A day of celebrating the graduation of 1,229 students at The University of Texas-Pan American became a day to also celebrate the opportunities for a more affordable college education for future graduates.
At the Dec. 16 ceremonies, UTPA President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas announced the initiation of a new program that will enable eligible students coming from families making $25,000 or less a year to attend UTPA tuition free.
The free tuition initiative is part of a University of Texas System effort to make college affordable for students of low-income families.
At the first ceremony of the day for the 219 prospective graduates of the College of Business Administration and 176 in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, UTPA alumnus and UTPA Foundation Board Member Armando Perez, vice president/general manager, Houston Division, H-E-B Grocery Company, served as commencement speaker.
An Edinburg native, Perez graduated cum laude in 2003 with a bachelor's degree in business administration and has completed executive management programs at Cornell and Harvard University. Perez began his career at H-E-B in 1994 and has risen through increasingly responsible positions with the company. Perez said he wanted to share four points that he thought might be of value to the graduates as they embarked on the next chapter of their lives.
He encouraged the graduates to develop a life plan about the things they wanted to accomplish and what was important to them, both professionally and personally.
"Think through what are the important things that you want to accomplish in your personal lives, then work to find professional careers that allow you to fulfill these goals," he said.
Perez talked about the importance of learning from failures and being lifelong learners.
"Keep learning from everybody, every day. Don't let the fact that you won't have to buy any more textbooks squelch your desire to learn," he said.
Living by the "Golden Rule" - do unto others as you would have them do unto you - is one of the most fundamental keys to success Perez said and essential to a positive culture in the workplace. Part of living the "Golden Rule" is being thankful and showing appreciation he said as he asked the graduates to give a round of applause for those supporters attending the ceremony.
Most importantly, Perez told the graduates to be proud and confident.
"Be proud of who you are, be proud of where you come from, and be proud of where you graduated from," he said. "Being educated at UTPA and a citizen of the Valley has given you some advantages that other students don't have. You are financially prudent - you have attained one of the best values in higher education in all of the United States. You have a strong work ethic. Never lose this ethic, I guarantee you that it will set you apart. Also, you understand the Hispanic population, the fastest growing segment in the country," he said.
Yvonne Villescas, top graduate in the College of Business Administration with a 3.9 GPA, also addressed the morning graduates. Earning a Bachelor of Business Administration in marketing, Villescas plans to work at Enterprise Rent-a-Car in the Valley and eventually work in marketing research or event marketing.
Graduating as one of 78 students, many sporting green and orange feathers in their mortarboard, in the largest class ever in the UTPA Bachelor of Science in nursing program was Eva Zarate from Edinburg.
While a student in the program, Zarate, now in her early 30s, was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to leave UTPA for some time to undergo several rounds of treatment and surgery. However, she already had 71 hours toward her degree and knew she wanted to return. She re-entered the program in 2005 but after one semester, the cancer returned and she had to have additional surgery.
"What kept me going all along was my family, my children and my husband Benjamin," said Zarate, the mother of three - ages 14, 11 and 7. She also said the people involved in the nursing program were supportive and "never let her down."
"They were there for me. They saw me as a human being and not a number. I was someone that mattered," said Zarate, who still has to undergo two more months of chemotherapy.
She said in the future, she wants to give back to her family and her community as well as return to school to pursue a master's in behavioral nursing, formerly referred to as mental health nursing, an area she "fell in love with" while in clinical rotation. Zarate said she'd encourage others to enter UTPA's nursing program.
"It is a very challenging program but if you have the will and determination you can accomplish anything you want - you can climb mountains if you set your mind to it," said Zarate, who drew a standing ovation from her fellow nursing program graduates as she walked across the stage to get her degree.
Another early morning graduate, Amy Claudette Guerra-Ochoa received both her Bachelor of Business Administration and her Master of Science in Accounting at the same time and has already landed a job starting Jan. 3, 2007 as an auditor in San Antonio with Ernst and Young, one of the top four accounting firms in the world.
Guerra-Ochoa, the first to graduate from college in her immediate family, said she married and had children at a young age, requiring her to work full time at a job, which frustrated her and prompted her to want to go to college.
"I wanted to make my life better and for my child. I hope to start a tradition and have my little child follow me," said Guerra-Ochoa, who worked full time while in school until this last semester.
While in college, Guerra-Ochoa was also a member of the 2005 UTPA accounting team that won first place in the National Student Case Study Competition sponsored by KPMG, one of the world's largest accounting firms, and the Association of Latino Professionals in Finance and Accounting (ALPFA).
She said the education she got at UTPA was wonderful and appreciated the support she got from her family and faculty. "Dr. Darcy (UTPA assistant professor of accounting and business law and accounting team adviser) has been a real role model for me. He believes so much in students," Guerra-Ochoa said.
Gonzalez, who comes from a long line of public school educators, told the graduates their profession is vital to society.
"You, as educators, have the most important job in this world and the most important task ahead of you," she said. "You have the opportunity to make a tremendous impact on the lives that you touch."
Gonzalez challenged the graduates to develop a passion, enhance their commitment to that passion and to practice lifelong learning - a passion instilled in her by her parents.
Top graduate for the College of Education Adriana Lopez, who was the first in her family to earn a college degree, told her fellow graduates about the challenges she faced as a migrant student who started each school year late and left before it ended.
