A strong, blustery wind blew graduation gowns and mortarboard caps but did not sweep away the spirit and emotions of 1,070 graduates of The University of Texas-Pan American as they emerged from one of three commencements ceremonies held at the McAllen Convention Center Dec. 15.
Still recovering from recent heart surgery, UTPA President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas employed the help of Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Paul Sale to hand out the diplomas, telling the crowd that she came to the day's events with a "full if somewhat patched up heart."
"Their educational achievement is testament to great courage, leadership and perseverance. We welcome them home," she said.
Cárdenas told the candidates for degrees - 839 for bachelor's, 224 for master's and seven for doctoral - that she is always honored to share in the commencement celebration and the hope it represents.
"This celebration of your distinguished achievements is always filled with great hope and the promise that you represent for yourself, your family, your community, your state and nation and indeed for the world," she said.
Addressing the first ceremony of the day was long time civil rights advocate and Rio Grande Valley native Raúl Yzaguirre, who spoke to the 163 graduates in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences and the 198 graduates in the College of Business Administration.
Yzaguirre, who had both a son and nephew earning MBA's during the ceremony, talked about the future of the nation and the monumental challenges the new graduates will face.
He cited dire statistics regarding the mounding national debt and subsequent threat to the social security and Medicare systems, the massive need for infrastructure improvement nationwide, an increasingly large trade deficit and the lack of investment in human capital in the areas of education and healthcare.
We have left you with problems," he said.
He urged that Americans become a more informed electorate and to recognize that the nation has some potentially devastating problems that its leadership and its citizens must face with honesty.
"I believe all our problems have solutions," he said. "But all solutions require some degree of sacrifice and an enormous amount of determination."
Yzaguirre said he left home 50 years ago to change the world.
"I did what I could. Now it is your turn. Have a great life and leave this world better than you found it. Si, se puede," he said.
Moreno thanked each member of her family for their support.
"Mom, Dad, you have always encouraged me to do well in school. You two were truly the backbone of my educational career," she said.
Moreno ended advising her fellow graduates with a quote from Dr. Seuss.
"You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself in any direction you choose. You're on your own. And you know what you know. You are the guy who'll decide where to go," she said.
Following the ceremony, graduate Henry Miller, a native of New York and a 1988 alumnus of Franciscan University in Steubenville, Oh., said it took getting married and settling down to have the discipline to return to college 16 years later and earn his Master of Business Administration.
"I knew when I went back that I would want to give it my all," said Miller, who as a longtime sports writer and editor enjoyed traveling the country covering NASCAR and events as special as the Atlanta Olympics. He moved to McAllen six years ago when he accepted a job at The Monitor, Rio Grande Valley's largest newspaper.
Currently the newspaper's assistant managing editor, Miller worked full-time while going to school, earning along the way admission into Beta Gamma Sigma, an honor society serving business programs accredited by AACSB International - The Association to Advance Collegiate Schools of Business.
He expressed his appreciation of the consistent support from his newspaper bosses and colleagues as well as from UTPA faculty.
"The faculty's been terrific. The ones that I met my first year still remember me by name and I've always been encouraged. They have been nothing but supportive in guiding me with my research and how my MBA can apply to my career. It has just been a wonderful experience," he said, noting he may not be at the end of his college-going career.
A Ph.D. is exactly what 50-year old Cecilia Maldonado, from Monterrey, Mexico, received at the morning ceremony. Having already earned degrees in computer science and industrial engineering which landed her jobs in the maquila industry in Mexico, Maldonado said she came to UTPA to earn a doctorate in international business with a focus on marketing in order to teach at a university.
"The program is excellent. This is a great university," she said.
Maldonado, who conducted her dissertation research on cultural marketing and has already completed her first semester as an assistant professor of marketing at Georgia Southwestern State University in Americus, Ga., said she loves teaching.
"Students bring me youth, enthusiasm and energy," she said.
