10:23 AM

University Ties Run Deep For Trustees' Award Recipient

By Bri Phillips

When Yesenia Mora was about to graduate from high school, there was no question that she would attend Cal State San Marcos. 

Mora has been visiting campus from before she could even remember. Since she was 10 months old, she has accompanied her mother, Rosa, to CSUSM. Rosa, who is a senior resources and operations analyst for Student Affairs, has worked at the university for 27 years.

“My mom encouraged me to apply to CSUSM, but also wanted me to apply to other schools,” Yesenia said. “I was like, ‘Nope, I’m going here.’ It didn't even occur to me that I might not get accepted here.” 

In the early days of Rosa’s career, she occasionally brought Yesenia to work when no one was available to watch her daughter.

“When it was summer, she didn’t want to leave me home alone so she brought me to work,” Yesenia said. “I remember other kids would come and we would play computer games together and look around campus.”  

One of Rosa’s favorite memories was taking Yesenia to the library’s Barahona Center, which holds thousands of books in Spanish for children and teens, right before Halloween in 1998.  

“She was dressed as an angel, with a white dress and white little wings,” Rosa said. “The founder of the Barahona Center, Isabel Schon, took a picture of her. A month or two later, she sent a copy of a one-page article that Dr. Schon wrote with Yesenia’s picture on it. She looked so cute, and I recall being so proud that my little girl was pictured in an article. Who would have known that 25 years later, I would be even more proud of her because of her great accomplishments?” 

That now includes the California State University’s highest recognition of student accomplishment. Mora was honored during the CSU Board of Trustees meeting on Sept. 12 as the university’s 2023 Trustees’ Award for Outstanding Achievement recipient

Mora has been a biology student at CSUSM since 2017, receiving her bachelor’s degree in 2022. As an undergraduate, she developed a passion for the wing-flashing behavior of the San Clemente loggerhead shrike, a bird that was introduced to her in the lab of biology professor Diego Sustaita during her freshman year. 

Mora first crossed paths with Sustaita at a biology meet-and-greet before her first semester. They bonded over a mutual fascination with birds, and have worked together ever since. 

“Yesenia took the lead on a new research project in my lab as a freshman, which is impressive enough, let alone how far she has taken it,” Sustaita said. “Yesenia has committed a tremendous amount of time – and, more importantly, energy and enthusiasm – toward a new avenue of research focused on studying the functional significance of wing-flashing behavior in captive San Clemente loggerhead shrikes, from high-speed videos of their hunting behavior. She has been involved in every aspect of the project from the ground up.

“I could not be more impressed by Yesenia’s engagement with the topic, especially having taken on a research program so early in her college career.”

Mora has presented at over a dozen local and national conferences. She is most proud of the final installment of her undergraduate research where she had the opportunity to travel to Puerto Rico with her family. She won the competitive Nellie Johnson Baroody Award for best student oral presentation in the summer of 2022. 

Mora credits CSUSM’s Undergraduate Research Initiative for Scientific Enhancement (U-RISE) program and the Center for Training Research and Educational Excellence (CTREE) program for her success throughout her academic career. 

“There's so many programs on campus to help students out if they're confused about graduate school or need help income-wise,” Mora said. “The CTREE and U-RISE programs offer great advice, and they can point you in the right direction. There’s a program for everyone here, which I've definitely observed.” 

After she finishes her master’s next spring, Mora plans to continue researching animal behavior in a Ph.D. program.  

“Yesenia’s success in research is a broader impact in and of itself,” Sustaita said. “As a Latinx female scientist, she sets an example for students, particularly in the field of behavioral ecology.”

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