Family, friends and loved ones gathered together Saturday, May 9 to celebrate the milestones of 1,767 graduates, who walked across the stage during The University of Texas-Pan American's spring 2009 graduation ceremonies.
"Today the world lies before you full of promise, possibility and hope," Dr. Charles A. Sorber, UTPA interim president, said. "My message is that hope and hard work will see us through. That you stand here today tells us you are no stranger to neither."
Sorber, who participated in his first commencement ceremonies since being named interim president in February, also recognized 39 veterans who were graduating in the three ceremonies. Since the beginning of the conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, UTPA has graduated more than 1,500 veterans.
"Many of these war veterans were called away from their studies to serve," Sorber, a 22-year Vietnam War veteran, said. "Despite the interruption they returned to get their degrees. Veterans are a testament to courage and perseverance."
The graduates received their "final lecture" in the 9 a.m. ceremony from commencement speaker and 26-year U.S. Navy veteran William J. Toti, vice president of Integrated Support Solutions for Raytheon Technical Services Company, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Raytheon Company.
"And although none of you will remember a thing I've said after today, you will remember how you feel right now. You will remember this moment for all time. It will stand in your memory among the greatest events of your life, along with your marriage, the birth of your children, and other similarly significant events," Toti said.
"But there's an equally important point to be made here. Today is not merely an inflection point in your life, it's an inflection point in the lives of all your family, including future family members whom you haven't yet met," he added.
Toti, who spent nine years in the Pentagon and is a seven-time recipient of the Legion of Merit, had his experiences during the Sept. 11 attacks on the Pentagon incorporated into a book, "Operation Homecoming," published by Random House.
"So that's it. This is the final moment of your final lecture. I now challenge you with going forth into the world and being a positive force for change. You are the future of our nation and our planet. I challenge you with helping to solve the problems that my generation and generations before have helped to create. I charge you with the responsibility of taking off on your newly accelerated course, and doing your small part to make the world a better place," Toti said.
This semester, the candidates for degrees included 1,347 for bachelor's degrees, 409 candidates for master's, and 11 for doctoral degrees.
Among those degree recipients was Margarita Hernandez of Pharr and mother of three, who received her Mother's Day present, a Bachelor of Arts in Spanish and English, a day early.
"I feel awesome; it feels so good to finally get here. I can't believe that I have done it," she said.
Hernandez, who teared up during the Mother's Day serenade of "Las Mañanitas" by the UTPA Mariachi at the end of the 9 a.m. ceremony, said she plans to pursue a master's degree in Spanish and this fall hopes to be teaching in the area.
The morning celebration featured 267 College of Arts and Humanities and 269 College of Science and Engineering graduates. In addition, nine individuals who graduated with perfect 4.0 grade point averages represented the College of Science and Engineering including top student speaker Win Shun Lai.
Dr. Leonel Vela, the founding Dean of the Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC), a campus of The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio, gave the commencement address for the 344 graduates in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services and the 255 graduates in the College of Business Administration during the 1:30 p.m. ceremony.
Vela, who directs the medical education and biomedical research components of the RAHC in Harlingen and Edinburg, said the University is an important part of his family since several of his family members received degrees from UTPA.
"We all know that Valley graduation is about families," Vela said. "No matter where your educational and professional journey leads you, or how successful you become, I urge you to never forget those family members and individuals who selflessly gave their precious time, resources and support to assist you in preparing for that journey."
Vela told graduates to seek out and be guided by those things which will give purpose and meaning to their accomplishments. For Vela, his fulfillment came by being able to return to the Valley as a physician and founding dean of the RAHC.
"The most direct and effective way to impact lives is at the community level," Vela said. "You will make a difference one patient at a time and improve the health of your respective communities. It is clear the health of individuals is tied to the economic well being of family and communities. We need your business acumen to help propel the economic development, job growth and competitiveness of the communities."
"Do not underestimate your capabilities," he said. "Do not compromise your goals, dreams, character, values or your compassion for helping others. Do the right thing, even when no one appreciates your stand or when the easy way seems more attractive."
Jessica Frances Allen, a 4.0 graduate in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, also addressed the graduates during the 1:30 p.m. ceremony. She was joined on stage by fellow top graduate Andres Rodrigo Bello from the College of Business Administration. The 22-year-old Weslaco native, who majored in communication disorders, told graduates their education has made them great and to continue their growth by learning.
