The University of Texas-Pan American has initiated a new era of opportunity in higher education for the western Rio Grande Valley with the official opening of the UTPA Upper Level Center in Rio Grande City.
With parking lot paving still underway as the ceremony began, a large group of supporters heard UTPA President Dr. Miguel A. Nevárez welcome them to the Aug. 20 inauguration of the Center.
Nevárez thanked the numerous community leaders and educators present who worked to make the center a reality. Among other speakers at the opening were Baldemar Garza, mayor of Rio Grande City; Lisa Garcia, a senior majoring in elementary education and president of the students in Starr County; and Dr. Rodolfo Arévalo, UTPA provost/vice president for Academic Affairs.
The Upper Level Center, located in the 755 Country Estates subdivision north of Rio Grande City, is composed of two portable buildings housing a faculty office and three classrooms, one supplied with a large bank of new computers. Although more than 220 University courses have been offered in Rio Grande City since 1976, they were at scattered and borrowed sites from the Rio Grande City School District and South Texas Community College.
"There are 449 students enrolled for this fall at this campus here in Starr County. We want to increase the enrollment and once we do that here in Starr County we will then be able to fully justify a permanent facility at a permanent location - that is our goal," Nevárez said.
Leonardo Olivares, city administrator for Rio Grande City, said the Upper Level Center opening has been a long anticipated event for the area.
The estimated economic impact of the new facility is more than $4 million, but as enrollment grows it could reach as much as $25 million in five years, Nevárez predicted.
The five acres on which the 3,300 square foot facility sits was leased from Rio Grande City developer Dario Garza, who provided it to the University for four years at $1 a year. Garza developed the subdivision where the Upper Level Center is located.
Garza announced at the opening that he would also donate $10,000 to the University for the establishment of an endowed scholarship that will benefit Starr County education students.
Garza said one of the initial inspirations for his support was concern for the safety of his two daughters, both students at UTPA in Edinburg.
"One of my daughters, Dana, had an accident going over there and I have known other kids who have had accidents. Also, I want to help give a better quality of life to our kids but not necessarily just kids because anybody of any age can go on to school and get an education. It is never too late," Garza said.
Blanca Alaniz, a senior pursuing a degree in interdisciplinary studies -- bilingual education, said she loved the idea of having a local facility.
"We are going to have access to the computers here and we will be closer to our homes, so we will have more time to spend with our families and more time to study," Alaniz said. For most students commuting from Starr County a round trip drive to the UTPA campus in Edinburg is approximately 100 miles.
Garcia told guests that when she graduated 10 years ago from Rio Grande High School, the idea of obtaining a degree right down the street from where she lived seemed unrealistic and far-fetched.
"Establishing a UTPA facility in Starr County means families can send their children to college without incurring a large financial burden and for this, we are sincerely grateful," Garcia said.
She challenged local residents to take full advantage of the facility and challenged UTPA to continue its investment in the community by diversifying and expanding the courses and programs offered here in the future.
Initial course offerings will be upper level division courses in interdisciplinary studies - elementary and bilingual education - and criminal justice. Arévalo said UTPA also plans to develop programs in nursing and business administration, but requested input from the community for a needs assessment to be conducted this fall.
"This is only the beginning of something much larger and holds great promise for us. Our commitment is to be here for a very long time," Arévalo said.