During the 2005 spring commencement ceremonies at The University of Texas-Pan American it was evident that family support and love was what fueled more than 1,600 prospective graduates to pursue their higher education and finally receive the fruits of their labor - their degrees -May 14 at the UTPA Fieldhouse.
More than 3,000 family members, friends and loved ones packed the Fieldhouse for four separate commencement ceremonies, which combined both graduate and undergraduate candidates for the first time.
In keeping with the tradition started by Cárdenas last semester, prospective graduates were given memory stoles to wear around their necks during the ceremony as a gift from the President's Office to present to a special person - mom, dad, sibling or friend - who has made a difference in their lives.
"Graduates you are encouraged to give them away in an expression of gratitude to the person who most encouraged, inspired or helped in your quest for knowledge," Cárdenas said. Taking to the new tradition were Christina Beth Garza and Jason Garza, siblings who received bachelor's degrees in Business Administration in marketing at the 8:30 a.m. ceremony. Both presented their mother Alicia Garza with each of their stoles after the ceremony to thank her for the support and sacrifices she made for them and their three other siblings - Jeanette Garza-Curtis, Michael Garza and Juan Garza - who are also UTPA alumni, after their father Ezequiel Garza passed away in 1991.
"I owe my success to my mother for all her love, support and spiritual guidance. This was a long journey with many hard times and she really guided me through it all. I also owe a lot of my success to my brothers and sister who are all graduates of UTPA. They supported me through the years whether it was help on my homework or advice pertaining to school; they guided me through their experience as graduates," Christina Garza said.
Both siblings, who are two years apart, said they plan to pursue careers in the entertainment industry promoting music and events.
"I gave it to him for all the respect I have for him and his hard work and dedication. He is the only person that I know that through hard times never quits and never gives up. He is a free spirit, full of God's love," Claudia Martinez said.
Gabriel Martinez said he was honored and surprised with the token of appreciation and said "sash or no sash, I know that there is an awesome bond between me and my sister."
Claudia Martinez plans to marry in September and move to San Antonio to pursue a master's in occupational therapy.
The morning ceremony for graduates in the Colleges of Business Administration and Social and Behavioral Sciences, featured guest speaker Anna Escobedo Cabral, who was nominated by President George W. Bush to serve as treasurer of the United States. The U.S. treasurer, who signs her name to the U.S. currency and minting coins, focused her remarks on three suggestions she gave the prospective graduates.
Anna Escobedo Cabral, who comes from a family of farm workers and is a third generation Mexican-American, also took time to talk about social security reform.
"In essence, social security reform is a conversation about your generation; leaders in Washington - most prominently my boss, the president - want to fulfill our obligation to you. We don't want to leave you with a Social Security system that made promises it cannot afford to keep," she said.
She encouraged the graduates to save and invest, especially in appreciating assets.
"Build on the first important investment, your education, so that you can quickly add a first home, build a business, save for the future, and retire in comfort," Anna Escobedo Cabral said.
At the noon ceremony, prospective candidates for degrees in the Colleges of Health Sciences and Human Services and Science and Engineering, had the opportunity to hear from Dr. Milagros "Millie" Mateu, who serves as university program manager at NASA, where she oversees NASA's agency-wide Hispanic Education Program and the Mathematics and Science Teacher Achievement Program (MASTAP).
Mateu also encouraged the graduates to continue their studies as she did when she went back to school in 1999 to complete her doctorate.
"I want you to think of this as a beginning that will include many more challenges, adventures and higher-level intellectual pursuits. I can't over emphasize the importance of continuing to seek learning opportunities through out your lives," Mateu said.
One person that never gave up on his dream was Efren Zamora, who managed to earn his bachelor's in computer science, after having just returned from serving time in Iraq in December. Zamora was recognized by Cárdenas during the commencement and was applauded for his bravery and commitment to coming back and obtaining his degree. "It was a great recognition from the University and it was real special to me. It was a great opportunity I had to finish college. It took me 4 1/2 years, but it was something that I started and something I had to get back to and finish," Zamora said.
Graduates of the College of Arts and Humanities participating in the 3:30 p.m. ceremony had the opportunity to hear from Senior Counsel for NBC Universal and Telemundo Victor Cabral, who was the first in his family to graduate from college.
He told the graduates the story of how his father came to the United States from Mexico at the age of fourteen, crossed the Rio Grande River by foot and traveled by railroad car through Texas to Chicago to work in meat factories.
