Students at The University of Texas-Pan American reached a major milestone in their lives when they were awarded their bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees Saturday, Dec. 18 at the UTPA Fieldhouse in four separate commencement ceremonies.
Nearly 1,600 students - 1,237 candidates for bachelor's degrees, 371 for master's degrees and two for doctoral degrees - were eligible to participate in the graduation ceremonies, and celebrate with family, friends and loved ones.
"I am honored to share this milestone with you," Cárdenas said. "This is an extraordinary time in your life, enjoy it. It is a time for celebration."
During commencement, Cárdenas introduced a new UTPA tradition - the memory stoles. The stoles were presented to the graduates before the ceremonies and were worn around their necks throughout the ceremony.
"After commencement you are encouraged to give your stole away. In doing this, you are expressing gratitude to those that have helped you," Cárdenas said. "I think this will be a lovely new tradition for our University, students and loved ones."
The first ceremony of the day featured bachelor degree candidates from the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Jose H. Villarreal, a lawyer at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, L.L.P., addressed the graduates during the 9 a.m. ceremony.
Villarreal offered practical guidance to students, which he said contributed to his continued success over the last 25 years. He encouraged students to develop a circle of close relationships, to become financially literate and to hold themselves accountable for their choices.
"Try to incorporate into your life's work an ethic of service to others," Villarreal said. "You can call it giving back to the community or you can simply call it volunteerism. It is recognition that we have obligations to the less fortunate by virtue of our privileged status as educated professionals."
"In the Hispanic culture there is this human impulse that prevails which provides a powerful check against cutting corners and it is best captured by the Spanish word 'verguenza,' which incorporates the concepts of shame, dishonor and embarrassment," he said.
"One of the most endearing and inspiring characteristics of people who grow up in the Rio Grande Valley is embodied in the ethics of hard work and integrity," Villarreal said. "Whenever I am confronted with moral or ethical choices, I always rely on this fail-safe test which says 'would my choice result in 'verguenza' for me or my family?'"
Sisters Nancy Treviño, 47, and Gladys Villarreal, 54, who received degrees in sociology with minors in addiction studies, said they were happy to be sharing the joyous occasion with each other after six years of college. The pair said their experience at UTPA was challenging because they were both employed full time, in addition to having family obligations.
"You burn the midnight oil," Treviño said. "But you can come back to school. It can be done. It's just a matter of prioritizing."
They both credit their successes to one another and the support of their families. The sisters took all of their undergraduate courses together and concurrently enrolled in the master's program in sociology this semester, which they will continue pursuing in the spring.
Christina Harris, who earned a Bachelor of Arts in communication, credited her positive experience at UTPA to the Department of Communication.
"I've never met a more caring department," Harris said. "They were so kind and accepting and they treat you like family."
Harris said she had mixed emotions about graduation. She said she was sad it was the end of one part of her life, but happy because it was the beginning of another. Harris said she plans to pursue a master's at the University in communication, while working full time.
Bachelor candidates from the College of Education and College of Science and Engineering walked into the UTPA Fieldhouse serenaded by the music of the UTPA Mariachi during the noon ceremony.
Martin Gonzalez, a recipient of a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, said his schooling at UTPA was very fulfilling and he was excited to be graduating. He said he is looking forward to the next chapter in his life - applying for medical school.
"I'm really happy to be at graduation and show my family what my hard work these four years has produced," Gonzalez said.
Graduates participating in the noon ceremony had the opportunity to hear from Yno Gonzalez, president of SBC Long Distance, who jokingly told attendees that they had his permission to leave their cell phones on and could even make a few calls during his speech.
Gonzalez praised the graduates for their accomplishments and said the workforce was in need of their "energy and idealism." He offered three pieces of advice to the new graduates.
"Believe in yourself. You can do anything that you believe in," Gonzalez said. "Figure out what you love to do, then figure out how to get someone to pay you to do what you love."
"Remember, the right message delivered by the right person at the right time, can change someone's life," he said.
Mechanical engineering graduate, Rodrigo Lavat, said UTPA impacted his life in many ways and the education he obtained at the University has been outstanding he said. Lavat said he credits his experience to the engineering department and the professors who served as mentors.
"I'm very honored to graduate from this University," Lavat said, who plans to pursue an engineering career in Texas. He eventually hopes to install a new manufacturing facility in the Valley, which, he said, would assist many future engineering students in finding employment and gaining professional experience.
Theresa Alvillar-Speake, director of Economic Impact and Diversity and the first Hispanic ever to head the office at the U.S. Department of Energy, addressed graduates of the College of Business Administration and the College of Health Sciences and Human Services during the 3 p.m. ceremony.
Speake told graduates to be proud of this day because it was a culmination of a lot of hard work and commitment that led them to their degree and a prosperous future ahead. She also thanked the parents in the audience for recognizing the value of a college education and for the sacrifices they have made so their children could have a better start in life.
"Interestingly, many of us gathered here today share something in common - we are the first generation of college graduates in our families. Eighty-five percent of the students graduating today are first generation college graduates," Speake said. "What you are doing today is making history. You are in the 22 percent of 18-24-year-old Hispanics enrolled in colleges and universities and in the 10 percent of Hispanics ages 25-29 who have completed bachelor's or higher degrees."
Speake shared with the audience her story and climb to success from being unemployed to owning her own business to being appointed by U.S. President George W. Bush to head the office she now leads.
"I congratulate each graduate for being here and challenge you today to recognize where you are, determine where you want to be and lay out a plan to achieve your dreams," Speake said.
One of the university's own addressed the 6 p.m. ceremony for master's and doctoral candidates. Dr. George Sona Eyambe, UTPA associate professor in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, told the audience that graduate education is one of the United States' most successful enterprises.
"More than 230,000 international graduate students are enrolled in U.S. programs. Graduate education enjoys strong support because the research enterprise contributes to the local and national economy as a whole," he said.
Eyambe, whose research interests includes health promotion, blood banking and HIV/AIDS, encouraged the graduates to give time to community service and apply their investigative research techniques they have learned to solve problems. He also advised them of the importance of remaining close to family, being adaptable to change, and to be imaginative and anticipate future trends in their profession.
"Be on board the future train when it leaves the station and don't get left behind," he said.
"It is said that with a bachelor's degree you are taught how to do, with a master's how to lead others to do and with a doctorate you transform what is done," she said.
Ernesto Cantu from San Juan and a sixth grade math teacher at the Idea Academy in Donna said he saw his master's degree in educational leadership as a stepping stone to his future.
"My whole family is here with me, my wife and three kids. I'm trying to be a good role model for them so I had them all come and see me get my degree. I'm now hoping to go straight into the doctoral program in educational leadership at UTPA as well," he said.
Returning to get a master's in mathematics after 22 years of teaching, primarily in Progreso, Esteban Salinas, from Weslaco, said he always wanted to come back to school but never had the time. He said he got started approximately seven years ago with the encouragement of Dr. Joseph Wiener. Wiener was a world-renown mathematics professor at UTPA who was tragically killed in a car accident in 2001.
"His classes got me excited about coming back to school. I love school. I love to learn. I wanted to know more about mathematics. I didn't realize how much I didn't know until I came back to school. The vastness of the field is very interesting," said Salinas, who had earned his undergraduate degree in engineering at Texas A&M.
At the end of the day, Cárdenas said her reaction to her first graduation as president nearly brought her to tears.
"You're standing there and you're seeing students come across the stage and you're wondering if you're going to be able to keep from crying with joy," Cárdenas said. "It's just wonderful to see the families so proud."