Not even the summer heat or the threat of Hurricane Dean on South Texas kept the families and friends of more than 600 graduates away from The University of Texas-Pan American's commencement ceremonies Saturday, Aug. 18.
"Many of you have been working very hard and I'm sure even praying for this day to arrive, and I suspect some have prayed harder than others," Cárdenas said. "I speak for the faculty and administrators when I say 'de todo corazon (with all my heart)' we are honored to share this day with you."
The 9 a.m. ceremony featured the 2007 classes of the College of Business Administration, 138; College of Education, 146; and College of Health Sciences and Human Services, 15.
During both ceremonies Cárdenas recognized 18 veterans, who were called away from their studies to serve in Afghanistan and in Iraq, who were receiving their degrees Saturday.
"Since the combat started we have graduated 1,300 veterans of that conflict. We are so happy that they came back to us and were able to complete their education," she said.
Founder and CEO of IDEA Public Schools Tom Torkelson addressed the Class of 2007 during the morning ceremony. After having taught fourth grade for three years as a Teach for America teacher at Donna ISD, at age 24 Torkelson launched the IDEA Academy in 2000, and served as its first board president and the founding principal, making him Texas' youngest ever charter school founder.
Since then he has led the replication efforts of the original school, and system-wide there are now nearly 3,000 students enrolled in the six campuses that comprise IDEA Public Schools, with more schools set to open in 2008. The mission of IDEA Public Schools is to ensure that all students are successful in the four-year college or university of their choice.
Torkelson, who just 10 years ago graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in economics, told the graduates about how he found his "life's calling" in the Rio Grande Valley.
A member of the UTPA Foundation Board, Torkelson, shared with graduates his best pieces of advice - to always ask "why not," to find champions in life, to always serve others with a joyful spirit, and to always find an audacious vision for themselves.
"Sometimes people enter their career and don't create ambitious goals for themselves because they think that they can't reach them. But the danger is not failing to achieve ambitious goals, but in attaining a goal far below your potential," he said.
Top graduate for the College of Business Administration Thelma Méndez had the opportunity to address her fellow graduates during the 9 a.m. ceremony.
Méndez, a resident of Reynosa, Mexico, finished her degree in international business in three years while commuting daily across the U.S.-Mexico border, often spending at least two hours in line to cross the U.S.-Mexico bridge to achieve her goal.
"I'm a proud Mexican who crossed the border every day to get my education," Méndez told the Class of 2007.
The majority of Rivera's career has been in the industrial sector, concentrating primarily on the manufacturing of plastic components. The Brownsville native shared some principles with the graduates, which he said helped him succeed in his professional and personal life.
"I believe in self respect. It's OK to ask for help. It's not OK to abandon your values in the process," he said. "I believe that there is only one person who can limit your potential and take away your dreams, and that is you."
He also told the graduates he had a great deal of faith in their abilities since individuals with degrees are becoming a necessity in society today.
"I have extremely high expectations of you otherwise I wouldn't be here today," Rivera said. "I expect that all of you will be great successes in your chosen field of employment or service. I expect that some of you will become great leaders and executives of large corporations and communities. And, I expect all of you will contribute to our socioeconomic and democratic process."
Elizabeth Rios, top graduate for the College of Arts and Humanities, was the first in her family to obtain a college degree and comes from a family of Mexican immigrants and migrant farmworkers. The 21-year-old Penitas, Texas native graduated with a double major in English and psychology and a minor in Spanish.
"The best things are what we struggle for the most," Rios told her fellow graduates of her educational experience. "These struggles made us who we are today. And I know that whatever approach we have taken has proven to be the ideal vehicle to help us achieve one of our goals - graduation."
Rios said she will continue to draw upon the motivation and strength she gained from her experiences at UTPA. She will be employed by Mission High School as an English teacher this fall and hopes to continue her education and pursue a master's or doctorate in English or psychology.
"Target emphasizes education and developmental opportunities for its employees," he said.
Ranked in the top 10 percent of students academically in the College of Business Administration, Aguilar sported a blue stole over his gown as a member of Beta Gamma Sigma, an international honor society for business students and scholars. Although he never thought he'd return to school, Aguilar said he was additionally motivated by his wife Christina, a registered nurse, and his brother, also a Target employee.
"My brother Jose, who is 10 years younger than me, went from high school right to college and just graduated from UTPA last year and I admired him. My wife also encouraged me. She said I needed to go back and reach my full potential," he said.
Susie Amundrud's pursuit of a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies - bilingual education was inspired by her 35-year old son, a military veteran and respiratory therapist, who wanted them to live a better life through education. She also has a great love of children.
"I've always worked with the PSJA school district and I enjoy working with children. I want to make a difference in the lives of children," said Amundrud, who also received encouragement through her University studies from PSJA school district teachers and administrators.
Amundrud, who said she already has a job offer, praised the support of College of Education professors and plans to return soon for her master's degree.
"The professors really inspired us to go to for our master's degrees and tried to help us in any which way they could. They showed us how to use Web sites to study for our certification tests and even yesterday we had a workshop to help us prepare for our professional bilingual testing. They are always right there fighting, leading," she said.
Graduating with a Master of Science in Nursing in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, Weslaco native Evy Gonzalez is currently a registered nurse and director of nursing at Pace Health Care.
"I love my profession - nursing - and wanted to take my education to the next level," said the mother of four children - ages 2 to 21, who also worked full time during her years in school.
Gonzalez said she started her nursing career as a LVN through her training at Texas Southmost College. Ten years later she got an associate's degree in the first class at South Texas College, then took satellite classes at Knapp Medical Center in Harlingen through The University of Texas at Brownsville before attending UTPA.
"The (nursing) program here is excellent with awesome instructors," she said. "It is very rigorous, but by being rigorous there is more accountability. Through rigor you are held to a higher standard of liability and responsibility. It is up to us to nurture our young children and the younger people in our profession to want to strive for something higher."
Describing a nursing career as self rewarding and offering many avenues to pursue besides just bedside care, Gonzalez, who indicated she might want to teach one day, said she was grateful she didn't listen to those who tried to discourage her from continuing her education.
Vanessa Hernandez of Mission entered UTPA out of La Joya High School not sure what career she wanted to pursue.
"I was undecided for two years but took a children's literature class here at UTPA and got interested in teaching," said Hernandez, who received a bachelor's degree in interdisciplinary studies - bilingual education. Stopping college for a while for the birth of her now two-year-old daughter Serenity, Hernandez returned to graduate with the encouragement and support of her mother and hopes to teach third grade in a Mission or La Joya elementary school. She said one of her most memorable experiences as a UTPA student was seeing the progress of her students while student teaching at Castro Elementary School in Mission.
"I started working with the children in January and was able to attend their kindergarten graduation, when they were almost first-graders already," she said. "I enjoy teaching because you know you are teaching the future and you have to give it your best. You never know you might be teaching a future president and you can say 'that was my student.'"