The University of Texas-Pan American's Spring 2008 Commencement celebrated the achievements of more than 1,400 graduates, who on Saturday, May 10 earned their degrees and a ticket to a more prosperous and hopeful future.
A total of 1,477 prospective graduates in both undergraduate and graduate programs walked across the stage. This semester, the prospective candidates for degrees included 1,131 for bachelor's degrees, 342 candidates for master's and four for doctoral degrees.
In addition, UTPA's commencement served as a Mother's Day celebration for the many mothers in the audience and those receiving their degrees during the ceremonies. During each of the three ceremonies throughout the day, Cárdenas asked the graduates to stand up and find their mothers in the audience and throw them a big kiss to thank them for all they have done.
"I can think of no better Mother's Day present than the one you give your mothers, grandmothers, and aunts who supported you today. It will be a day to remember," she said.
Cárdenas asked members of the Class of 2008 and their families to "brag" about their accomplishments to everyone that crosses their paths and to be proud of their UTPA degree.
"I want you to get the message out that it can be done ... Our goal is to have a college degree hanging on the wall of every home in the Rio Grande Valley and we want you to help us get that message across," Cárdenas said.
Prado, a Harlingen resident and mother of two, became the first in her family to earn a bachelor's degree eight years later after having dropped out of college to support and raise a family.
"In the words of Edward Koch, remember 'Our fireworks begin today, our diplomas are a lighted match, and each one of us is the fuse.' Let us take what we have learned and show the world what we are capable of," she said.
Prado plans to continue her education and eventually earn a graduate degree in speech pathology.
Invited to join in the UTPA celebration and impart a few words of wisdom to the class of 2008 was Joe B. Riley, chief executive officer of McAllen Medical Center, who served as commencement speaker at the 9 a.m. ceremony.
"I am confident you will go on and enjoy more personal success. However, your accomplishment today you have worked so hard to earn - as significant as it is - should not and can not entirely define your existence. But, rather should springboard you the opportunity to ensure your time in this world makes a difference for others," Riley said.
In addition, Riley shared with graduates his "small pearls of wisdom" to live by - character, humility, honesty, thankfulness, and caring.
"As you make your way and begin your professional journey today, you will see things that will shock you, and people that will try and derail you. Stay the course, hold fast to the anchor of your character and continue to choose what is right, good and honest. In the end you will be rewarded," he said.
A native of Puerto Rico, Johnson joined the FBI in 1988 after graduating from Baylor University with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Foreign Service with a concentration in Latin American studies. His expertise in detecting and investigating white collar crime led to his designation as a Certified Fraud Examiner and positions of increasing responsibility within the FBI. While overseeing the RGV Resident Agencies in Brownsville, McAllen and Laredo, he has continued his exemplary record of success in targeting public corruption as well as led investigations on counterterrorism, drug trafficking and violent crimes threats along the U.S./Mexico border.
Admitting his nervousness as a first time commencement speaker, Johnson told the graduates he wanted to share with them what led him from being a high school drop out, unsure of what his future held. First, he said, is to not fear taking on new challenges or exploring new opportunities.
"I dropped out of school and later took the GED exam. I enlisted in the military and was given a second chance - to change my focus and live the life God intended for me," he said. "Do not fear change. Take a step out in faith and embrace opportunities that may be outside your comfort zone. It expands your horizons, teaches you new ways of doing things and presents new challenges."
Johnson also delivered a strong message on the rewards of public service to both community and country as well as the importance of maintaining integrity in not only one's career but as a spouse, parent and citizen.
"Whether in conversations with a student or client or negotiations with the school board, you are only good as your word. You can be smart, aggressive, articulate and persuasive but if you are not honest, your reputation and your career will be worth naught," Johnson said.
Johnson left the graduates with the hope that each would find a vocation that is special to them, their family and their country.
"Each of you is unique and has your own contribution to make. Put your fears aside, take your unique abilities to make a difference and do something special," he said.
Ibáñez, who is a founder of UTPA's Students for Peace organization, told her fellow graduates not to allow a fear of uncertainty impede their activism and desire to make a difference.
"My experience at UTPA has helped me realize in a world filled with inequities and injustice, we must recognize the importance of education as an agent of intellectual inquiry that ultimately may serve as a means of using ideas to improve the world we share," she said.
For graduate and veteran Victor Flores, who grew up in Crystal City, Texas, service in the military, similar to speaker Johnson, played a transformational role in his life.
