Graduates of The University of Texas-Pan American received an early Christmas present this year with the awarding of their degrees Saturday, Dec. 22 at the UTPA Fieldhouse during four fall commencement ceremonies.
Nearly 750 students - 605 candidates for bachelor's degrees, 142 for master's degrees and two for doctoral degrees - were eligible to participate in Saturday's graduation and receive their degrees before large audiences of family members and friends.
UTPA President Dr. Miguel A. Nevárez spoke to graduates at the beginning of each ceremony. Nevárez reminded students about the importance of family and encouraged graduates to make a difference in their communities.
"In view of the tragic events of September 11, we have all changed," he said. "We now place new focus on the value of our family and friends. But today, we celebrate your achievements. You are among 11 percent in the Rio Grande Valley who has completed their college education. Now you will make a difference."
Rudy Beserra, vice president of Corporate Latin Affairs for the Coca-Cola Co., addressed graduates of the College of Business Administration and College of Science and Engineering. He started at Coca-Cola in 1989 after serving as special assistant to President Ronald Reagan on Latino and Small Business Affairs. Beserra, vice chair of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and chairman of the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, told graduates he worked for two outstanding leaders - Roberto Goizueta, former Coca-Cola chairman and CEO, and President Reagan.
He hopes the graduates will also work with such inspirational leaders and showcase two important assets, their life experiences and their UTPA degrees.
"I honestly believe that there has never been a better time in U.S. history to be a well-educated, bilingual, talented Hispanic entering the workforce than today," said Beserra, who received the UTPA Foundation Hispanic Pioneer Award for dedicated service and commitment to strengthening relationships with the Hispanic community.
"Major corporations, small-and medium-sized businesses, major institutions, professional and trade associations, governments, and the expanding world of non-government organizations and civil societies are all looking to hire well-educated, highly motivated Hispanics."
Robert Estrada, the newest University of Texas System regent, echoed Beserra's remarks.
"The State has made a big investment in each of you," said Estrada, a Brownsville native. "All that we ask in return is that you contribute your time, resources and energy to your communities. Also, don't forget to contribute and invest in your alma mater."
The 9 a.m. commencement featured speaker Dr. Henry Cuellar, former Texas Secretary of State. He addressed graduates of the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Health Sciences and Human Services. He congratulated the graduates for their accomplishments and told them they were a special group because they are the first graduating class of the new millennium.
"Graduates, it is a very special occasion for you. You have gone through a lot here at this University," he said. "Many of you are first generation graduates, just like I was. But you are part of something special. History will be looking at this particular (graduating) class."
He also spoke to them about three changing factors that will affect them: technology, the global economy and education.
"You have a chance to write a whole new chapter in history," Cuellar said. "A chapter that will make Edinburg and the entire Valley a better place for living."
UTPA graduate Athena Ponce, who received her bachelor's degree in philosophy, said she was very excited to finally arrive at this day and graduate from the University. Ponce said raising a child and going to school at the same time did not hold her back from being an outstanding student and receiving her degree.
"The overall satisfaction is that I was able to maintain a high grade point average and be among the top in my class," Ponce said. "I was able to accomplish all this considering that I am a mother and a wife. I'm very proud of myself, and I don't regret doing things the way I did."
Cuellar - the 102nd Secretary of the State from January to October of this year and has since opened a law practice in Laredo - also addressed more than 300 College of Education graduates at the 3 p.m. ceremony. He challenged the graduates to become ambassadors of education and do the best they can to improve their community.
"You need to master change today and become an ambassador of education and give back to your community," Cuellar said. "You also have to enjoy your life and spend time with your family and those you love as you go through the journey of life."
San Juana M. Saenz of La Grulla and a mother of three, finally received her education degree after 10 years of hard work and determination. She said it was hard, but worth the long hours it took to accomplish her goal of becoming a teacher.
She said her mother served as an inspiration to her in continuing her education and because of that she now plans on working towards her master's degree.
"My mother was a role model and inspiration for me in becoming a teacher because she was a teacher in Mexico," Saenz said. "I hope that I too will be an example for all my kids who are all in college."
Dr. Juan Gonzalez, a UTPA health and kinesiology professor, spoke to master's and doctoral degree recipients and a group of Bachelor of Arts graduates in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences in the final ceremony at 6 p.m.
He spoke to graduates about finding one's inner strengths to overcome obstacles and tragedies in life. He also commented on the attacks of September 11 and how the community should go on with their lives.
"Many times we ask whether we have the strength and courage inside of us." Gonzalez said. " All of us have the strength and courage inside of us. We just have to find it. Sometimes it takes a great tragedy for us to measure our resolve and we as Americans have never failed this test and never will."
Gonzalez - who has been awarded several University research awards and participated in strength and conditioning camps and studies - also told graduates to never forget their roots and always remember the people who helped them reach their dreams in life.
"Never forget where you come from and remember this my friends, that for every negative person out there, there is another positive person out there who is willing to go the extra mile for you."