A special salute to 50 graduates who are also military veterans, many with recent service in Afghanistan and Iraq, was given by President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas Saturday, Dec. 17 during four separate fall 2005 commencement ceremonies at The University of Texas-Pan American.
"These extraordinary patriots have been called away from their studies to serve in Afghanistan and Iraq. They had their education interrupted to protect our freedom, our rights and our country. You do great honor to your families and to all of our 20 fallen heroes of the Rio Grande Valley through this great educational achievement," she said, following a long-standing ovation for the veterans by the crowd attending the day's first ceremony for the College of Education.
In her welcome to a record number of 1,700 fall graduates and thousands of their family members and friends at the UTPA Fieldhouse, Cárdenas recalled that one UTPA veteran with a sense of humor - Mark Lopez - referred to his year of military service while a student as his "study abroad." Asking the veterans who were graduating in each ceremony to stand, she expressed gratitude for their courage and perseverance.
As a U.S. Army reservist and Raymondville resident, Lopez, who received a degree in history, served one year in Iraq and while on his tour of duty said he never stopped thinking of his education.
"It's being out in that unforgiving desert that you learn to appreciate those little things, the things you take for granted. When I was out there (in Iraq) the only thing I thought in my mind is 'you have got to finish school and you can never give up,'" Lopez said.
Lopez, who plans on continuing his education at UTPA in the history graduate program and eventually attend law school, said he is a big believer in education and always encourages other military personnel to think about going to college. At times he said he even finds himself helping them fill out college applications.
"They say in the military you have to lead by example and I think I have done that today and I just have to keep on inspiring others," he said.
Addressing the 467 candidates for bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees in the College of Education was UTPA alumnus and Mayor of the city of McAllen Richard Cortez, a licensed Certified Public Accountant and a senior partner with the public accounting and management firm of Burton McCumber & Cortez, L.L.P.
Cortez, who has a long history of public service to municipal, civic and church organizations, congratulated the students on choosing to make their goal that of obtaining an education. However, he advised them that "knowledge is not a destination but a journey" and encouraged them to continue to make goals for the future along with an action plan in order to accomplish them.
Cortez said when asked by his young daughter about the value of an education, he gave her a quick and easy answer that she would make more money but then giving it more thought recalled the four enemies to mankind listed on President John F. Kennedy's tomb in Arlington Cemetery - tyranny, poverty, disease and war.
"I believe there is a fifth enemy and that is ignorance. You cannot be a free person if you are ignorant," Cortez said, pointing out that a democracy requires educated citizens.
Katrina Martinez, top graduate in the College of Education with a 4.0 GPA, reinforced Cortez's message when she told her fellow graduates that they should continue to grow as professionals and to implement the most current and effective learning methods in the classroom.
"Let's make active learners out of our students. Let's make children love coming to school, love learning and love being a part of our classrooms," she said.
Martinez, who worked for six years as a teacher's aide in special education classes, plans to now work as a teacher in that field. She tearfully acknowledged the sacrifices made by her family - "my husband Tony for being so supportive and never letting me give up; my mother and grandmother for helping to take care of my children; and Kevin and Ileana (her children) for being so patient when mommy had to do homework."
Before departing, Cárdenas reminded the graduates that with a degree, also comes power and responsibility.
"You have the responsibility to make the most of your education. You have a responsibility to make learning a life-long effort. You also now have power - the power to change the world, one student at a time, one class at a time, one family at a time, one community at time," she said.
Following one of the ceremonies, amid family members bearing balloons, flowers and a multitude of hugs, kisses and tears, Dalia and Juan Villarreal from Harlingen posed for photos with their daughter, Angelica Lee Villarreal, who had just received her bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies-education.
Upholding a commencement tradition just started last year by Cárdenas, Angelica presented her bright green and orange memory stole to her parents in an expression of gratitude.
"They supported me throughout my entire college experience," Angelica explained through tears.
Angelica's proud father, an auto mechanic, added that he encouraged her. "I always wanted somebody in my family to become a college graduate," he said.