Flores, who graduated with a degree in political science and a minor in English, started his college career in 2000 but as a U.S. Marine Corps reservist had his studies interrupted with several deployments, including a year of combat experience in Iraq. The death of two Marines close to him while there, gave him a new perspective on life and a renewed focus on his studies.
"I promised them and myself when I got back I'd make the best of every opportunity that was given to me. So I attacked school, I attacked work and everything I could with more than 100 percent. There were times I wanted to give up but I kept thinking of my Marines that passed away and it gave me the strength to keep going on - through the studying, the late nights, the little sleep, the stress and anxiety," said Flores, who elevated his early college career GPA from a 2.0 to more than 3.5 as a senior while also working fulltime, most recently as a community service specialist with the McAllen Police Department.
"She's been a real blessing. My focus transitioned from not just wanting to live my best life for my buddies but to a person I might want to one day marry," he said.
Flores also had praise for UTPA, an institution he described, like himself, as in transition.
"UTPA has really grown and increased its outreach activities to the whole community ... and you can see the number of buildings that are going up. The professors that are coming in, particularly in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, have broadened the academic base. Like this semester I had the opportunity to take Politics in the Middle East, Politics in China with Dr. Chen ... I studied politics in Latin America and Mexico. Having this broad base of professors and classes is great," he said.
UTPA graduated 55 veterans this semester, bringing the total number to 1,477 graduating veterans at the University since the Iraq and Afghanistan conflict began.
"These numbers are a testament to the deep patriotism and deep commitment of service to country, which has been part of the Valley tradition for generations," Cárdenas said.
M. Olaf Frandsen, publisher of The Monitor and La Frontera newspapers, who also serves as the regional vice president for parent company Freedom Communications Inc. which oversees daily newspapers in McAllen, Harlingen, Brownsville, Weslaco, South Padre Island and Odessa, Texas and Sedalia, Mo., served as the commencement speaker for the 5:30 p.m. ceremony for the College of Arts and Humanities and the College of Science and Engineering, with 261 and 225 graduates respectively.
Frandsen told the 486 graduates during the ceremony that they were his inspiration and that others who are less fortunate are going to depend on them now to 'do the right thing' - words of wisdom that his father shared with him when he graduated from college.
"I'm depending on this group of graduates to get the job done," he said. "You've shown by your perseverance, your dedication, and your willingness to sacrifice that you are up to meeting the challenge and you will exceed expectations beyond measure."
Marcos Ochoa, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Electrical Engineering, said he felt both happy and relieved to be graduating.
"It feels good to have everything over with," the 23-year-old Penitas, Texas native said. "I plan to have a good summer vacation and then start up work in the fall."
Ochoa said that job prospects with Western Digital, one of the nation's leading companies in information storage management, look very promising for him and, if hired, he'll be working in an integrations division of the company. He already has real-world experience through his participation in the UTPA robotics team, which won first place at the 2008 Institute of the Electrical and Electronics Engineers Region 5 Robotics Competition last month.
"Winning the robotics competition is pretty high up there in my proudest moments," Ochoa said, who named his parents, sister and several high school teachers as his biggest source of inspiration in completing his degree.
Eight students in the 5:30 p.m. ceremony qualified for the honor of top graduate with a 4.0 GPA and Isabella Garcia was chosen to represent the top graduates at the ceremony based on her academic successes, as well as her published research as an undergraduate student. Garcia, who was born in Germany, came to the Rio Grande Valley as a high school foreign exchange student and fell in love with the area and her husband while pursuing her education.
After witnessing the struggles of her parents while growing up, she took her mother's advice to heart when she told her that an education was one of the most important accomplishments one could achieve.
"We are here today to acknowledge that it is truly worth it to 'study until it hurts,'" Garcia said, something a favorite professor always told her. "Future doctors, scientists, engineers, teachers, philosophers, artists, writers and musicians, go on and conquer the world because today, you have demonstrated that you have the potential to do so. The future is all yours."
Garcia, who was accepted into six medical schools, will attend Baylor College of Medicine this fall and pursue both M.D. and Ph.D. degrees. She hopes to become a neurosurgeon and a medical research scientist investigating neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, in addition to working on new therapeutic applications for stem cells.
"Today marks the conclusion of one chapter in our lives and the beginning of a new one," she said.