After having commencement ceremonies at The University of Texas-Pan American Fieldhouse for more than 35 years, on Saturday, May 12 they were held at the new McAllen Convention Center to accommodate the growing number of graduates and their family and friends. More than 1,400 graduates participated in the three ceremonies held throughout the day.
Throughout the day's ceremonies Cárdenas also honored the 55 graduates who are veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Valley veterans, we salute you, your courage and your perseverance. You bring honor to your families and to the 25 fallen heroes from this area through this educational achievement," she said. "Since the beginning of this war, UTPA has graduated close to 1,300 veterans...a testament to the high number of patriots in this South Texas region."
During the 9 a.m. ceremony for the College of Education which had 393 graduates, Cárdenas congratulated the three students receiving doctoral degrees - bringing the total number of doctoral degrees awarded within the college to 30.
Noe Hinojosa Jr., president and CEO of Estrada Hinojosa & Company, Inc., addressed the graduates at the morning ceremony. The UTPA alum has served as a financial adviser to more than 50 issuers of public debt resulting in $20 billion in transactions. As the first in his family to receive a degree, Hinojosa told the graduates to reflect on the people around them who helped them reach their goal of a college degree.
"I am sure that you feel as I did then - that without them you would not have gotten here. So after this ceremony, I urge you to hug them and thank them because times like these are not an everyday event," he said. "Today is a time to celebrate your great accomplishment, and in a very small way theirs too."
He encouraged the graduates to stay focused, have faith and strive for the highest ethical standards.
"As educators, your message to the children should be simple. Make them believe in you and give them the confidence to do what you have done today," Hinojosa said. "Remember that on that day you might be the only positive influence and voice of encouragement in a child's life."
Erika Rivera, top graduate for the College of Education, is the first in her family to obtain a degree. She said receiving her degree signifies all of the efforts, dedication and sacrifices that she made.
Rivera also thanked her parents and her husband for their support.
"This journey has been filled with many experiences that we will take with us as we move on with our lives," she said. "Today opens a new door for us to further expand our education. We have other horizons to explore which will enable us to be better and more competent educators."
After graduation, she will be employed by La Joya ISD and wants to pursue a master's degree in either bilingual education or as a reading specialist.
The second ceremony of the day had more than 464 graduates from the College of Business Administration and College of Health Sciences and Human Services file into the $65 million facility, which seated more than 4,800 guests.
Taking the stage as the top graduate for the ceremony was Julia Peña of the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, who graduated with a perfect 4.0 grade point average and is also the first in her family to get a college degree. The oldest of five, Peña told the graduates they all shared one thing in common - sacrifice.
"Everyone sitting here today has sacrificed something along the way. Each and every one of us has made a tough choice in life that has allowed us to finally come here and celebrate our achievement ... We all had many choices to make, but one thing we had in common was the fact that we were all trying to accomplish a great milestone in our lives, graduation," Peña said.
Peña, whose goal is to become a speech language pathologist, was recently accepted into the UTPA master's program in communication disorders and begins in the fall. She also thanked her parents and siblings for their support over the years, particularly her mother who once broke a piggy bank and rolled the coins so that she could pay for her first two college courses.
With a 30-year track record in the global chemical and plastics industry and in emerging technologies, Edward H. Muñoz, principal owner of Muñoz Group, an international investment banking firm, addressed the group that included 20 war veterans, the first graduates of the new Master of Accountancy and Master of Science in accounting program, and graduates of the UTPA/UT Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program.
Muñoz, a member of the UTPA Foundation Board and numerous other national and state boards, provided the graduates with his five guiding principles that included to seek the joy in life, know yourself, seek a mentor and be a mentor, give and demand respect, and "ask, and you will receive."
"I have always been a very shy individual. But all through my life and career, the one thing I have fought not to be shy about is asking - asking for help, for promotions, pay raises, feedback or for support. It never hurts to ask, the worst they can say is a 'no' or as my dad would say, 'we'll see,'" he said.
Mission native Irma Flores, who received her Master of Science in social work, a one-year program, said her graduation day was like the Quinceañera she never had while growing up. At 45 years old, Flores said she is the first of four siblings to receive a college degree.
"It has been very rewarding and it has been quite a journey," she said. "I started (college) 21 years after I finished high school, and it started because there were minimal opportunities out there without an education."
Flores, who earned her Bachelor of Social Work in 2005 from UTPA, said she chose to pursue a career in social work to help her community. Eventually Flores said she would like to establish her own organization, and pursue a doctorate in social work.
"I want to find a good paying job and make a difference, and stand up for social justice," she said.
Flores said she is grateful to UTPA for helping her accomplish her educational dreams.
"I'm so glad it (UTPA) is in our own backyard. It is convenient and affordable," she said.
