Proud parents, grandparents, family and friends gathered at The University of Texas-Pan American to honor graduates during four commencement ceremonies Saturday, Dec. 14.
Commencement exercises occurred at the UTPA Fieldhouse, and of the estimated 1,300 students eligible to graduate, more than 780 walked from the University's six academic colleges.
The celebration began at 9 a.m. with the first commencement ceremony of the University's 75th Anniversary. Graduates from the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Health Sciences and Human Services received their degrees and were acknowledged for their hard work and determination.
"I congratulate you because you have become a member of a special group, a 75th Anniversary graduate," said UTPA President Dr. Miguel A. Nevárez. "As you are celebrating your graduation, accomplishments and future, we are celebrating 75 years."
Keynote speaker Dr. Cayetano E. Barrera, a medical doctor from Mission, encouraged the graduates to become productive members of society and make a difference in the community. He also stressed to them the importance of always remembering their heritage.
"Our heritage tells us who we are, where we have come from and what we have accomplished. It is our source of strength and confidence, like a solid anchor that keeps us safe during the storms of life," Barrera said.
"It is important that our children and others know that we belong, that we were here from the start, that we contributed and that we mattered."
Elizabeth Martinez, 23 from Edinburg, was one of hundreds to finally receive a degree on Saturday. "I'm very excited. This is a moment I've been waiting for a long time," she said. "It's the first of many accomplishments I plan to achieve in life."
Martinez graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in communication, and hopes to get a job in public relations. She also plans to one-day return to UTPA to receive her master's degree.
During the ceremony for the College of Education, students were given the opportunity to hear Dr. Teresa Lozano Long, a philanthropist and educator, speak about the importance of an education.
Long commended the graduates on their decisions to join an admirable profession - making her point with the story of three sisters, one was a teacher, one was a doctor and one was a lawyer.
"The teacher was asked 'why didn't you choose a more important profession?' She replied, 'teachers make all those professions possible. I will be teaching those who will become lawyers and teachers'," Long explained.
Long challenged the class of 2002 to make a difference in the world. She pointed to Jaime Escalante as the example to emulate. The math teacher's life story of success and triumph at the impoverished Garfield High School in Los Angeles was featured in the movie 'Stand and Deliver.'
"When Jaime Escalante came to this country, he didn't even know English... Mr. Escalante persevered and he taught his students respect, honor and self esteem," she said.
For graduates and their families, this was an emotional and memorable day - a day of new beginnings.
"Your future holds much promise. Your success is close at hand. Use what you have learned in the future and today celebrate your achievement," Nevárez said.
Meanwhile, graduates from the College of Business Administration and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences were honored during an afternoon ceremony where Executive Vice President for Wal-Mart's People Division Coleman Peterson inspired them to achieve success.
"Hoy es un dia especial (today is a special day). This is the celebration of an end, and also a celebration of a beginning," he said. "You are coming from a great tradition. An institution that has the distinction of educating the most Mexican-Americans in the nation."
Peterson emphasized several points that will lead to success: setting a goal, knowing that education is an opportunity, having humility, having integrity, being kind and finally, helping someone else.
"Honesty is a good thing. Trust and fairness are not just old-world values, they are real-world values," he said.
Dr. José A. Pagán, economics and finance professor at UTPA, spoke to the students from the College of Science and Engineering and master's and doctoral candidates during the final ceremony of the day.
"You are graduating in an era of political and social change, and from one of the top institutions of higher education in the great state of Texas," Pagán said. "Just as you have been successful up to this point, may success and achievement follow you over the course of your life."
Each graduate received commemorative mementos in honor of the University's 75th Anniversary: a 75th Anniversary lapel pin, a silver medallion with the 75th Anniversary logo and a special seal on their diplomas.