Irrepressibly outgoing and fearlessly determined, Marlee Morgan is driven by a passion for education, entrepreneurship, and giving back.
A first-generation college student from a tight-knit Houston, TX, family, Morgan has a story that has already proven to be one of remarkable fortitude. Yet her plans to lead by example and help others succeed are as inspirational as her positive attitude is contagious.
The Comm School third-year may have arrived at UVA as the product of EMERGE, a Houston Independent School District college preparatory program for high-performing youth that led to a Posse Scholar nomination and subsequently an invitation to participate in McIntire’s Commerce Cohort program, but it has been Morgan’s bubbly enthusiasm, persistence, and innate generosity that are responsible for her achievements and what’s behind the abundance she hopes to share widely with her hometown community.
It hasn’t been easy. Serving as a UVA Women’s Track team manager for two years when she was unable to make the team, and training on her own over that period, Morgan’s tenacity and steadfast athletic commitment ultimately earned her a spot. She joined the team this year to continue excelling in her sport of choice, one that she’s competed in since elementary school.
She’s shown that type of self-motivation to be one of her key strengths. Having learned a great deal after developing a customized gift box startup called Gifted by Morgan during the pandemic, she has since been eagerly arranging for her next venture: fulfilling her dream of launching a nonprofit that promotes higher education pathways to underserved Houston students. In doing so, she’s taken to heart many of the lessons she’s already learned about networking, navigating University life, and staying focused to accomplish bold goals.
Morgan will be the first to tell you that she is very close with her family. She describes an idyllic childhood that regularly brought her and three siblings to her grandmother’s house for everything from major holidays to makeshift field day competitions.
She also credits her family with readily getting behind her business ideas and pitching in, saying they have been instrumental in providing a great deal of morale to her throughout her life—including her gift box venture.
“They’ve been super supportive in that way, and I’m grateful to have a family that believes in me,” she says. The strength of that connection, while difficult to put aside to make the move to Charlottesville, is also the reason she’s been able to be far from them while she attends UVA.
“Being able to always be in welcoming spaces has just been very good for me and what allowed me to go to Virginia,” she says, “because I still talk to my family daily.”
Understandably, she was reticent to leave her home state for college. While her introduction to the University was partly through sports, watching the UVA basketball team make its historic run in the 2019 NCAA tournament, she also learned about the highly rated academics and many social aspects of the University through the Posse Scholars program. Combining these with her interest in business, she saw that there could be a place for her on Grounds. After reconnecting with her friend from high school, Nazirah Farach Rojo (Engineering ’22, Ph.D. Engineering ’26), she was introduced to then-current Comm student Jennifer Bobowski (McIntire ’22), who was quite convincing.
“It was in the middle of the summer, and she had this whole PowerPoint with all the different programs that McIntire offered, including the study-abroad program,” she says, recalling her incredulity. “It was as if she were a McIntire staff member, but she was just this student who was really enjoying the Comm School.”
Highly impressed that someone would independently take time out during a break to present to her, Morgan kept the Comm School in mind when she was later accepted to UVA and when she received an invitation to the Commerce Cohort program.
Once she arrived in Charlottesville and began the Commerce Cohort curriculum that, among many other learning opportunities, develops practical college and employment skills, she had decided: “The Cohort made me even more excited about wanting to apply to McIntire,” she says, crediting the advisers and panelists from various sessions for making the possibility of enrolling at the Comm School “feel more tangible” while fostering relationships with students, staff, and faculty members.
“I’m so glad that I got the opportunity to be in that program,” she says, feeling particularly fortunate that she’s able to be a Cohort mentor to younger students now herself “the way my mentor [Jermaine Da-Costa (McIntire ’23)] mentored me.”
Morgan adds that it’s “just so amazing to see a full circle moment,” pointing out that she truly enjoys answering questions about coursework, resources, and preparing for networking events and reassuring her mentees about their options.
No wonder then that Morgan is looking to build on that type of outreach and guidance by launching the Mask Off Foundation, a nonprofit startup focused on encouraging students in her hometown to pursue higher education.
Entrepreneurship Meets Higher Ed Encouragement
The idea for the nonprofit was already with her when she was still in 11th grade. She recalls telling a friend that, without having a specific plan in mind, she wanted to build a robust program to provide students with educational resources.
“When I got into EMERGE, first heard about Posse, and later, when I got into UVA, then McIntire, and secured my internships, I realized the impact and importance that education can have,” she says. “Students are afraid to go to school or afraid to get their education—not just because they think the academics are difficult—but it’s more about actually going to school. So whether those are lacking resources or knowledge, making school unattractive, I want to do my best to help eliminate those by showing them what education can lead to after high school and so that they’re more motivated to want to go to school.”
“It’s so easy to get scared and fold,” she says, acknowledging that her extravert personality makes it easier for her than it may be for a more reticent type of person to make connections and hunt down essential tips that may only come by word of mouth. Morgan wants to pass along the power of possibility that she has harnessed to change Houston high school students’ way of thinking about pursuing their degrees in the future.
“I know it may seem hard and scary right now, but it is more tangible than they may think,” she says. “When I was in high school, I didn’t even know that I could go to school out of state. But on the other end of that, the goal becomes much more possible when people believe in you, guide you, motivate you, and show you that it can happen with people who look just like you.”
In August 2024, Morgan is hoping to hold her first event for Houston high schoolers. Plans include a schedule of relevant speakers, panels on related topics, and a full daylong set of activities for students to take part in, ranging from wellness to team building. While she intends to send participants home with a goody bag to help them prepare for the school year, Morgan imagines extending the impact of the event by having planned check-in sessions throughout their high school journey, with students in the same graduating year from across the city each forming a cohort of their own.
She believes that the Mask Off Foundation event has the potential to develop into yet undetermined areas and is optimistic that it can become an annual event. As such, she’s seeking support from anyone who shares her vision and is willing to give of their own time as volunteers, provide financial donations, offer fiscal nonprofit-related guidance, donate necessary products for the aforementioned parting goody bags, or simply assist by spreading the word about what she is trying to achieve.
In the meantime, as she completes the fall semester, Morgan looks toward a future when she will eventually return to Houston to work towards establishing a multipurpose event center: “[It will be] a space for kids to be able to come, especially during summertime and breaks when they’re not at school, when they don’t have a routine, and where they can go to a safe place,” she says.
She lights up listing all the amenities she has in mind: a ground-level gym and rec rooms, an arts wing, a library, and a tech space. Pressed to guess, she sees it coming together in Houston in about 10 years. But in the meantime, she has other plans that include working for an established company, getting some work experience as she grows her nonprofit, and of course, completing her coursework in Commerce.
Morgan sees herself potentially being the CMO of a hospitality company one day, because again, she envisions it as another chance to help people “to have a better experience.”
As someone who is serving as McIntire’s DEIB Intern, assisting in the development of programs that engage the entire Comm School student body to increase belonging among all members, she thinks back to the motivational words she received from her Track Coach, LaRon Bennett.
“He assured me that I did not have to wait 10 years after college to start impacting the world,” she says. “I could start now.” His autographed copy of his book came with a note reinforcing her dream: “Can’t wait to come visit that community center.”
“It’s amazing to feel how real your wildest dreams can be when you have people who genuinely support and encourage you,” says Morgan. “I’m forever blessed for my community.”