A first-generation college graduate from the University of Virginia, Sylvia M. Courtney, vice president of engineering for Raytheon Company's Intelligence and Information Systems business, addressed the 5:30 p.m. ceremony for the 595 graduates in the Colleges of Science and Engineering, Arts and Humanities and Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Joining Raytheon in 1984, Courtney advanced through a series of positions of increasing technical and managerial responsibility and as lead project engineer for Navy Satellite Communications, led the company's Navy Extra-High Frequency Satellite Communications Program, which earned the U.S. Navy Award for Software Excellence in 1989. She now leads nearly 6,000 engineers, scientists and technology professionals in the Garland, Texas headquarters of Raytheon, a leader in the defense and intelligence industry.
Courtney talked to the graduates about the challenges they will face as members of the generation she called the "Millenials" or the "promise generation" - a combination of the best from the "Baby Boomers" born between 1946 and 1963 and "Generation X," born between 1964 and 1980.
Courtney told the graduates that they will need to be flexible, lifelong learners and able to build partnerships and collaborate effectively with people from around the world.
"The community in which you will work will be global, even if you never leave Texas, and in our global community, work happens 7/24/365 so you have got to move fast to keep up," she said. "You must commit to adopt a lifelong learning strategy that will enable you to excel in the global economy, not be a victim to it."
"The global work force is absolutely good for the world - diversity brings innovation and accelerates our ability to solve our most challenging problems," she said. "You, our next generation of heroes, must embrace the new diversity and the new world order. And you, the graduates of UTPA ...will be the first generation in which people of color form the majority in America. Consider what type of majority culture you will foster - make it one of acceptance, openness and respect, because only then will innovation and achievement prevail."
Accompanied to UTPA by her husband and daughter, Courtney ended her commencement advice by also talking about the importance of maintaining a balance in life between the professional and family and friends as well as asking the graduates "as one last homework assignment" to take stock of where they have been and where they want to go.
"Understand your past, value your past. But do not let your past constrain your future. Your future is yours to craft; it is your choice whether you seize the opportunity. You are truly and deeply blessed to be entering the world at a time of transition, when you can use the gifts that brought you here to craft a better world for yourself and for those who come after you," she said.
Also speaking at the ceremony was Claudia Coronado, an immigrant from Mexico who came to the United States only six years ago with no English language skills, but went on to be top graduate for the evening ceremony from the College of Arts and Humanities with a 4.0 GPA. Graduating in only three years, Coronado majored in English - the language she did not know - and will now share her love of the language and its literature as a teacher this fall in the McAllen ISD. In her talk, she challenged the graduates to transform the world into a better place for all people.
"It's a great school. I've learned so much here and don't want it to end," said Haime, who is currently pursuing marketing positions.
Haime said she also learned a lot from her involvement in activities on campus, such as the Student Government Association and the University's Marketing Committee, and encouraged incoming students to find a place to be involved.
"You get out of a University what you put into it," she said.
Marelli Montanez, from McAllen and a Med High in Mercedes graduate, said she has always wanted to be a doctor and credited the UTPA faculty and staff in helping her to achieve her bachelor's degree in biology from the College of Science and Engineering.
"They truly care about their students and that's what makes the difference," said Montanez, who plans to now study for her master's and reapply to a Texas medical school this coming year.
Attracted by the high quality of UTPA's engineering programs, Monterrey, Mexico native Israel Serna said scholarships and grants provided by the University allowed him to stay close to home and earn his degree in mechanical engineering. While at UTPA, Serna also got to participate in an internship with the Texas Institute for Intelligent Bio-Nano Materials at Texas A&M University in College Station. He said he was thankful to many on his graduation day.
"I'd thank God first; he pushed me through to my career. I'd thank my parents and Dr. (Constantine) Tarawneh (assistant professor in the College of Science and Engineering) for his mentoring," Serna said.
Clad in a Psi Chi medal and white stole denoting her membership in the psychology national honor society, Katrina Meza from Weslaco, graduated with a double major - earning a B.S. in psychology and a B.A. in sociology. She is starting in a master's program at UTPA in the fall and hopes to earn her doctorate and one day open her own clinical psychology practice.
"Today is a stepping stone. I want to continue going (to school)," Meza said, who has participated in several research projects with faculty and fellow students and is pleased that UTPA was opening up more opportunities for students to conduct research.
"He has worked very hard; it has taken him a long time while working a full-time job, having a family, going to school. He has finally accomplished his dream of becoming a teacher," said Trevino's emotional and proud sister-in-law Mary Ann Gil. "He believes he can bring something to our Starr County community. He wants to make a difference in the education our children are receiving."
His wife Josie said the whole family made sacrifices so he could complete his education, including giving up their new home when he had to leave his full-time job to meet his student teaching requirement.
"He did this for his children - to serve as an example and to provide for them," she said. "There are no words to express how proud I am of him."