Lopez, who wasn't able to attend her high school graduation because her family had to go to Michigan to work, feels that all of the obstacles she encountered made her the person she is today. She thanked her parents for their support and words of encouragement through the years.
"I never had all I wanted, but I always had what I needed," Lopez said of her humble roots. "I never felt I was deprived of anything. I felt blessed for the life I was granted."
Lopez, who received the first-ever standing ovation as a top graduate speaker, will teach bilingual education and hopes to inspire her students to be proud of their culture and ability to speak two languages.
"I told myself, if I can finish school and get a good job and help my parents financially, they will never have to migrate again," Lopez said. "I proved to myself that if there is a will, there is a way."
Marissa Yvette Hernandez, a cum laude graduate in interdisciplinary studies, said her fondest memory of UTPA is of the staff and professors who have helped her reach this important chapter in her life.
"They have shown me that through hard work and dedication, a person can reach their goals and have success in life," Hernandez said. "I will never be afraid to set high standards and reach out for the best that life has to offer. I am a stronger person because of UTPA and I know that God will continue to bless me with all of my career choices."
Hernandez plans to give back to the community in which she lives by teaching for the Rio Grande City school district after graduation and wants to pursue a master's from UTPA, and eventually a doctorate in education.
The University's seventh president, who, at the end of the December 2006 graduation events, will have presided over 22 ceremonies, also recognized veterans graduating from UTPA. Cárdenas said since the Iraq War began in 2002, 1,236 veterans have graduated from UTPA.
"That speaks to the perseverance, desire and determination of our students ... all our students. I am in awe of the 'ganas (desire)' they possess and the great sacrifices our young people will make to join the ranks of the educated," she said.
After nine years of hard work and an internship in the UTPA Office of the President, Steve J. Guevara of McAllen finally walked the stage to receive his bachelor's in communication degree in journalism, advertising and public relations during the 3:30 p.m. ceremony.
Guevara was one of 41 veterans recognized throughout the day.
While in the military Guevara said he worked as a meteorologist, and now with his degree he would like to pursue a career in sports entertainment as a publicist and eventually return to school for a master's degree. Guevara said he feels confident that UTPA has provided him with the necessary tools to succeed in his field.
"The education I take with me is priceless," he said.
He said his military background played a huge role on how he approached returning to school as well as helped him pay for his education.
"I came back with a new sense of responsibility and accomplishment. The skills learned in the military translated into countless areas in my education, for example the attention to detail learned while in the military helped in my study habits. The military also helped me in the area most needed, financially. Without the funds provided by my GI Bill my educational process may have been a much more difficult one."
He believes his success is not only due to his military background, but most of all to his mom, Leticia, who has stood by him through his journey in life and at UTPA.
"I owe a great deal of my success to my family especially my mother, who as a single parent was my first teacher," he said. "I also owe a great deal of my success to the wonderful faculty and professors here at UTPA. They made the educational experience one that I will never forget. The entire communication department made me feel like a part of a family and not just a student ID number."
Addressing the second largest class of the day, the College of Arts and Humanities, which had 221 graduates this semester, was Dr. Daniel P. King, a UTPA alumnus and the 2006 State and Region One Superintendent of the Year. For King, who has served as superintendent of Hidalgo ISD for the last seven years, speaking at the commencement was special not only because he was returning to his alma mater, but also because his daughter was graduating at the same ceremony.
"Parents, family, and friends, I know you are proud, because I am one of you. Today my daughter, Melissa, is receiving her bachelor's degree in this ceremony, just two and a half years after her high school graduation, thanks to her hard work and the wonders of concurrent enrollment," King said.
King, who works for a school district that was once labeled as "one of the worst in the state" but today is called "the best district in Texas," told students to always have a plan in life, and always be prepared for the unexpected.
"Life is full of surprises. Unexpected opportunities will come your way. Unexpected challenges and setbacks are also in your future. Take advantage of the opportunities and grow. Use the setbacks and challenges to learn and become stronger. My aspiration at graduation was to be a teacher and a coach. I never dreamed that I would be a school principal or a superintendent. My path changed over the years as I responded to opportunities, and sometimes to setbacks and challenges," King said.
In addition, King encouraged the graduates to choose a career that truly interests them and they enjoy.
"Determine to make a positive difference in the lives of others. Try to help at least one person each day. The greatest satisfaction that I receive in my career is the knowledge that the things I am doing are helping thousands of students, often in a very personal way," he said.
Fernandez-Campfield, who was born and raised in Harlingen to Mexican parents, told the group of more than 300 graduates that "opportunity" was the key to her success.
"Let's talk about opportunity because that is exactly what is rolled up in your diplomas. It's all yours. You earned it. You deserve it. And, no one can take it away. But ... oh yes, in the real world there is always a but ... only you can make the opportunity work," she said.
She told the graduates there are five keys to making "opportunity" happen for them - having fun, being true to themselves, working hard, making a difference, and staying connected to their roots.
"You have worked hard, learned much and are now prepared to embrace the opportunity you have earned and so deserved. What an absolutely amazing time in your life. Enjoy every moment of it. Remember the five keys to opportunity ... Simple rules that can give you a simply wonderful life."