Like a lot of teenagers, Julián Omar Morales ’12 ’17 didn’t have a clear direction for his life. But that was before September 11, 2001.
“I felt a calling,” he recalls. “I knew I needed to do something, and that something was to join the U.S. Marine Corps.”
Morales completed three deployments in Iraq, from 2004 to 2006. He knew what it was like to be near explosions, to feel the shockwave. During his third and final deployment, however, he was wounded in an IED (improvised explosive device) blast. Returning home, the Purple Heart honoree was faced with recovering from the mental and emotional effects of war, as well as physical injuries. And once again, he would ask “Now what?”
He needed to find a new direction for his life.
“I started taking classes at Union County College,” he says. “I always wanted to dance but at that point, I thought I was too old to make that a career goal. Still, I went ahead and enrolled in the only dance class offered at UCC.” Morales saw the class as a way to cope with trauma and pain – and the recent death of one of his Marine Corp buddies. The instructor, Evy Zavolas, saw Morales’ talent, and his potential. She offered him a scholarship to her dance school. “It was as if fate stepped in at a time of great need,” he says. “I could see a future in dance.”
When Morales mentioned his new life’s mission to his UCC dance instructor, she suggested he consider Montclair. “I didn’t know anything about Montclair, let alone that the University offered a dance major,” he says.
He was thinking it over during a visit to California, where he had lived for a time. “A friend there gave me a pile of mail that had been delivered to my old address,” he says. “As I sifted through it, a return address on one of the pieces caught my eye – it was from a city called Montclair, in California. A different Montclair, but it still felt like a sign.”
Morales returned to New Jersey to enroll at Montclair and to live with his family – he wanted to make up for the time he was away in the military – but the commute was challenging. After a year he moved into the dorms, where he began building a new circle of friends and engaging more fully in his studies, choreographing and dancing in numerous campus productions. One such project brought him closer to fellow student and dancer Jazmine Thompson.
“I was choreographing a dance in remembrance of my late aunt,” he says. “Jazmine captured the emotion so beautifully.” She also captured his heart, and the two have been a couple ever since.
By the time he graduated in 2012 with a BFA in Dance and a minor in Theater, Morales was performing repertory for Freespace Dance, a New Jersey-based contemporary dance company.
A year later Morales was back at Montclair studying Spanish, his parents’ native language. “I am passionate about expanding my horizons through language,” he explains. “I learned that the groundbreaking modern dance choreographer José Limón, who created beautiful dances from poems, was also a veteran. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”
Creative opportunities began to find Morales. “I was asked to choreograph a dance to celebrate the retirement of one of the Spanish Department’s faculty members,” He says. “I was awarded a scholarship to study abroad in Chile, where I was able to incorporate dance into my course work. When one of my professors formed a theater company, I was invited to act in one of their productions.”
Morales soon added a minor in Asian Studies to his second round of undergraduate studies. “Studies show that people who speak multiple languages are more marketable,” he notes, adding that he is focusing on theater techniques that are rooted in Japanese culture. He joined the Unified Asian American Student Organization as well, serving as Dance Chair for a time and choreographing dances for homecoming events.
These days Morales can be found working on choreography – and an acting role – for a production of Anna in the Tropics, the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Nilo Cruz. He is also researching graduate creative writing programs and is getting ready tell his own story through a play.
“In 2019, I won first place for dance at the National Veterans Creative Arts Festival,” he says with pride. “This year I submitted an excerpt of a play about my life. I am following in a long tradition of playwrights – going all the way back to Sophocles – who served in the military.”
While Morales’ list of accomplishments continues to grow, he sees the journey as one of healing, of reconnecting with my humanity again after living through wartime service. “Montclair has given me the tools to share my story by dancing on the stage, and by making words dance on the page.”