Student Support Specialist
Ben Morse

Photo courtesy of Ben Morse

Last fall, Ben Morse stepped out onto the stage of the Arizona Grand Ballroom, trembling in anticipation. After an interval, he heard his name over the loudspeaker, walked center stage and received his award. Upon exiting, he did the unexpected: Facing the crowd, arms extended overhead with hands fisted, he cheered in ecstatic triumph. It would not be his last public recognition, but he would cherish it long after.

At the SALT Center’s Annual Family Weekend Celebration and Awards Ceremony, in front of some 300 onlookers, Ben received the Engagement Award. This was no small feat. Diagnosed at age 12 with Asperger’s Syndrome, a form of Autism Spectrum Disorder, Ben had always struggled with social interactions of all kinds, most especially at large gatherings. The award was not only a recognition of his persistent engagement with the SALT Center, but also a milestone in an extended struggle to overcome barriers that limited what he could do, and be, in life. The award testified that Ben had seized the opportunity to face his struggles head on. In doing so, he achieved not only success and recognition, but also access to “his people,” his purpose, and his voice.

When Ben was a child, interacting with others made him feel anxious, fearful, and physically ill. This brought on tremors, so he avoided it. Extremely shy, he found it difficult to both communicate and self-advocate. “I had to learn to speak with others before I could begin to really speak for myself,” Ben said. He received communication support services and built up his skills bit by bit. Yet he still felt “unapproachable” and mostly kept to himself. In high school, an ardent biology teacher introduced Ben to the wonders of science and a natural world in peril due to resource mismanagement. This, and his involvement with Key Club, World Wildlife Fund for Nature, and other civic and environmental organizations, sparked an interest that propelled Ben to expand his horizons. Still, he felt unsure. Then, in 2018, Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg appeared on the international stage, and everything changed.

Ben first saw Greta Thunberg on T.V. as she spoke to delegates of the COP24 UN climate convention in Poland. He was awestruck as she delivered her message to, as Ben put it, “wake up and save our world before it’s too late.” Fifteen years old and four months Ben’s junior, Greta was the ‘’first person with Asperger’s’’ he had ever encountered. When she asserted, “No one is too small to make a difference,” Ben felt a jolt. “Seeing how impassioned she was, really gave me the confidence to speak out,” Ben said. Then and there, he decided to fight for environmental and social justice. He knew that to get his message out, he would have to harness his “fears, energy, and passion.” Undeterred, he resolved to use his voice to advocate for nature, himself, and all future generations of beings on planet Earth.

In fall 2021, Ben joined the University of Arizona community as an environmental science major within the College of Agriculture, Life and Environmental Sciences. At first, college life was not easy, yet, over time, Ben “became one with” the SALT Center. Feeling understood and supported, he began to look at challenges with a growth-mindset. “It helped me overcome almost any challenge that was set forth to me from then on. It helped me look at challenges as something that could build me up rather than put me down,” Ben said. His confidence skyrocketed. Reflecting on his SALT Center tutors, support specialist, Social Communication for College & Career (SC3) group, and health and wellness team, Ben noted, “I came to a realization and thought, ‘These people really understand me, they get me. No group of people have ever really looked at me in a way that they could get through to me like that.”’ From this Ben learned the importance of surrounding himself with like-minded people.

With the explicit intention of finding others he could relate to, Ben joined several campus groups and began to advocate publicly for environmental sustainability. In February 2023, after the Arizona Daily Star newspaper featured a photo of Ben speaking out at a Tucson City Hall Council meeting, Ben suddenly became a minor celebrity, stopped in the streets by people who recognized him from the article. “It was the first time I was able to express myself in a very impassioned way, with a ton of energy people could feed off of. For the first time in my life, I felt like I was really putting myself out there for a cause I stand for and many people of my generation fight for!,” Ben said.

Since then, Ben has not only excelled academically, but has continued to stretch himself in new ways. Last school year he spent his weekends volunteering at Saguaro National Park and earned a Saguaro Stewardship Volunteer Award for his efforts. In the spring, he earned an Outstanding Achievement in German Award, and over the summer, took part in a lifechanging, service-learning trip to the tropical rainforests and beaches of Costa Rica. Less than two weeks after returning stateside, Ben embarked for the White Mountains of Arizona for a 2-month internship with the U.S. Forest Service, an adventure he savored just as whole-heartedly. And this fall, in recognition of his exceptionally adventurous, energetic, and goal-oriented spirit, Ben took center stage once again at the SALT Center’s Family Weekend Awards Ceremony, this time as a recipient of the prestigious Michelle Combs Award.

These days, Ben is following a path he forged himself and is thriving. Next year, he plans to spend a semester abroad in Germany, one of the most environmentally sustainable industrialized nations, and after graduation, he hopes to fulfill his dream of working for the National Forest Service or National Park Service. And yet, in many ways, Ben is already living out a dream – one that he never imagined long ago as he struggled with communication, personal insecurities and social isolation.

“Speaking out is very important, if you really want something, if you really want to change something. If there's something you truly believe in, that no matter what others say, or what may happen, if you speak out about it, then and only then, can you create change that can inspire others.” Moreover, Ben noted, “The key to making any passion, belief or value come true is if you make yourself known to others.”

And, to anyone who can relate to his struggles, Ben has this to say: “No person's individual disabilities can stop them from achieving their full potential. Passion and determination in the face of adversity is what really determines who you are. You just have to go out there and find what makes you truly happy.”