The University of Texas-Pan American's Fall Commencement celebrated a major milestone in the lives of students when they were awarded their bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees Saturday, Dec. 13 at the McAllen Convention Center in three separate ceremonies.
"What a gift you are giving yourself, to us and to your family," said UTPA President Dr. Blandina Cárdenas, who welcomed the candidates and their family and friends.
She told the audience that UTPA would be awarding its 100th doctoral degree before the day was over.
"It is a great achievement when you consider that our doctoral programs in education and business are barely 10 years old," Cárdenas said. "Today's accomplishment takes UTPA one step closer to becoming a learner-centered doctoral research institution. This milestone marks our commitment to bringing more educational opportunities to the students of South Texas."
She said a new doctoral program in rehabilitation counseling will begin this fall, and there are two other doctoral programs in the design stages.
Cárdenas also recognized the 44 veterans from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts who were getting their degrees at the December ceremonies. She said since the wars started UTPA has graduated close to 1,386 war veterans.
"These graduates were called away from their studies to serve," she said. "Their educational achievement is a testament to great courage, leadership and perseverance."
Addressing the first ceremony of the day at 9 a.m. was Gilda Romero, chief operating officer for McAllen Heart Hospital, who spoke to the 219 graduates in the College of Arts and Humanities and the 239 graduates in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services.
Romero is an accomplished senior executive with more than 19 years experience in healthcare. She has a successful track record in hospital operations, business development, and financial management.
She shared two life lessons with the graduates that her parents taught her about how to lead a full and happy life.
Romero encouraged the graduates to choose a career path that they love and to have a positive outlook on life.
"My mom would always say, 'Be positive and positive things will happen,'" Romero said. "Don't settle. Find what you love to do and the passion will follow. With passion comes enthusiasm and with enthusiasm comes greatness."
Edinburg native Lori Ann Prado, who received a Bachelor of Arts in communication, completed her degree in two years and graduated cum laude at 20 years old. She took concurrent enrollment courses while in high school and entered UTPA classified as a sophomore.
"It took hard work, determination and above all, discipline," Prado said. "I owe much gratitude to my parents for all their love and support. They've always told me that getting my education is not an option but a necessity, and I know I couldn't have done it without them. Also, the communication faculty's overall enthusiasm and passion for what they teach drove me to succeed in my field of study."
Prado plans to pursue a master's degree in public relations or advertising in the fall 2009.
"I feel confident that my education has equipped me with the proper knowledge that I need in order to face the real world, but I'm also nervous to start a new chapter in my life and excited at the same time. I guess you can say it's a rollercoaster of emotions at the moment!"
A friend of UTPA since 1992, Art Rosales, director of Program Services and Execution Boeing Space and Intelligence Systems served as the speaker for the 1:30 p.m. ceremony. Rosales, who considers himself part of the University family, shared with graduates two pieces of advice and three life lessons he has learned along the way - to not be afraid to go outside your comfort zone; find a mentor and seek and act on their advice; and develop solid team work and team leadership skills.
The son of an undocumented immigrant father from Guatemala, who did not attend high school, and a mother who emigrated from Puerto Rico, Rosales was raised in the South Bronx of New York City, a neighborhood where higher education was not a subject of conversation he said. Thanks to the assistance of a group called ASPIRA, a national Hispanic organization that helps develop the educational and leadership capacity of Hispanic youth, he was able to step out of his comfort zone and attend the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
"I left my comfort zone of family and friends and went 200 miles north to a world that might just as well have been on Mars, for all the similarities it had with my comfort zone. It was a difficult journey, but a decision that I never regret. It opened new worlds for me and has been a cornerstone of many of my achievements," Rosales said.
Rosales gave the graduates two pieces of advice to follow - the "Golden Mean" and to "live with integrity and ethical behavior."
"This (Golden Mean) is an ancient Greek concept for the virtue of avoiding extremes - for me it stands for maintaining a healthy balance between your work life and family life. You can not be happy if either of these is in disarray," he said.
"While I underwent treatment I kept thinking about how I had wasted too much time not caring more about school and made a promise to myself that if all went well with my health and I was allowed to go back to school, I would go back with a mission to do my absolute best and leave nothing behind. Sure enough, my treatment was over within a few months and the following semester I re-enrolled at UTPA and now I'm graduating," she said.