Some of UTPA's graduates are not traditional students, but come back to school later in life and are often juggling career, family and academics. One of those students is Roel "Roy" Rodriguez, who was already established in his career, but chose to return to school to pursue his dream of obtaining a master's degree - fourteen years after receiving his bachelor's.
"I realized that if I truly wanted to continue in my career path, my chances of advancing to bigger and better things would be much better with a master's in public administration," Rodriguez, who is currently general manager of McAllen's Public Utility Board, said.
As a graduate student with a full-time career, he felt the master's program blended the theory of public administration with real-life situations that he actually deals with.
"The quality of instruction is excellent," he said. "It gives you a perspective that you will not otherwise experience or appreciate in the field of work."
Rodriguez, who was recently selected by Governor of Texas Rick Perry to serve on the Texas Municipal Retirement System Board of Trustees, said he enjoyed the challenge that being a graduate student afforded him and knows his recent educational advancement will continue to benefit him professionally.
"Juggling a career, a master's program, spouse, children, community service and life in general has been a wonderful experience for me," he said. "There is no doubt in my mind that I am better for it."
Texas State Representative Veronica Gonzales, who is the first female elected to represent District 41, addressed the 450 candidates for degrees during the final ceremony comprising the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the College of Science and Engineering. Gonzales, who currently practices law at Kittleman, Thomas, Ramirez and Gonzales, PLLC in McAllen, where she is a partner, offered practical advice to the prospective graduates about how to use their knowledge to make the world a better place and to create a life for themselves that they can be proud of.
"Look around and examine those good people who are honest, loyal, trustworthy, who have desirable attributes you want to emulate and take time to make sense of your own life and to respect yourself," she said.
Gonzales shared the story of her mother's early passing in an automobile accident and how she is grateful that her mother took time to enjoy life.
"Don't live for tomorrow and forget about today," she said. "Don't map out where you'll be in five months or five years from now because in doing all your planning, you may forget to enjoy the moment that you are living in."
She concluded by telling the audience to make time for the people who truly matter in their lives such as their families and friends who have supported them and given them courage when they most needed it.
"Your most valuable assets in life will be the people who you love and who love you," she said.
These graduates ranged in areas from journalism to history. Viora Easterly Mendez, 48, a bachelor's in history recipient and the top graduate for the College of Arts and Humanities, told the class to celebrate their accomplishment and those who helped them reach their goal.
"Celebrate this day, celebrate this time and celebrate this moment. Keep it in your heart and remember it. There is a time to study and there is a time to dance and today is our time to dance. We deserve this day," Mendez said.
Mendez, a former police officer, who returned to school in 1997, graduated with a 3.974 grade point average marking a significant milestone in her life she said. To add to her accomplishments, Mendez has already been accepted into the history graduate program.
R. David Guerra, president and CEO of International Bank of Commerce - McAllen, Texas and UTPA Foundation Board member, who served as the noon commencement speaker, told the graduates they are part of the "class of enlightenment and ideals."
"I say to you today that no other graduating class of the UTPA colleges has the collective soul, sentiment and dreams as this graduating class of the College of Arts and Humanities," Guerra said. "You are the class that has a real connection to the human experience and the potential to impact and document that experience."
Guerra asked the graduates to go out into the world and change it because they are the "children of arts and humanities."
"I firmly believe that the course of history and culture, and the expression of it, are most influenced by people like you sitting here today. You are intellectuals of society and philosophers of ideals. You have the capacity to create change in the world. You have the ability to do great deeds. The mere fact that you will receive your diploma proves it," Guerra said.
With graduates on their way to new jobs, experiences and possibly even graduate school, UTPA Foundation Board Member Daniel P. McLean, group director, South Texas Region and CEO, South Texas Health System, stressed to the College of Business Administration and the College of Health Sciences graduates the importance of continuing their pursuit of knowledge.
"My one bit of advice to help you make the most of it is to not avoid continuing your education, but to embrace it. Make your life of learning and you'll always look forward and you will see the glimpses of the future," McLean, also a UTPA Foundation Board member, said. "UTPA has done their part in preparing you for this journey of a life of learning. Never forget what you have accomplished here and honor it by making a beginning of a truly exciting journey."