Thousands of family members and friends joined the 1,297 graduates of The University of Texas-Pan American to celebrate their accomplishments and hear some expert advice for the future at one of three fall graduation ceremonies held throughout the day Dec. 19 at the McAllen Convention Center.
Presiding over only his third but last graduation ceremony as interim president, Dr. Charles A. Sorber, who joined UTPA in February 2009, said he was honored to have led the university over the last year. He proudly cited a list of successes that occurred just this year - the awarding of its 50,000 degree this summer, the listing as 32nd of the top public colleges and universities in the country by Forbes Magazine, a record fall enrollment of more than 18,300 students and the culmination of the selection process to choose a new UTPA president - Dr. Robert S. Nelsen - who will start his tenure Jan. 1, 2010.
"I can't lay personal claim to these successes. These noted accomplishments come because of a community of faculty, students, staff, regents and university supporters who were here long before my arrival," he said.
Although higher education in Texas faces considerable economic challenges in the next year, Sorber said he is hopeful for the university's future.
"Just as many of you graduates have overcome hardships to be in this hall today, so too has this university prevailed in the past, often against great odds, to realize success and accomplishment," he said.
During the ceremonies, degrees were conferred on 1,087 undergraduates, 208 master's degree candidates and two doctoral candidates. Thirty-four of the graduates, who stood to applause at the ceremonies, were veterans, many of whom were called away from their studies to serve in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Armando "Mando" Martinez, Texas State Representative-District 39, addressed the 219 prospective candidates from the College of Education and the 194 candidates from the College of Science and Engineering at the 9 a.m. ceremony.
A 1998 alumnus of UTPA and native of Weslaco, Martinez graduated with a Bachelor of Science from UTPA and also serves as a firefighter, licensed paramedic, critical care flight paramedic and Texas Department of Health instructor and coordinator.
Martinez encouraged the prospective graduates to dream and listen to their hearts when deciding which path to take in life.
"Steal the opportunity to find what captures your heart and continue to follow that," he said. "Risking, caring and dreaming more than what most seem possible creates excellence. Your goals can become a reality by believing it can be done."
Martinez told graduates nothing is impossible and they can fulfill any dream they may have with a right support system of family and friends in place.
"Life is what you make it," Martinez said. "Listen to your heart and follow that. Inspire those in need to succeed. Fulfill your dreams and enjoy life; this is the only one we have."
He said the education they received at UTPA was an equalizer, putting everyone on a level playing field, regardless of who they were or where they came from.
"With an education you can achieve anything," Martinez said. "UTPA made a difference in my life. It can make a difference in yours."
Rosannah Velasquez, who graduated with a bachelor's in biology with a minor in chemistry, will be taking the next step to fulfill her dream of becoming a doctor when she starts Baylor College of Medicine in the fall.
"I'm really excited to get to share this special moment (graduation) with my friends and family," Velasquez said.
The McAllen native said she is most grateful for the faculty and for the opportunities she gained while pursuing her education at UTPA.
"I've had many great experiences here at UTPA, but I think one of the most beneficial was being a genetics lab teaching assistant," Velasquez said. "It was a new experience that allowed me to learn a lot about myself and other students."
One of five siblings who was the first in his family to graduate from college - all from UTPA - Mike Perez, McAllen's city manager, spoke at the second ceremony telling the 241 graduates in the College of Arts and Humanities and the 194 graduates in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences that, like many of them, he's not sure he would have graduated from college if it hadn't been for the university.
"I graduated in 1975 and I owe my success to this university," he said.
Perez spoke to the graduates about some of the principles and philosophy he has followed in his private and professional life that he hoped would help them to succeed as they head to their future careers.
"The first one I call the three 'I's.' I always ask myself in every decision I make - is it illegal, is it immoral or is it improper," said Perez, who has passed his principles on to the 34 department heads he oversees.
Some of his lengthy list of sound advice to the graduates included giving their best every day, showing up and "on time" with a smile, learning not only from their mistakes but from the mistakes of others, and keeping their pride in-check. He also asked them to be good listeners and not quit reading and learning.
"To be successful you've got to be a lifelong learner," he said.
Pointing out that government cannot solve all problems, Perez concluded by encouraging them to give back to their community by becoming involved in their neighborhoods, schools, churches and cities with a goal of making a difference in peoples' lives.