Roel A. Gonzalez, superintendent of the Rio Grande City Consolidated Independent School District, who was selected as the 2008 superintendent of the year by the American Association of School Administrators, served as the keynote speaker for the 1:30 p.m. ceremony for 358 graduates - 198 in the College of Education and 160 in the College of Science and Engineering.
Gonzalez is most known for his "student learning is non-negotiable" philosophy and how he has creatively led the district in successfully meeting the needs of the students within the school system.
Gonzalez asked the graduates to go back in time and pretend they were Kindergarten students listening to their teacher read them a story. He then told them a story of how he picked up, nurtured and cared for a little puppy only to find it gone one day several weeks later when he arrived home. He explained to the graduates that he learned from that experience that the puppy was not his, but only came into his life for a short time so he could help it.
"As educators, we view you as our little puppies in a sense. Every year we have to say goodbye to our pride and joy and let you go, as you look for that spot in the sun," he said. "As you go out, think about this. It's not about making a name for yourself - it's about loving your fellow man, it's about understanding, it's about caring for our environment."
He told the graduates to reflect on the things that really matter including what their life has meant, what they will leave behind, how they will be remembered and what their contribution to earth will be.
"Love, laugh and live as today was your last day of breath," Gonzalez said.
"Noelia did not have her health, but she never gave up on hope," Cárdenas said. "I'm told that she was so determined to graduate that she would go to chemotherapy in the morning and then student-teach in the afternoon. She was driven to get her degree because she wanted to be an example for her children."
Chavero's 11-year-old son, Reyes Francisco Chavero Jr., accepted his mother's diploma on her behalf at the ceremony, which was also attended by her 9-year-old daughter Madeline Chavero and their father Reyes Chavero Sr.
Chavero's sister Sandra Vasquez Nuñez said she thought it was wonderful that the University was honoring her sister in this way and that they understand the hard work and dedication it takes to attend college.
"For the University to say that we recognize and we value your sister as a student, I think that is just extraordinary," she said. "It shows me that UTPA is an organization that values their students and it's wonderful that they would encourage others to complete their degrees."
Andrea Miller, top graduate from the College of Science and Engineering with a 4.0 grade point average, also spoke at the ceremony. After a successful internship this summer, Andrea, who received a bachelor's degree in electrical engineering, will now be employed by Raytheon in Dallas as a defense contractor.
During her address she reminded the graduates that college was a gift given to them by people who want to see the world grow.
"What we do with their gift will show them how we honor them," she said. "Go out into the world, but don't forget where you came from. Remember that this is our time to be an inspiration for someone else."
The final ceremony of the evening featured the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Health Sciences and Human Services with a combined total 351 graduates - 204 and 147 respectively in each.
During the ceremony graduates heard from UTPA alumni Dr. Martha Cano, who currently serves as chief resident at the Corpus Christi Family Practice Residency Program at CHRISTUS Spohn Memorial Hospital. Cano graduated from UTPA in December 2000 with a Bachelor of Science in biology and attended the University of Texas Medical Branch at Galveston.
"It truly is an honor to stand before you this evening, before the Class of 2007 of one of the finest universities in Texas, UT Pan American," she said.
"Think for a minute what is your passion? What is that thing you must do to make you feel competitive? Find your calling, and follow your heart and gut. Those are the two things that will never let you down," she said.
Cano told students to be proud of the degrees they receive from UTPA. She said her UTPA education helped her in medical school because she realized that she could compete against others from schools like MIT, John Hopkins and Harvard.
"Medical school was tough, but let me say this that UT Pan American prepared me well. I was an equal among my peers ... Be proud of where you come from and know that you are competitive," she said.
For David Magana, originally from Veracruz, Mexico, he said receiving his Master of Arts in Spanish Saturday evening was a three-year work in progress, but was worth the wait.
Magana, who currently works as a teacher at Donna ISD, said his journey in his graduate studies was hard, but he was glad he did it and plans to continue with his higher education goals of receiving another master's degree or perhaps a doctoral degree. He said he enjoyed his time at UTPA and loved not only the flexible hours provided, but also the help he received when planning his schedules.
"UTPA has opportunities for anyone who wants to get an education," he said.