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Intern Morales Gets Glimpse of 'Real World'

By Matthew Holder

Gilbert Morales is like many young people who grew up in small cities and towns. He dreamed of one day leaving home and moving to a large city full of new and different opportunities and bustling with others like him — young, professional, smart and determined.

Morales, a 22-year-old Hispanic from Santa Fe, N.M., fulfilled — or at least, began to fulfill — his dream this past summer by working at NIH in an internship arranged by the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU). The primary purpose was to gain job experience and exposure to opportunities in the government, but Morales also wanted to explore a world much different than his home.

Before arriving in D.C. this summer, he had a vision in his mind — a vision of big cities in the East that was shaped by TV shows, movies and stereotypes. He imagined Washington as a concrete jungle that could easily overwhelm and swallow him up.

Gilbert Morales
"I thought everyone out here was going to be rude," he confides. But he also had a suspicion that the TV shows, movies and stereotypes might be wrong. Morales was faced with the choice of the life he had always known in New Mexico or the possibility of something new and different far from home.

"You don't know if you like cherry milkshakes unless you try cherry milkshakes," he says, comparing shakes to new life experiences. "Even if someone tells you it's the worst milkshake in the world, are you going to take his opinion or are you going to make your own?"


For Morales an internship was a way to test the waters away from home, and a way to test himself.

He felt that staying at home would mean surrendering himself to an unchallenging life. And to him, that's the same as giving up. "I wanted to see if I could survive," he says. "It's scary, and it was hard to leave home, but if you want to do something, you better get off your butt and do it, and here I am."

Morales is entering his senior year as a finance major at the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque. At NIH he analyzed and recommended the restructuring of an auditing system in the Office of Loan Repayment and Scholarship (OLRS), OD. Working on this project gave Morales insight into the complexity of government systems and the need for accuracy in his work. "I discovered that a major difference between college and work in the OLRS was that this is real, and if I did C quality work [in the OLRS], it affected people's lives, and it wasn't an exam I could take over."

Morales hopes to earn an M.B.A. and eventually a law degree. While he's confident that he'll be accepted to a good program, he doubts he can afford it right after school, so he hopes to work for a government agency or private corporation that would cover the cost of his M.B.A.

While Morales may be uncertain about his abilities, most people who know him aren't. Marc Horowitz, director of OLRS, speaks highly of him: "I think he's got unlimited potential." Morales' resume lists a significant number of honors and achievements. He isn't satisfied though. "Success gets addicting. For me, A-plus is success, A is what's expected and B is failure. I don't really care to accept anything less than success."

Morales attributes much of his drive and determination to his childhood, when he suffered from chronic asthma and was quite sick at times. "I saw people doing things that I couldn't, and it made me feel bad about myself," he says. "It made me want to be like the other kids, and I think I tried so darn hard that I overcompensated." He doesn't regret his experience, though. "I wouldn't be the person I am today. I would have been 'just satisfied.' It trained me to not be satisfied so quickly."

Morales found the environment in OLRS both competitive and rewarding. "His work-product was reviewed and critiqued like that of any other staff member. When it was deserving of praise, he received it, and when it missed the mark, he was made aware of the deficiencies," said Horowitz. "In the OLRS, everyone is stretched to achieve a higher level of success, and just as Gil was not satisfied with B grades in his college courses, we view A's as acceptable outcomes, and settle for A-minuses."

Without a paid internship this summer, Morales doubts he would have the same opportunities he has now. "This has been a gateway," he says, and he laments that internships — because they are often unpaid — aren't feasible for many students, especially minorities. "How many people back home can go to an internship in an area that's so expensive and not get paid?" he wonders. "I thank HACU. I thank Mr. Horowitz. I thank them for giving me this opportunity."

The HACU Internship Program is coordinated by the National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities. Supervisors interested in HACU and other minority intern programs can contact Dr. Lorrita Watson at WatsonL@od.nih.gov.


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