Dressed in their charro suits with their instruments tuned, The University of Texas-Pan American's Mariachi serenaded Dr. Blandina "Bambi" Cárdenas one last time Friday, Jan. 30 during a farewell bash in honor of her successes and commitment to UTPA, a place she called home for four and one half years as its first Hispanic female and seventh president.
Hundreds of students, faculty and staff packed the University Ballroom to hear a final lecture from Cárdenas, who announced her retirement from the presidency Jan. 20, citing health reasons for the decision. Cárdenas, who entered the ballroom to roaring applause, hugged and greeted countless members of the UTPA community as she made her way to the podium for an hour-long celebration of her time at the university.
"Today we engage in a ritual of gratitude for the success of the leadership of Blandina Cardenas," said Dr. Paul Sale, provost and vice president for the Division of Academic Affairs, who led the festivities.
With a heavy-heart and tears in her eyes, Cárdenas addressed the standing-room-only crowd and said "I look across the room, everything is a moment that I cherish. I could go one by one ... They are all good memories."
"I spent my whole life giving the same message - that these people of the border and people of South Texas deserve to have equality of educational opportunities because they have within them the character, the intelligence and the value to make our nation greater. But when you are fighting the kind of a fight at the level at which I fought it, there are moments in which you wonder whether what you are saying is true," she said. "And what you gave to me at UTPA was an affirmation, a validation of everything I have worked for all of my life because you proved and we proved together ... that if we align our sources and commit our abilities and give 150 or 200 percent there is nothing that our kids cannot do. And the affirmation of that proof made all of my life worthwhile ... so thank you for that gift."
Cárdenas asked the UTPA community to continue working together and carry on with the progress that has been made during her tenure - a 58 percent increase in students receiving degrees, an increased six-year graduation rate of 36.7 percent, which is above the 35 percent national average for peer institutions, adding a fourth Ph.D. program in rehabilitation counseling, and strengthening the freshman to sophomore retention rate to 71.5 percent.
"I have truly only talked and you have done the work. It is true. So as I leave, I simply leave you with a thought that you have within your capacity everything that it takes to multiply the efforts of the last four and one half years many times over and if I am not here to do the talking, I ask you to talk to each other and to continue to infuse in that equation for success - the quality of the heart and the quality of the smart," she said.
During her emotional speech, Cárdenas thanked numerous campus groups for their support including the administration and the faculty for their willingness to work together to create processes to expand productivity and service to students.
In addition, she expressed her gratitude to the Physical Plant employees for all their efforts in the beautification of the campus.
"The way in which the Physical Plant staff commit themselves to making this campus so beautiful and have it function so well is the foundation for all the commitment and service that flows through the institution," she added.
To students who attended the event, Cárdenas told them her favorite time of every year was commencement as that was her opportunity to look out into the sea of graduates and observe how a UTPA education had changed so many lives.
"In the final analysis, the work of any educator only has meaning when a student has the opportunity to change his or her life and to make contributions that in fact regenerate the educator ... So I say to students, the torch passes to you. You live in a time of unprecedented opportunities. If you don't make this world better, I will come back to haunt you," Cárdenas said with a smile.
For Tania Chavez, a UTPA graduate student, attending the celebration was important to her as it was her chance to let Cárdenas know how much she impacted her life.
"She was very inspiring to me. Because of her I want to go into student affairs now," Chavez said. "One day I will be like her. I will be the president of a university. It just breaks my heart that she is leaving."
Chavez, who received a hug and a few kind words from Cárdenas, said she was happy she had a memento of Cárdenas' time at UTPA, her signature on her diploma.
"I'm so glad that she signed my degree ... I don't feel UTPA will be the same," Chavez added.
Bertha Garcia, a junior, said she was sad that this moment had arrived for the university, and wanted to be at the celebration to commemorate a woman who meant so much to so many.
"I really wanted to be here because she has been an excellent role model. I am really sad to see her leave. Who is going to sign my diploma now?" Garcia asked.
Physical Plant employee Ventura Zavala, who has been with UTPA more than 20 years, said it was difficult for him to speak about how much Cárdenas has meant to him and UTPA without tearing up.
"She was real nice to us (Physical Plant) and she is like a mother to me," Zavala said. "She is a great lady. I wish her well and a great retirement."
During the event, Cárdenas was presented with several gifts including a complete computer system from the division vice presidents, staff and faculty, and a wooden easel and oil paints given to her by the Student Government Association, who also presented her with a resolution they passed Thursday, Jan. 29 recognizing her years of service to UTPA.
"Recognizing that it has been a pleasure and honor to work with such an admirable president as Dr. Cárdenas who has always allowed the Student Government Association to develop new ideas and enhance our student experience at The University of Texas-Pan American ... And further noting that her steadfast dedication to The University of Texas-Pan American has helped open a new chapter for student learning in the 21st century as well as the new lines of communication with the university surroundings and the community at large," Raghuveer Puttagunta, SGA vice president, read from the resolution.
The Faculty Senate also expressed their appreciation to Cárdenas for approving a significant amount of funds averaging $3,800 each for 110 faculty members, who were found to be underpaid in a recent Faculty Senate study, said Dr. Ranjiv Nambiar, associate professor in mechanical engineering and Faculty Senate member.
"The faculty want to thank Dr. Cárdenas for her service to the University. She has been extremely approachable to faculty," Nambiar said. "The faculty members have had an extremely positive relationship with the president and we are genuinely sorry to see her go."
Staff Senate Chair Terrie Garcia commended Cárdenas for appointing staff members to key campus committees and establishing the Educational Benefit Program, a tuition waiver program for full-time staff interested in pursuing undergraduate and graduate degrees at UTPA.
"President Cárdenas creates opportunities that reveal the potential in all of us. Thank you Bambi for advocating for each staff member, for our university and for our community - leaving us a legacy of unlimited potential. Your efforts are not lost and will not be forgotten," Garcia said.
Former president of UT Permian Basin and former interim president of UT Arlington Charles A. Sorber, will serve as interim president effective Feb. 23 while a national search begins for a permanent successor to Cárdenas.
"Tomorrow UTPA begins a whole new era. You must move on and look for the good, the heart and the smart of those who will lead you in the future. No institution is the product of one individual. I want to thank you from the bottom of my heart for everything that you did for me personally. You made every day at UTPA pure joy," Cárdenas said.
Just as the UTPA Mariachi had greeted Cárdenas with a song on the morning of June 22, 2004 when she first stepped foot on campus as its new president, they bid her a farewell with her favorite tune "Las Mañanitas," a Mexican song played on birthdays and special holidays. And in the spirit of the occasion, Cárdenas did not pass up the opportunity to sing one last time with her favorite musical group, leaving UTPA with a heart full of song, love, and memories.
To send your well wishes to Cárdenas, visit http://www.utpa.edu/blogs/cardenas/message/.