The spotlight was on a milestone achievement during The University of Texas-Pan American's summer 2008 commencement ceremonies Aug. 16 at the McAllen Convention Center. Two ceremonies for 686 prospective graduates in both undergraduate and graduate programs in six academic colleges were held throughout the day.
UTPA President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas welcomed the graduates and their families and announced that the 1,000th engineering degree would be handed out that day - an important milestone, she said, for not only every graduate in the audience but for current and former students as well.
"This is worthy of mention because 13 years ago many people didn't think this could ever happen. They said our students wouldn't succeed at a math-based career," Cárdenas said. "But today Fortune 500 companies line up to hire our engineering students. If given the opportunity, the students of South Texas can rise to any challenge. Today we are 1,000 engineers and counting!"
Jose Andres Camacho, who happened to be the 1,000th engineering graduate to register for graduation, said he was honored to be a part of the milestone achievement at the University.
"I feel proud, because along with my colleagues I'm contributing to building a tradition at UTPA of forming professionals that can give much to our society in the engineering field," Camacho said.
Cárdenas also asked the six graduating Valley veterans to stand during their respective ceremonies to be recognized for their service. UTPA has awarded degrees to more than 1,400 veterans since the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts began.
During the first ceremony at 9 a.m. for the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, which had 113 prospective graduates, the College of Science and Engineering, which had 108 graduation candidates, and the College of Business Administration, with 121 prospective graduates, Cárdenas addressed the graduates and told them that their mind is the single most important tool they own.
"You're graduating into a world that is filled with opportunity and that is defined by extraordinary challenges," she said. "Because you have a college education, there is nothing you cannot do. All it takes is a belief in yourself and a belief in your country."
Cárdenas told the graduates that the generations before them struggled to give them the opportunities such as the opportunity to earn a college degree and they should go forward and make the most from what they have been given.
"I charge you with the responsibility to make this world better than it was when we handed it over to you. If you find a way to take your gifts and talents and make them work not only for yourself, but something beyond yourself, you will reach a point in your life when you will feel much happier and much satisfaction," she said.
Joseph M. Kamel, top graduate for the College of Business Administration, addressed the graduates of the morning ceremony. Graduating with a major in economics and a perfect 4.0 grade point average (GPA), he told the audience of how he had the opportunity to start his own business while completing his degree.
Kamel said he was able to resolve many business problems through information he learned while working toward his degree at UTPA.
"During this time I realized that education is not only synonymous with knowledge, but it is also synonymous with power," Kamel said. "Our education at UTPA has provided us all with the power to become independent, the power to think creatively, the power to build wealth and most importantly the power to better and strengthen our community."
Also recognized as a top graduate for the College of Science and Engineering with a 4.0 GPA was Frances Rachel Morales, who will attend Baylor College of Medicine later this month to pursue a Ph.D. in biomedical ethics.
The 344 graduates in the afternoon ceremony held for the Colleges of Arts and Humanities, Education and Health Sciences and Human Services heard some advice from a 1991 UTPA graduate in finance, Sonia Falcon, who is the first woman ever to fill the role of senior lending officer at the International Bank of Commerce. Besides her leadership role in the banking industry, Falcon is a founding member and current board president of VAMOS (Valley Alliance of Mentors for Opportunities and Scholarships), which since its inception has raised more than $12 million in funds for deserving Valley students who want to pursue higher education.
Falcon shared with the graduates some ''words of wisdom" from the book "The Last Lecture," by Carnegie-Mellon computer science professor Dr. Randy Pausch. Faced with a diagnosis of terminal pancreatic cancer, Pausch, who died in July 2008 at age 47, gave an inspiring "last lecture" shared round the world on making your childhood dreams a reality. Falcon encouraged the graduates to follow his advice on being willing to start at the bottom when they launch their careers and to be hard workers without complaints and whining.
"Develop a non-whining aura because whining will not help you. Hard work is like compounded interest in the bank ... the rewards build faster," she said.
When faced with difficult and frustrating tasks, Falcon advised them to not get upset but to simplify the task at hand and "to be patient and look for the best in everybody." Falcon also talked about the importance of honesty.
"If I could give you three words of advice they would be 'tell the truth.' If I could give you three more words, I'd add 'all the time,'" she said.
As a daughter of supportive parents who were Mexican immigrants and once worked as migrant farmworkers, Falcon shared her passion for dreaming big as Pausch did.
"Give yourself permission to dream big and fuel your kids' dreams and enable the dreams of others. And never forget this great University," she said.
Passion for what you want to do led top graduate, 34-year old Wendy Gilbert from the College of Arts and Humanities to finally earn her bachelor's in fine arts degree with a 4.0 GPA. The commencement audience that included her husband and 13-year-old son heard her description of two previous starts to obtain a college degree.
"I didn't know why I was there or what I wanted to study," said the Connecticut native of her first attempt at college right out of high school. After marrying, having a child and moving to the Valley, Gilbert said working a full-time job at KVEO NBC 23 got interrupted her second try for a college degree. But she said her husband, also a UTPA grad, encouraged her to enroll at UTPA and pursue her passion she had developed over the years for art and teaching.
"Follow what you are passionate about and strive to be the best; don't be mediocre. And remember, education does not just begin or end in the classroom," said Gilbert, who will begin her new career this fall as a visual arts teacher at the IDEA Public School District's new campus in Mission.
UTPA alumnus and science teacher at K. White Jr. High in Mission, Arturo Gonzalez was one of 162 graduates at the summer ceremonies earning a master's degree. Also a part-time coach of a number of sports, he said as a young student he was motivated by his coaches. He hopes he plays a similar inspirational role for his three children.
"I'm trying to be a good role model and hopefully they will follow my lead," said Gonzalez, who reached his personal goal of earning a master's in educational leadership from the College of Education and would like to one day be a school principal.
Pursuing additional education is nothing new to cum laude graduates Leticia Hawkins and Lilliana Soliz - two of the 29 students earning degrees this summer in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services. Both Hawkins, from Edinburg, and Soliz, from McAllen, also have undergraduate degrees in clinical laboratory sciences from UTPA. Soliz has an additional bachelor's degree from UTPA in biology. They both are part of the last cohort of students to earn a Bachelor of Science in physician assistant studies during the summer ceremony. In fall 2008, this program, the only one in Texas outside a medical school, will transition to a master's program for entering students.
With a number of careers behind her and currently a medical technologist, Hawkins, is a single mother of four children, two also current students at UTPA. She said to achieve her educational goals she and her family sacrificed a lot, including at times electricity and water, because she did not work while in the academically-demanding program. Besides taking care of her family, Hawkins was also motivated to pursue the degree by seeing the need for more medical care providers in the Valley.
"I wanted to get in there to make a difference, especially for the elderly and kids," she said. "I also like that you are not tied down to one particular field, you can go into pediatrics, surgery or family practice, for example."
Also a medical technologist, Soliz said earning a physician assistant degree will allow her to have a greater role in patient care.
"I didn't want to just deal with lab results. I wanted to put a face to the name. I wanted to be able to have a bigger impact on the patient's plan of treatment and their diagnosis," she said.
Both praised the educational preparation they obtained at UTPA and with their professional experience feel well-qualified for any of the multiple number of positions each has been offered. Soliz is especially interested in entering the fields of emergency medical or ob-gyn while Hawkins said she is favoring pediatrics or family practice. For future students wanting to pursue this degree, they both responded with identical advice.
"They should try and shadow a current PA, take many science courses and develop some really good study habits," they said.