"Remember that success is measured at the end of one's life. It is not measured by the wealth we accumulate or the awards we receive. It is measured by the good deeds we do and the people we touch," he said.
Graduating with a Master of Public Administration during the ceremony was Hidalgo County Clerk Arturo Guajardo Jr., who returned to UTPA after graduating in 1992 with a Bachelor of Arts in political science.
Guajardo, who served as chief deputy in his office for eight years before being elected as County Clerk in 2006, said he was asked frequently if it was required for him to earn an MPA and if not, why did he return to school.
"It was not required. I told them it's about me. It's about continuing to learn and I feel it is important especially when the people have placed their trust in me to do this for them as well. It gives me credentials and it shows I prepared myself the best I can to do the job," he said. "Also, I've always been a strong advocate for education, what better way to show our staff here than through example."
He said when he started in his office there were few staff members with degrees and now there is probably close to 30 with college degrees.
"I'm very proud of that. It is difficult to work and go to school at the same time. I continue to try to work with them ... to work around their schedules to try and make it as convenient as possible for them to go to school," he said.
Guajardo said he found completing the program quite rewarding, even at this point well in his career.
"What I was studying there at school is really what I was living here at work," he said. "It really helps to fine tune your administrative skills. I've been promoting the program since I entered it. And I've had a couple of students come and do internships here."
During the last ceremony of the day, the 231 graduates in the College of Business Administration and the 194 graduates in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services heard from Edinburg Mayor Richard H. Garcia, an attorney and UTPA alumnus, who is in a second term as leader of the city that is home to the university.
He compared the students to Adam and Eve and the university to Eden, where he said they too will soon be "kicked out."
"Why ... because you ate the knowledge apple. It's in your tummy now. You can't put it back and, more importantly, no one can take it from you," he said.
He described his extensive service to community in his roles as a city and county judge, a member of community boards and as a federal legal practitioner, exposing him to national and international leaders.
"You should know that the caliber of the educational base provided me by this institution enabled me to go head to head with pride and success nationwide with jurists whose educational background included Harvard, Yale, Loyola, USC, Old Miss and Tulane, to name a few," Garcia said. "Today as an alumnus of this institution you are equipped with the same educational base and credentials that were afforded to me in my formative years."
While he encouraged them to make a successful living for themselves and their families and to share that success with the community, Garcia called the relationships with family and friends the most important investment the graduates would ever make.
"Our success as a society depends not only what happens at City Hall, the Courthouse or the White House, but on what happens inside your house," he said.
Drawing from the humor and wisdom of journalist/satirist Russell Baker, Garcia gave them 10 tips to "not make the world any worse than it is." They included the simple, such as "bending down once in a while to smell a flower," to the importance of listening and turning off the TV occasionally to read a book. The list also included the satisfaction obtained from getting married and having children.
Garcia asked the graduates to take the time to notice when they are happy and to learn when they "had enough" monetary wealth.
"The best thing that can happen to all of us is that we all someday become interested in something other than money. Then we can be truly successful, and valuable and capable of making a difference," he said.
One of the record-breaking 92 graduates earning a bachelor's degree in nursing at the fall ceremony, Houston Noel Gomez from Pharr, said he always wanted a career where he could help people. Gomez, who said he was inspired by his aunt, an LVN, and an uncle who is an RN, has already landed a position locally.
"I've been hired by Doctor's Hospital at Renaissance and will work on the medical floor. I eventually want to get my master's at UTPA in two years and travel around the world to developing countries to practice my skills as a nurse practitioner," he said.
A top-ranked high school graduate, No. 13 in his class, Gomez was recruited by other universities in the state but said he has never regretted making UTPA his choice.
"This is an excellent program. They prepared us very well in all our skills and to pass the NCLEX, which is our final exam we have to take in February," said Gomez, noting the supportive faculty who were with him "every step of the way."
Gomez said he was able to get involved in many campus activities and organizations at UTPA, including being a Student Ambassador, which increased his confidence, knowledge and the ability to interact with people from a higher level.
"I think that involvement also helped me get the job at Doctor's Hospital," he said. "I'm glad I came to UTPA, I had an excellent time."