‘I have to meet you at your soul’

Photo by Danny Fulgencio

Matthew Morris is everyone’s uncle.

While visiting his family in San Antonio, he checked on a former Lake Highlands High School student who attends college there. He took the freshman and his teammates out for breakfast and bought them groceries.

Morris is the coordinator of Lake Highlands High School’s Advancement Via Individual Determination program, which prepares students for college through developing their writing, inquiry, collaboration, organization and reading skills. The support he offers students outside of the classroom defines his career as much as his daily lessons. 

“I’m not a parent, but I’m a parent,” he says. “I take AVID as family seriously. You might say there’s a fine line, but I live in the gray area.”

The San Antonio native is a series of contradictions. He’s an outgoing introvert who doesn’t consider anyone a stranger. He says his life is simple because he devotes his time to helping complex people. Then he mentions his days can be hectic. Besides his career, he is set to be president of the Huston-Tillotson University International Alumni Association and volunteers at One Community Church.

Students confide in him but also say he’s intimidating. 

“I have to meet you at your soul, which is scary for a lot of kids,” he says. 

Morris had no intentions of teaching as a student himself at Huston-Tillotson, a small historically black university in Austin. As a first-generation college student, Morris imagined himself leading a university after earning his Ph.D. 

A community service trip to New Orleans changed that plan. He and his classmates were repairing houses when they met an elderly woman at risk of losing her home.

Her circumstances troubled Morris so much that he organized a fundraiser to pay off her debt. Then he realized he needed to rearrange his priorities, he says. “I believe in something greater than me. We’re not in life to be isolated and alone.”

He volunteered with AmeriCorps VISTA at the University of Texas-San Antonio in the equity and volunteer services office and then earned his master’s degree from Columbia University. The student debt was crippling, he says, but he doesn’t regret living in New York City.

After a short-lived stint as a special education teacher, Morris found his niche as AVID coordinator at Lake Highlands High School. The most rewarding moments, he says, are the ones where students are listening when he doesn’t think they were. 

“I always say Lake Highlands High School is the perfect place to change the world,” he says. “It’s a beautiful mix of traditional and innovative, poor and wealthy, family and isolation. Black, white, Hispanic, Asian. It’s the perfect opportunity to change the world. My daily question is: Are we doing it?”