At one point during that journey, Victor Cabral's father was locked inside a railroad box car in the middle of the dessert, in the sweltering heat, without food and water for over a day. Luckily, he said, a railway worker heard his father's pleas and rescued him.
"What really matters is that my father traveled that journey, sustained by faith, hard work and a dream for a better life. That journey prepared him well for what followed," he said.
Victor Cabral told graduates to dream big and to never let fear stand in their way. He said graduates should ask themselves the question, "What would I do if I knew I wouldn't fail?" The answer to that question, he said, should provide the road map for their lives.
"Don't underestimate yourself or your potential. Go out and explore your options. Know and understand your universe and expand your horizons. Whether you plan to travel the world many times over, or settle down in the Valley to make a life, keep in touch with what goes on in the world," he said.
History graduate Nathan Garfield, a 27-year-old McAllen native who was also the first in his family to graduate from college, was honored during the ceremony as the top graduate for the College of Arts and Humanities.
"I'm pretty excited about finally finishing. It's something that I worked pretty hard for," Garfield said, who was a petty officer second class in the U.S. Navy before attending the University.
He said UTPA prepared him to enter the workforce, especially through his participation in the UTPA Ambassador program where he served as a mentor for entering freshmen and helped them to transition smoothly into college.
"I've gained a lot of leadership experience through the program and have also learned a lot about working with people," he said, which will help him in his future career in teaching where he hopes to teach overseas to satisfy his taste for adventure.
"I really want to see the world and interact with other cultures," Garfield said.
At the final ceremony of the day, two of the four doctoral candidates in the College of Education said they relied on the support of each other to arrive at this day.
Melissa Christine Martinez and Rosemarie Gomez Maciel, both receiving their doctorates in educational leadership at the 6:30 p.m. ceremony, said they first met when they entered the doctoral program in educational leadership four years ago and became partners and study mates through the time it took to earn their advanced degrees.
"We started together, held each other's hand for four years and we are graduating together. I couldn't have done it without her. We even defended (dissertations) within two days of each other," said Martinez, an elementary curriculum coordinator for Sharyland ISD.
Maciel, who is a principal at Wilbur E. Lucas Elementary School, said she thought combining the undergraduate and the graduate ceremonies in each of the colleges for the first time this year was a good idea.
"I think it is good because it gives us the opportunity to set the pace for the others. It shows them that it can be done," she said.
Maciel said she wanted to get her doctorate to help others advance their career goals. Martinez agreed that this degree would help them make a greater impact.
"As educators we are lifelong learners. You get to a point where you feel that you need to continue to learn and to grow and develop so that you can turn around and impact our students," she said.
Speaking to the college with the largest number of graduates - the College of Education - was Thomas H. Castro, a veteran radio entrepreneur and president and CEO of Border Media Partners (BMP), a Houston-based company that primarily targets Hispanic listeners and owns 34 radio stations across Texas including several in the Rio Grande Valley.
Castro, a Harvard graduate and the first person in his family to attend college, told the education graduates that it was an important role to educate children.
"College shouldn't be something in their minds that is beyond reach. It needs to be demystified and it needs to be something that they expect to do and that we help them to accomplish," he said.
Castro said one of the reasons his company has invested millions in the Rio Grande Valley is that it is at the forefront of some of the most important changes taking place in Texas. "In the post-NAFTA world, the future of Texas starts here on the border, the future of our country starts here at the border and the role of education is essential," he said, noting the need for an educated workforce.
"I believe the Rio Grande Valley is the most dynamic economy in the world. It is growing faster on a consistent basis than any other part of the United States not just in population but in job creation, business formation ...and in the standard of living. Wherever Texas is going, the Valley is going to get there first - demographically, cross culturally, linguistically and economically," he said.
Castro advised the graduates that they had a very special opportunity and reminded them of the sacrifices of others to have this opportunity.
"The children that you are going to educate are going to become the plant managers, the school supervisors and superintendents, elected officials and parents of this generation of people who will never know the hardship and misery that our parents and our grandparents lived. It is a result of their sacrifice," he said.
In closing, Castro recalled Edward Kennedy's famous quote during the eulogy at his brother Robert Kennedy's funeral referring to his idealism - "Some men see things as they are, and say why; other men dream things that have never been and say why not."
"Indeed why not," Castro said. "Let us dream of an America where all children are educated and achieve their full potential without the burden of racism or neglect. This is the mission we bequeath to you today. Let us dream of things that have never been and then turn them into reality," he said.