The spotlight was on a year of amazing academic accomplishments by students and faculty at the spring 2006 commencement ceremonies May 13 at The University of Texas-Pan American. Four ceremonies for 1,573 prospective graduates in both undergraduate and graduate programs in six academic colleges were held throughout the day.
Cárdenas took the opportunity in her welcome to highlight the outstanding academic accomplishments during the year in each of the University's colleges.
During the first ceremony at 9 a.m. for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, which had 173 graduation candidates, and the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, with 274 prospective graduates, Cárdenas described a first-of-its-kind contract that was established this year by political science professor Dr. Robert Wrinkle with WorkForce Solutions. This electronic research project will provide the Texas workforce agency with reports on the effectiveness of its services to more than 120,000 clients looking for jobs and 3,500 businesses seeking employees to hire.
"We want to work with the community and take our expertise to solve problems in the community," Cárdenas said.
Cárdenas also spoke of the benefits to the community that will come from the opening of the Regional Academic Health Center which will house UTPA's cooperative pharmacy program and the unveiling of the regional biotech mobile lab - one of two in the nation - that will provide Valley students hands-on experiences in the medical and biomedical research fields. She also touted UTPA's physician assistant studies program - the only one outside a medical school in Texas - and the recent victory by a team of its students in the "Medical Challenge Bowl" held in Dallas.
"Our team won first place in the state prevailing over every medical school-based program in the state," Cárdenas said.
The top graduate speaking at the morning ceremony was student-athlete Stacy Gooden, a starring member of the Bronc women's basketball team who maintained a 4.0 grade point average in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences while juggling practice, game travel, study and exemplary service to the University and community. Gooden graduated with a degree in psychology/rehabilitative services and aspires to obtain a Ph.D. in counseling and work with adolescents with eating disorders.
Among the many people Gooden acknowledged and thanked was her mom, who attended from Houston.
"To my mom, I thank you for all the sacrifices, pushing me hard and knowing when to lead me and when to let me make my own decisions," she said.
Addressing the graduates in the Colleges of Social and Behavioral Sciences and Health and Human Services was Rio Grande Valley native Antonio O. Garza, U.S. Ambassador to Mexico. Garza, who was appointed by President George W. Bush in 2002, began his political career as Cameron County Judge and later served as Secretary of State and senior policy adviser to the then Governor Bush. When he was appointed chair of the Texas Railroad Commission in 1999, Garza became the first Hispanic Republican elected to statewide office in Texas history.
Garza, who has been named one of most influential Hispanics in the country by numerous publications, said he was "very, very happy to be home" and nostalgically recalled his roots in the Valley where his father owned a gas station and how the Valley has changed.
While the Valley has a rapidly growing young population and a vibrant manufacturing sector, he said, it still faces serious challenges in the areas of health care availability, poverty, crime and unemployment.
"Change is inevitable but leadership isn't and providing leadership is your greatest challenge," he told the graduates. "Being a Bronc has given you the tools that you and South Texas need to flourish. You are the next generation of doctors, nurses, lawyers, military officers and public servants of our region, state and country. Whatever it is you choose to do or wherever you choose to do it, you'll be expected to lead."
Describing his transition into a public service career, Garza, who has a law degree from Southern Methodist University School of Law, encouraged the graduates to explore and get a better sense of what they believed in and why and to also take risks and chart new courses for their lives.
"If you don't you are missing a chance to learn not only about others but, most importantly, about yourself; you are missing the chance to see what you are capable of," he said.
Garza said the message in the 20-year-old classic movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" of "Life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in awhile, you might miss it," is still relevant today.
"Life passes much more quickly than you would ever imagine and you can't hit replay. So live life, live it hard and live it in a way that allows you to find your purpose. Once you find a calling that you are passionate about, you may never 'work' a day in your life because you will be doing what brings you satisfaction everyday," he said.
Garza closed with some recommended values or what he said Governor Bush used to refer to as his "north stars" that he suggested the graduates follow or be guided by.
"Treat people with dignity and respect. Try to understand them, learn about them," he said. "The history of this country is all the proof we need to know that there is strength in our differences."
He also advised them to trust their instincts.
"Some of the most successful and satisfied people I've ever known were listening to their inner music and following it," he said.
