It’s 4 a.m. and 15-year-old Rich Morris’ alarm clock is going off. He groggily gets up and prepares for a three-hour trek on public transportation to get to school.
Born and raised on the south side of Chicago, Morris and his family decided he should travel farther away for high school to avoid the violence of the local area schools.
“Public schools on the south side of Chicago were a little mean,” recalled Morris, who is now 28. “There were lots of fights on the way to and from school. I chose to travel three hours each day to shield myself from the violence and stay out of trouble.”
Growing up, Morris was plenty busy. Aside from his six-hour journey to and from school, he played competitive football and practiced every night until 7 p.m., making it back home by 10 p.m.
Like many of the teens in his neighborhood, Morris thought he would become a professional football player in the NFL.
“A sports career seemed attainable to kids like me who spent most their time on fields and courts,” he said. “If they were lucky enough to have jobs, our parents were bus drivers, secretaries and janitors, so as kids, we wanted a more glamorous and flashy career.
“Looking back, I see it’s a problem when sports are a kid’s only goal when there is so much out there for them to pursue.”
Morris attended Illinois State University for his undergraduate degree, during which he juggled school full time and four jobs. But he was still unsure of what he wanted to pursue.
“I did fine in college, but I moved through it disconnected and unenthusiastically. My undergraduate major in marketing just wasn’t my calling,” he said. “By the time I realized sciences — specifically dentistry — was what I wanted to do, I was too close to graduating, so I really had to put in work.”
Following graduation, Morris moved to Los Angeles to pursue his studies in dentistry, receiving near perfect scores in the University of California, Los Angeles, Dental Post-Baccalaureate Program. Soon after, he got involved in research through the Ostrow School of Dentistry of USC’s Community Oral Health Programs. Morris found the experience rewarding and realized his desire to stay involved in local communities.
He plans to do just this as a first-year student in the Doctor of Dental Surgery (DDS) program at the Ostrow School.
“For the first time academically, I felt really wanted and valuable when I received my acceptance to USC,” he said. “It was also very important to me that USC was a very diverse school because Chicago is a really segregated city. It’s been nice to meet my amazing classmates who are so different from me and hear about their journeys.”
Today, years after trudging on city buses to and from high school, Morris prepares to begin the next step in his career as a dental oral health professional. He hopes that his journey into professional school will serve as inspiration to kids in his community.
“I look forward to being the first doctor in the history of my family and to break the mold in my community where the only profession worth striving toward is to be an athlete,” he said. “I never dreamed of professional school, not because it was difficult but because the thought never crossed my mind growing up. I am determined to follow this path and set a new standard for those in my community.”