"True greatness is thinking beyond the textbooks," Allen said. "Allow yourself to daydream. Explore your unique talents. Give in to your imagination. These are the things that set you apart both on paper and in life."
Allen's future plans include pursuing a master's degree in administration and curriculum and becoming a director of special education.
In his seventh term as U.S. Representative for the 15th District of Texas, Congressman Rubén Hinojosa addressed the 418 graduates in the College of Education and the 214 graduates in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences at the last UTPA commencement ceremony of the day.
Hinojosa, an alumnus of UTPA earning an MBA in 1980, called the ceremony a proud moment for the students as well as for the community and said he was looking forward to seeing the results of the 2010 U.S. Census in terms of educational attainment by residents in the area.
"You are adding to the ranks of college graduates in deep South Texas. You represent the future, a future that grows brighter with each graduating class from The University of Texas-Pan American at Edinburg," he said.
Hinojosa said besides their superb academic credentials, as graduates they had the advantage of earning a degree from what he called one of the great community universities in the nation.
"I call UTPA a community university because it reaches for excellence in academics and research while fostering a deep connection to our children, our parents, our schools, and the community at large. UTPA is the place we come together to learn, to solve problems, and to celebrate our unique region and heritage. All are welcome - all ages and all levels of education. UTPA is a special place," he said.
Calling education the key to unlock the full potential of the area, he encouraged the graduates to pursue post-graduate studies, to obtain their certifications and to enter professional schools of their choice. He also asked them to believe in themselves.
"When someone tells me that something can't be done, I work night and day to show them it can be done. Never let others limit your dreams," he said.
Despite their graduation in a time of unprecedented challenges in the United States, Hinojosa also called it a time of unparalleled opportunity.
"When we look at and listen to President Obama, we have living proof that 'si se puede' is no longer a 'dicho' (saying) - it is an 'hecho' (doing)," he said, referring to the President 's and country's rally to tackle what he called the most severe economic crisis since the Great Depression.
"We are rallying to address health care, education, energy, and the environment as building blocks for our national recovery. Most of all, people around our country are answering the president's call to serve. He has tapped into the great American tradition of public and community service. This is a tradition that is at the core of a UTPA education. This is an area of uncharted opportunity for you," Hinojosa said.
During the 5:30 p.m. ceremony, two individuals were recognized as graduating with a perfect 4.0 GPA - Alexandro Sarabia and Cassandra Gonzalez, who served as the top student speaker.
Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts degree and a double major in political science and philosophy, Caleb Garcia, who is planning a career in law, said he was excited to learn that Hinojosa was the commencement speaker at his ceremony.
"This past year he was up for election and we had him on campus. I'm also involved with the Young Democrats on campus and this past semester we also had Obama come speak to us while running and other candidates coming to speak. It was so amazing to meet with them and to talk to them," he said.
Originally from Greeley, Colo., Garcia said his parents came to McAllen when he was a child because of the opportunities this area offers for education and advancement.
"I got a full scholarship here as a University Scholar. It was a very good decision to come here," he said.
Garcia said only more recently did he take advantage of and participate in all the organizations and clubs available at the University. Last year he not only served as president of the Pre-Law Society but was also a senator in the Student Government Association representing his college - the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences. Through the Pre-Law Society he was able to participate in an internship with Judge Bobby Flores of the 139th District Court. He said his campus involvement allowed him to meet many University and community leaders and to gain important life skills.
"Being involved in organizations really does prepare you - they do a lot of community service and you also have an opportunity to be leaders in the clubs and are able to gain leadership, organization and people skills - all skills important in life," he said.
This fall Garcia will be entering the University of Arkansas at Little Rock William H. Bowen School of Law, where he once participated in a summer program sponsored by the National Law School Admissions Council. While he is interested in pursuing courtroom litigation, Garcia said he had a strong calling to work with children as a juvenile advocate in the courtroom or as a judge in a juvenile court.
"Working with children and serving the community in that area is something I find closest to my heart," he said.
Garcia said the many networking opportunities for students with deans of law schools for example and other leaders have established a strong foundation for him and other graduates putting them ahead of other people in other areas of the state and country.
"I think UTPA has prepared us well to go on in life and be successful," he said.