Garza ended by saying that although he talked about change in South Texas, the graduates should learn to appreciate all about South Texas that doesn't change.
"Take time to appreciate those moments when you are moved by things that remind you who you are," Garza said, evoking the vision of a South Texas sunset and the smell and breeze of the ocean. "All this is rightfully yours as a South Texan. This is a glorious place that God has entrusted to us. Take care of it and take care of each other."
"It has taken a lot of hard work," said DeLaGarza, who still has to take and pass her national exam to become licensed as a physician assistant and hopes to land a position in the Valley.
She said the two year physician assistant program at UTPA was of great value as far as the quality of education.
"Compared to some of the other PA programs in Texas, the program at Pan Am offers a good value; it is a great educational experience for your money," she said.
A long commute from San Antonio to attend UTPA was ending for graduate Mary Almeida, who received her master's degree in social work in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services. Almeida graduated from UT Austin in 1997 with a bachelor's degree in social work and previously worked as a social worker at the Children's Shelter in San Antonio. When she decided to get her master's, she found that UTPA had the training that she needed.
"I find that this school in social work is geared toward Latinos. I was looking for that and found it in this program. It helps me to understand the patient or client and the acculturation that we all go through in knowing more about our society. It is an excellent program that they have here," said Almeida, who also praised the program's faculty and her 500-hour internship with the Vannie Cook Children's Cancer Clinic.
Joy L. Bryant, vice president and program manager for the International Space Station Space Exploration for Boeing's Integrated Defense Systems, addressed the 264 candidates for bachelor's and master's degrees in the College of Science and Engineering during the noon ceremony. The college has graduated more than 600 engineers since the degree program was created 10 years ago, and more than 60 percent of UTPA students who apply to medical schools are accepted, as compared to the state average of 37 percent.
Bryant's speech identified innovators from the past who broke barriers, demonstrated persistence and showed future generations that nothing is impossible.
"I have come to use the word impossible with great caution. We have come to regard the notion of impossibility as outmoded as the thought that humans would never fly," Bryant said. "But one thing that resonates through the history of innovation, as much as the inspiration of possibility, is the specter of impossibility from which many great innovations spring."
She talked to the graduates about the many men and women who came before them and opened doors in fields of science and engineering like Susan Picotti, the first Native American medical doctor, and Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph, light bulb and first motion picture.
"Somewhere in the diminishing space between science fiction and science fact, there is an opportunity to exploit possibilities," Bryant said. "With both men and women innovating and breaking through barriers once thought impossible, there is a door out there for each of you to open. Find out where the last person left off and start. Don't stop until you're finished. And don't let anyone tell you that it can't be done."
Eleven students in the College of Science and Engineering qualified for the honor of "top graduate" with a 4.0 grade point average and eight of them will be attending medical schools in the fall. Robert Salazar was chosen to represent the top graduates at the ceremony based on his outstanding community service record, specifically his volunteer efforts with Projecto Desorrello Humano - a clinic in an impoverished and medically underserved local colonia.
Salazar, who majored in both chemistry and biology, told his fellow graduates "life is something we experience and success is something we find, and we will find it." He told future students to be disciplined, stay focused, never get discouraged, follow their dreams and to have fun.
"Find what you love, get good at it and you will truly always love what you do," Salazar said, who plans to attend medical school and later return to the Valley to practice.
"UTPA has given me a well-rounded education, and I feel like I have more to offer than the typical dental student, since I have a degree in another field," Cavazos said. "I think my fondest memory of UTPA is the professors. They are really nice and helpful. I had a good time while in school here getting my master's."
The 3 p.m. ceremony featured more than 400 graduates from the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Business Administration.
Top graduate Maria Elizabeth Rincon, who earned a perfect 4.0 grade point average, addressed the Class of 2006 by telling them graduation day did not come at an easy price, whether it was financial, time or effort.
For Rincon, who faced overwhelming financial odds and relied on scholarships to get her through school, told the graduates of her hardships as a Mexican immigrant in the United States. In addition, she thanked her mother, who cleaned houses and often held two jobs to help make ends meet, for her support and inspiration to get a higher education.
"Being an immigrant is definitely not easy," Rincon said. "Immigrant or not an immigrant, we should be strong and never give up."