Alcocer said the circumstances that befell her made her realize how important it was to earn a degree and begin to take her studies seriously. Now, Alcocer said she is revved up to start the next chapter in her life - that is entering the workforce, which she already has a jumpstart on as she begins work as a manager-in-training for Abercrombie & Fitch. Even in these hard economic times, Alcocer said she feels UTPA prepared her well to meet the challenges of today's business world.
"I don't feel that all the material covered in the classrooms can prepare you for real-life experiences, but the lessons I learned by interacting with others and having to be placed into groups did teach me what it will be like once I enter the real world. I would say that UTPA did make a difference in my life," she said.
Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas III, who earned his master's in public administration from UTPA while serving as Hidalgo County Clerk, served as commencement speaker for the 279 graduates in the College of Education and the 179 graduates of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences during the last ceremony of the day.
Leading one of the fastest growing counties in the United States since being elected in 2006, Salinas has focused considerable attention on promoting economic development and improving the transportation infrastructure. He was most recently appointed by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality as the U.S. co-leader of the bi-national Gulf Coast Task Force.
Salinas told the graduates that while graduation day is a day of nostalgia and recalling your youth and the fun experiences of college, it is also a day that may present a feeling of confusion or uncertainty about the rest of their lives. However, he reassured them.
"Do you know that you are joining the ranks of the elite when you pass the tassel to the other side of your cardboard beanie? About 50 percent of the local population does not graduate high school...only 13 percent go on to finish college. You have already set yourself up for success by being here today," he said.
He commended those who were the first in their family to earn a degree and asked that the graduates not forget that their path to this day was built on others who came before them.
"Your mothers and fathers, abuelos and abuelitas may have been immigrants to this country, leaving behind a set of values for the adoption of American culture and pursuit of the American Dream. Many failed to live the dream in their lifetimes due to policies of racism and class division, but you can," he said. "You are making your life better and the lives of your children and your children's children." Salinas encouraged the graduates to never stop learning and to set a good example.
"You will learn a lot over the course of your next decade and gain wisdom that comes with getting older. Your example and what you do with your life can inspire others. In fact, make sure it inspires others, your younger brothers and sisters, your friends, your neighbors, your co-workers and especially your children," he said. "You are our future teachers, commissioners, county judges, social workers, counselors and ambassadors of our community. Think of the community as your extended family. Don't leave it; enhance it," he said.
A passion for lifelong learning and serving as a role model motivated two of the six doctoral candidates in educational leadership who graduated during the ceremony.
Already a successful superintendent of the Weslaco Independent School District, Richard Rivera said he earned his bachelor's degree in 1967 and his master's in 1974 from the University but at that time there was no doctoral program in education to enter locally. Calling the awarding of the 100th doctoral degree at UTPA a tremendous accomplishment, he said he looked forward to hearing about the 1,000th degree being handed out. Rivera said he hoped his graduation with a doctorate will be a motivator for some.
"As a superintendent, I wanted all my staff - principals and teachers - to see that the superintendent had expectations to get the highest degree possible. I wanted to be a model for them to continue their education. No one ever stops learning whether it's a teacher, principal or superintendent," he said.
Isaias Cesar Rodriguez, the TEEM (Texas Early Education Model) Project director for early childhood education in the La Joya Independent School District, said he has not stopped going to school since 1987. Prior to his doctorate in education leadership, Rodriguez earned his bachelor's in marketing in 1992, a master's in reading in 2000, and a master's in educational leadership with a principal certification in 2005 - all from UTPA. And now he said he's thinking about pursuing a doctorate in childhood education at The University of Texas at Austin.
"I am a lifelong learner. I have tried to instill that in all the children I taught. Learning for me has always been a love, a passion. I loved school since I was a little boy," said Rodriguez, a father of two who expressed thanks for the support of his parents during his educational pursuit.
"My parents have always been advocates of education. My mother always pushed me - 'do it for yourself and for your brothers,' she'd say. 'You'll be an example for the whole family, you'll be an example for your own kids,' she told me," said Rodriguez, who is the only college graduate among five siblings in his family.
Rodriguez said the impact of UTPA producing more doctoral graduates in education for our area is significant.
"What that does is help add to the body of knowledge. The Valley will have more people at that level of knowledge who can give back to the community, give back to education. We also have a lot of students graduating with master's degrees today - that speaks volumes for them. We graduated six doctorates in educational leadership today - I think the most we ever had at one ceremony. That will be an eye opener for a lot of these master's students to say, hey I can do it too, let me pursue it," he said.