service office.
Aisha El-Amin 9:19
That’s a beautiful history. And there’s some of those things still going on. But it’s nice to hear how historically it’s been. We have so many different touch points with UIC. If you had to kind of grab on to some of your fondest memories that you had at UIC. I hear you with your lifelong friendships and, you know, being there as a worker being there as a student, but what would you draw on some of your fondest memories?
Michelle Morrow 9:45
I would say that, I think working on campus was for me, especially someone transferring there, though I had had the experience of being a college student, when you transfer, it was a suburban community college and transfer to a large urban research institution. Now granted, that was one of the things that was attractive to me about it like, ‘Wow, I want to be here.’ But at the same time, that was challenging when I transferred to UIC. UIC was in the last year of the quarter system. I had never experienced that before that was, yeah, you blink and the quarter was over. I tell you, I did not do well, I did not do well, at all. That was a shocker. In terms of transitioning, I remember my mother telling me, ‘You really don’t have to; you’re really good with writing and you love to read, you can do English.’ I’m like, ‘No, I’m gonna stick with business.’
Michelle Morrow 10:58
By the next quarter, I did a little better. But then I decided I might want to give it a try, that’s how I came to change my major. But I would say working in the office, and working in an office that have folks who cared about students helped to keep me grounded. I liked the work that I did, I liked that I was able to move about campus, you know, running errands for the staff and all that I got to know the campus and know different people.
Michelle Morrow 11:35
Other things that I loved about UIC was all the events that would take place, the speakers that would come on campus. So, I was like, ‘This is free?’ These are folks I’ve read about. Oh, I’m going to go to these events. So, those are some of the things that I loved doing. Another thing that I like to share with folks is that growing up, I was always told about my great-aunt Janice Watkins, who was an employee at UIC, she passed, she passed away when I was very young. And she is someone who, her legacy is very strong at UIC as the namesake for the distinguished staff award. And so when I worked in UH, I used to walk past the plaque with her name on it, with all the recipients. So that felt like, you know, there was some family history there. And the fact that it’s still going on even now is something else that, that I really appreciate.
Aisha El-Amin 12:51
Wow, I just got chills from that. Oh my gosh, how beautiful is that? I didn’t know the relationship.
Michelle Morrow 12:57
She was my great-aunt, on my father’s side, my grandmother’s sister.
Aisha El-Amin 13:02
We talk about Black excellence and look at the generations of your family that have been part of that at UIC. Wow. That’s profound. So, with every story, there are some challenges, right? With every journey, there’s some challenges and you’ve highlighted a few of those, but can you tell us you know, some more of those challenges and how you engage those? Because we all have staff and faculty and students that look at this, and are maybe going through some of their own struggles, and we need to kind of hear about others and how they manage them.
Michelle Morrow 13:40
I would say especially in terms of students having challenges, like I was that student who was struggling with econ, that was the class that really kind of, like, he’s speaking another language [laughter]. And this whole idea that if I just sit here, even in my struggle, and I can do it, if I could do it on my own, I just need to work harder. It’s that thinking and it’s fine to reach out for help. It’s also fine to think about a Plan B. I think of as I was a young adviser, and I would talk to students, it was like I was talking to myself because I could see what they were going through. And I would have to ask questions, for instance. So, why do you wish to be an accountant? Well, my mother’s an accountant. No, but why do you wish to be an accountant? And they didn’t have a good answer. Like, well, I’m looking at your transcript here, and it’s showing me you might have gifts in other areas, let’s find what your other gifts are. And that’s kind of the talk my mother had to have with me. And I had to kind of let go. I was on Plan A, and I couldn’t move off of that.
Michelle Morrow 15:14
And so I would say to students to be open. First, ask for help. No one can help you if you if you do not say anything. And it’s OK, it doesn’t mean you’re weak. It doesn’t mean anything is wrong, ask for help. And so that was the thing that I had to learn to do. And things kind of opened up, it’s not that English was easy. But when it’s something that you love, it’s something that you’ll be more motivated to do well. That would be, that was the biggest lesson that I learned.
Michelle Morrow 15:54
Also, at a place like UIC, which is large, you want to make sure that you don’t get lost in the largeness of it and connect with other people. And so that was why I liked working on campus. I also found a group Mojo’s Pen, I don’t know if they’re still active now. But that was another group of students who were into writing and into literature. Find your your tribe, so to speak. Having friends, like the friend that I talked about who we work together, she had friends, and then your group just expands. So, make sure you have a group of people who you can connect with, who can support you, who you can support. I think that those are key, those are things that help you to stay grounded and help you to be able to persist through the challenges because it’s not going to always, it’s not going to be easy. I tell students, “I would not tell you that this is an easy thing, going, pursuing your education.” It is not.
Aisha El-Amin 17:13
No, it’s not. And those pieces of advice are, I cherish those because I have a daughter at UIC now and econ is killing her as well right now [laughter]. I understand. I needed to hear that as a parent, too.
Michelle Morrow 17:28
And it had to be about 300 of us in the class, it was in that large, that large lecture center and that was a whole other thing, you just sitting in a sea of people just like, ‘Am I the only one? Is it just me?’ [Laughter]
Aisha El-Amin 17:46
Oh, I love it. So, we’re gonna close out, and I’m so grateful that you were part of the history of UIC. And that you’ve created so many pathways for other folks to be able to journey in that space that look like us. If you had to go back, with hindsight being 2020, If you had to go back and talk to yourself at that age, and you only had 30 seconds to tell yourself something that was instrumental for you now that you couldn’t quite see then, what would those words be?
Michelle Morrow 18:19
I think I would tell younger Michelle to take a few more risks as well, do some of those things that you want to do there. Because I always tell students, if I had it to do it over again, undergrad, I would have studied abroad for like a semester at least, I would have went to another country. That, that’s something that I wish if I had to go back, I would do that again. Because it’s something about going abroad. And I’ve seen it with some of my students, some of my scholarship recipients who go abroad, it’s like they’re not different people, but it’s something else that happens once they come back. It’s like their world expands and the confidence that you have with having traveled abroad and having had to live somewhere else, the experience that you gain, it’s life changing. So, that would be something I would tell Michelle is to go ahead and go and live abroad for at least a semester. That’s what I would tell her.
Aisha El-Amin 19:34
Beautiful advice, Michelle. And I thank you again, wholeheartedly.
Michelle Morrow 19:37
Aisha El-Amin 19:39
Thank you so much.
Michelle Morrow 19:40
Aisha El-Amin 19:41
As Susan Taylor has said, ‘What we believe about ourselves and our ability comes true.’ And so I hope that folks that are looking at this and they see your journey and they see where you are and where you were, that they believe that they have the ability to finish up and do great things as well. Continue to keep us close, as part of the Umoja family, we appreciate you at UIC, and we thank you for all of your Black excellence. Thank you.
Michelle Morrow 20:09
Thank you so much.
Tariq El-Amin 20:11
[Music] Thanks for joining us find more inspiring and informative conversations with UIC alumni, faculty and staff at blackresources.uic.edu. That’s blackresources.uic.edu.