Before he ever set foot in a classroom, graduating  senior Orisa Santiago Morrice learned at the feet of a great teacher. His grandmother cared for him during his preschool years in Santa Cruz.
"She managed, as a true teacher at heart, to integrate academic work into our playtime," Morrice said. "I found myself writing in cursive, writing poetry and interpreting the world around me. This time spent with her certainly guided me towards my fascination with writing and social theory."
His family's continuing guidance steered him toward higher education — particularly the example of his brother, who recently completed a Ph.D., and the counsel of his mother, a schoolteacher. His mother's college experiences particularly prepared Morrice to be a critical thinker.
"When she attended CSU Fullerton, the culture of academia was severely anglo-centric compared to today's standards," Morrice said, explaining that while the environment at that time did not embrace or encourage diversity, it "did offer her the opportunity to critique her place in society and the society as a whole and to expand as a well-rounded thinker beyond the parameters of institutionalized higher education."
As a result, she urged her son to question and analyze what would be presented to him in college.
That helped prepare him to succeed in UC Merced's anthropology  and creative writing courses. This fall, Morrice will begin a Master of Fine Arts in poetry at Mills College in Oakland. After that, he plans to pursue a Ph.D. in English and an academic career.
Morrice used his intellectual prowess to help others at UC Merced as a tutor in the Student Advising and Learning Center . He found satisfaction helping fellow students learn logical thinking that gave them confidence in self-expression. He also strived to help them find what he calls "cracks" in their work and address them by understanding deeper reasons behind their topics, their professors' approaches, their sources and more.
"'What is the purpose' and ‘what is the result' are two of the most powerful queries that can be raised to any symbol or object," Morrice said. "It's a habit that all great critical thinkers need to adapt to utilize comfortably."
His experience tutoring — along with an illness that forced him to think about mortality and his purpose in life while still in college — confirmed to Morrice that an academic career focused on language and teaching was where he was meant to be. While he was sick, he realized that he wanted to represent the arts and language and bring his creative work to a wide audience.
"College really makes you face yourself," he said. "So much of the experience is up to you."
Overall, Morrice said his time at UC Merced has been "wonderful."
"The short hiccups, the all-nighters, the consuming stress and the inescapable social and human elements are perfectly balanced by moments of academic and personal glories," he said.