The University of Texas-Pan American bid farewell to its last group of graduates for the 2005-2006 academic year Saturday, Aug. 19 at the UTPA Fieldhouse, during its first summer commencement ceremonies in more than 14 years.
This marked the first time in the University's history that summer ceremonies were held in one academic year along with the earlier spring and fall ceremonies.
"We are making history today because this is the first time we've held fall, spring and summer ceremonies. That is a reflection of how the University is growing and how the Valley is growing and most of all how our hunger for an education in our families is growing," Dr. Blandina Cárdenas, UTPA president, said.
Cárdenas said more than 3,000 degrees were awarded during 2005-2006 ceremonies.
"Today graduates you join the ranks of 3,000 students getting degrees from UTPA during the 2005-2006 academic year. That is 350 more degrees conferred this year than last year. Ladies and gentlemen we have 3,000 more of our young people walking through the Valley with a degree in their hands and that is a reason to celebrate," Cárdenas said.
Among the 3,000 degrees awarded this year, two were to the top-ranked graduates of the summer ceremonies - Sandra I. Martinez, College of Health Sciences and Human Services, and Joey Nichols, College of Science and Engineering. Martinez, an Edinburg native who received her degree in communication sciences and disorders, earned a 3.9 grade point average, while Nichols, a biology/chemistry graduate from Harlingen, finished with a 4.0. Both addressed their fellow graduates during the ceremonies. In addition, 31 military veterans were also recognized during the ceremonies for their educational achievement.
"More than any other influence they, and the dreams they carry, have helped make you what you are today and what you might become tomorrow," he said. "Hard work, determination, faith, family and sacrifice - these are the values that have served our people through the ages. These values flow through you like the blood that flows through your body."
Peña, an Edinburg native and practicing attorney, graduated from Edinburg High School, attended Pan American University and ultimately received a Bachelor of Arts from The University of Texas at Austin. He received his Doctor of Jurisprudence from Texas Southern University in 1987. Now serving his third term in the Texas House of Representatives, Peña is a member of the powerful Appropriations Committee and is known as a leader in the use of new forms of technology to better serve his constituents and as a passionate advocate for education. He has championed efforts to expand the growth of UTPA, most recently sponsoring legislation authorizing the construction of a Student Wellness and Recreation Center and a Fine Arts Academic and Performance Complex.
While his grandfather came to the United States with only a second grade education, no English skills and picked oranges to make a living, Peña said he had powerful dreams of a better tomorrow.
Pena advised the graduates that with the great power an education brings, comes great responsibilities and urged them to find a purpose in life.
"Reach back and help others on their journey. Help those least likely to care for themselves - the sick, the elderly, children afflicted by drug addiction. Remember that 'a man never stands as tall as when he kneels to help a child' and there are so many in our community that need help," he said.
Peña expressed the need for graduates to think globally and expressed concern about those that fear diversity.
"As some in this country take a misdirected and regrettable course of fear of everything that is foreign, of everything that is different, here in this room lies the reality and promise of our shared future," he said.
After the commencement ceremony new graduate Yolanda Martinez from Hidalgo draped her memory stole around the shoulders of her parents - Jorge and Yolanda Aguilar - and acknowledged that she could not have earned her bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies without them or her husband. Cárdenas initiated the tradition of graduates wearing the colorful orange and green stoles during the fall 2004 ceremony. The stole is later presented to a special person in an expression of gratitude for mentoring, inspiring or encouraging them in their quest for higher education.
"They always said to me follow your dream and that I could do it. I have faith and anytime I needed to cry there was a shoulder for me to go and cry on," said Martinez, who hopes to obtain a position as a teacher.
Maria Baez, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in sociology, was quick to say her stole was going to her husband Oscar Espinosa who made her stay in school when she wanted to give up and helped her with the cost. She said her success has inspired him.
"Now he wants to go back to school," said Baez, who wants to go into casework or advising.
Opportunities brought by obtaining an advanced degree came quickly for Beverly Faye Ashley-Fridie, from Edinburg, who was one of only two graduates at the August 2006 commencement ceremonies to be awarded a doctoral degree.
Ashley-Fridie, who earned her Ph.D. in educational leadership, just yesterday, she said, signed on to be the director of UTPA's new Alternative Certification Program in the College of Education.
After earning her bachelor's degree in sociology at Texas A&M-Corpus Christi, Criselda Brooks, from Mercedes, said she returned to the Valley to pursue the master's program in sociology available at UTPA.
"It is a very user-friendly program. I had heard a lot of good things about it and decided to give it a shot. Everything was really great, all the professors were wonderful and everyone was very friendly and approachable," said Brooks, who served as a graduate assistant in the Department of Sociology while at UTPA. She is also a mother of a two-year-old son who was just a month old when she started the pursuit of her master's.
Brooks, who would like to land a job in her field as a statistician or research analyst, said having a master's degree is important in her field.
"Having a master's in this field really opens up your opportunities and of course your earning potential is much higher," she said.
City of Edinurg Mayor Joe Ochoa, an Edinburg native who attended then-Pan American University for two years and went on to receive his Bachelor of Science degree in pharmacy in 1975 from UT Austin, addressed 356 graduates at noon.
Ochoa, who was elected mayor in 1993, a position he held until 2003, and was recently re-elected to the post in May 2006, told the graduates not to be afraid of what the future holds for them.
The mayor of the three-time All-America City asked the graduates to become public servants in some way, whether through politics, as a little league coach, or a religious organization member, and make a difference just as he has for the past 19 years.
"Armed with your education, you can become a powerful vehicle for change in society and I encourage you to do this because the future of our communities depends on you," Ochoa said.
In the end, Ochoa requested the Class of 2006 keep their culture alive for the next generation and to always remember where their roots are anchored.
"Wherever you go from today, whatever you do - you are always connected to The University of Texas-Pan American, to Edinburg, and to the Rio Grande Valley," he said.