Commencement speaker Michael A. Allen, executive vice president of External Affairs and Strategic Projects, McAllen Economic Development Corporation, offered his assistance to the graduates in finding employment and encouraged them to talk to their local officials and University administrators about bringing major corporations to the Rio Grande Valley.
"I would challenge you to speak to the president of this university, to speak to your faculty, to speak to your deans and tell them that it would probably be better for Dell Computer to set up a company in this area, so that it can provide the jobs for people here in our community and not force so many of our intelligent young men and women to leave this community," Allen said.
Allen, who taught at UTPA 35 years ago, was instrumental in recruiting more than 500 companies to McAllen and Reynosa, Mexico and was in charge of the McAllen trade zone.
"We are living in a global economy and education is such an important part and you are participating in that part. You are becoming the driving force of economic development in the Valley," Allen said.
Arts and Humanities graduate Zoraya Monita from Weslaco, received her degree in Spanish with a minor in public relations and advertising.
Monita, said it took her six years to complete her education because of financial difficulties she faced, but she said it taught her that sometimes "you have to work hard for what you want."
"I have been waiting for this day to come for a very long time and it brings an overwhelming satisfaction and some sadness at the same time, but it has definitely been a very enjoyable experience," Monita said.
Monita hopes to find a job where she can incorporate her major and minor.
"UTPA gave me the foundation I needed to go out and be competitive in the work force," Monita said.
Lady Bronc golfer Nicole Boychuk received her degree in journalism (advertising/public relations track) during the 3 p.m. ceremony and said all her hard work and sacrifices over the years was worth the wait.
"I can't believe it has been four years since I was a freshman and just getting started with all my classes. I am thrilled to be graduating, and I feel such a great sense of accomplishment," Boychuk said. "All the hard work, long hours of studying, and stress were worth it because now I will have a college degree, and no one can ever take that away from me."
Boychuk, a Conroe, Texas native, admitted the only hardship she faced as UTPA student was figuring out how to balance her time as a student-athlete.
"It was always challenging trying to catch up in classes after being absent for a tournament or having to arrange to take a test early. It was also difficult to try and study on the road, but I did it."
Boychuk hopes to find employment in the world of corporate public relations.
Both mother and daughter said it was definitely a unique experience taking some classes with each other and aspiring for degrees in the same field.
"There are many gifts that a mother could enjoy and graduating with your oldest daughter is just one of them," Ana Maria said. "I think it's quite unique that Nancy is giving me the same gift that I am giving my own mother."
Ana Maria, 40, said receiving her degree today was not only her dream but her own mother's dream for her as well.
"I began my studies when Nancy was four and ended them indefinitely when I had my second child in 1989. I always knew my mother (Severa Alcocer) hoped that one day I would return and finish my studies and be in the career I had always wanted. Now we gave her double the gifts."
Nancy said she was happy to be sharing her graduation day with her mother and realizes how Ana Maria sacrificed a lot to accomplish her goal.
"I know how hard she has worked to get where she is and I am more happy for her than anything," Nancy said. "With all the plans and the running around we have been doing it hadn't really hit me until last week that it (graduation) was the day before Mother's Day. Since I graduated from high school three years ago and have already had my day of celebration, I see this as more her day than mine."
Nancy, 20, who finished her degree in three years because of Concurrent Enrollment classes she took while in high school, said this day would not have been possible for her and her mother if it weren't for the support of her father Elias. Ana Maria echoes Nancy's feelings as well.
"Having both of us graduate at the same time gives him more of a sense of joy and accomplishment. He provided everything for me to attend school and made sure that I didn't worry about anything else but school. He never complained when there were no warm meals or that I wasn't home and he had to cook for us all," Ana Maria said.
Wrapping up commencement was Sylvia R. Hatton, Region One Education Service Center executive director, who spoke to graduates of the College of Education at 6 p.m. Hatton, a UTPA alumna, told the more than 400 future educators to give children every opportunity to succeed and to "always stand for the children and with the children."
"Our jobs as educators is to love children, to respect them and to teach them well and to encourage them to reach for the stars and to convince them that all things are possible," Hatton said.
She announced to the audience she will be retiring on May 31 after 35 years in public education.
"It's amazing to see my journey in education come full circle and to see the cycle run its course and come back to the beginning. Now I enter a new world as you out there will do and I can't wait to see what lies ahead."