If you ask UNM senior Abrianna Morales for a moment of her time, she’ll give it to you. You may be both shocked and amazed, however, when you see how much each day is booked up–and that she’s still finding time to do more– but it wasn’t always this way.
“The person that I was at 17 when I got to campus is unrecognizable to me. I'm so, so glad that I've changed and grown in all the ways that I have,” Morales said.
Morales is nothing short of a rockstar student, advocate and person. This spring, she is graduating with her Bachelor of Science in Psychology and Criminology, with a minor in math. Her passion for each of these topics and what they can help solve began in Las Cruces, her hometown, when she was only 15.
“I was sexually assaulted when I was 15 by a teacher at my high school. I came forward with what had happened and was very intensely reminded of the harsh realities that survivors and victims face,” she said. “Despite the fact that I've made my life around talking about it, it's still hard.”
After being sexually assaulted at the age of 15, Morales decided to create the resource she needed most: Sexual Assault Youth Support Network (SAYSN), a non-profit organization devoted to supporting, empowering, and connecting youth sexual assault survivors and those that support them. As the founder of SAYSN, she’s spent the past several years advocating for survivors in communities, in the legislature, and in the academic discourse.
It’s clearly not a simple thing to talk about in the first place, much less share with strangers. Still, it’s incredibly important to Morales to be more than just a survivor, to be a strong advocate for others.
Strength is something this Lobo champions. She could have given up after her case got dismissed, over speedy trial violations.
“In my opinion, it was quite a miscarriage of justice,” Morales said. “I think it did, in a way, light that fire beneath me,” she said. “There are more changes to be made and there is more work to be done so that no one has to feel the way that I did.”
Working as an advocate and leading SAYSN has given Morales a strong connection to her community. “I had this newfound commitment to New Mexico and to my community. As the founder of SAYSN, I've had the opportunity to work a lot with other survivors, and with a lot of different organizations that are working to support survivors like myself,” Morales said.
SAYSN has been instrumental in connecting sexual assault survivors, the communities that support them, and finding avenues towards healing. A big part of that is the organization’s “I Am” series, which highlights that victims are more than just what happened to them.
“There are so many different kinds of people—of different identities, backgrounds and walks of life—who go through victimization. It's something that we don’t have to be ashamed to admit that we've experienced and we can really feel united to help out one another,” Morales said.
SAYSN has played a prominent role on campus as well. It has worked with the Women’s Resource Center to host a campus-wide “I Am” Series event and to help students advocate for survivor-centered policies.
“We put together legislative calling parties to get students engaged in survivor centered legislative action. They helped host “I Am” series events this past month and that was super, super fun. It's so great to get to work with all of them,” Morales said.
Morales’s founding of SAYSN also propelled her towards another national group. She has worked tirelessly with the National Organization for Victim Assistance (NOVA) to collaborate on the creation and development of the new Youth Advocacy Corps, a program that seeks to elevate the next generation of youth leaders in victim services.
“I’d been working with NOVA as a collaborator and consultant, when NOVA’s Executive Director told me about the Youth Advocacy Corps and approached me about serving as the project’s Program Manager,” she said.
That’s a full-time job Morales has locked in, and is already performing in, before she graduates. Although graduate school might be in her future, she is fairly open to any career path that entails helping survivors.
“What I want my job to be can be summed up in uniting research, practice and policy and service of sexual violence survivors." – Abrianna Morales
While much of these efforts have trickled onto UNM’s Campus, this is far from the only thing Morales has done in Albuquerque.
She has made waves as a Psychology Honors student, McNair Scholar, a Truman Scholar and even a winner of the English Department’s Lena Todd award. She has also conducted several research projects while at UNM, studying topics ranging from procedural justice to resilience in the era of COVID-19, and presented at numerous conferences, including this year’s Undergraduate Research Opportunity Conference.
“One of the things that I didn't expect about UNM was that I was ever going to like research, but it's been a great chance to get to work with faculty mentors on research that intersects with my interests. I’ve learned more about myself and have realized that research is a really big part of advocacy,” Morales said. “I'm more excited than ever to see how I can merge that with the work that I've already been doing.”
As represented by her accolades, Morales loves to write. She also still finds time to sing, play piano, and draw.
“I found a lot of new hobbies at UNM that I really didn't think I'd be interested in. I've always had an artistic outlet, and I took a creative writing class in the fall of 2021 in the Honors College,” she said. “I fell in love with the medium."
But, for Morales, it’s not just about finding activities. It’s about healing, as well.
“Art has always been a really important part of my life in all forms. There’s a Georgia O'Keeffe quote about the importance of filling space beautifully. I've always thought about my advocacy as being what I do to fill that space and trying to do it beautifully, and I hope to continue filling the space that way,” Morales said.
Her unwavering commitment to her passions and career, Morales says, could not have been accomplished without a whole slew of family, friends and faculty mentors. She would like to especially thank Kiyoko Simmons from the Center for Academic Leadership and Development (CAELD), Dr. Jaymes Fairfax-Columbo, Dr. Lisa Broidy, Dr. David Witherington, her partner Lucas and her parents.
Morales feels incredibly lucky to have been given the support she has. It was all possible, she says, because of her time at UNM.
“I've met so many great friends and mentors and people here at UNM, and I'm just so, so thankful for the time I’ve spent here,” Morales said.
“It's such a unique time in your life to be an undergrad and getting to explore and try so many new things,” she said, speaking to incoming UNM students. “Whether or not you get involved on campus, just appreciate the friends that you make and the classes you get to take and all the different topics and ideas that you get to explore here. Try to connect to things that matter to you.”