For benefactors Hermelinda and Baldemar Zuniga, the March 11 Donor Scholarship Luncheon at The University of Texas-Pan American gave them an opportunity to see how the scholarship they established in memory of a daughter who died too young is benefitting Rio Grande Valley students seeking higher education like their own daughter once did.
The Zunigas established the Marta Zuniga-Harding Endowed Scholarship to honor their daughter, who after earning her master's degree in nutrition from the University of Alabama, returned to the Valley to graduate from UTPA's Physician Assistant Program. A victim of breast cancer at age 30, Marta never got to practice her profession but her legacy lives on in others who have benefitted from the scholarship established for deserving PA students.
Besides seeing the scholarship as a wonderful way to remember their child, Baldemar said he hoped it would encourage other young people to pursue the PA program.
"We're hoping people will like that program, participate and we'll see more PAs for this region," he said.
The luncheon, held in the UTPA Ballroom, brought together the donors, tagged "Guiding Stars," with UTPA's "Rising Stars" - the student scholars who received an endowed scholarship for the 2009-2010 academic school year.
Yvette Padilla, director of stewardship and annual giving, said while students share through correspondence their appreciation of their scholarships, the luncheon is designed to give endowed scholarship donors the opportunity to give words of encouragement to the scholars and the students the chance to say "thank you" to the UTPA donors personally.
"The Development Office is working hard to create a stewardship environment at our university," she said. "Our donors continue their loyalty to The University of Texas-Pan American, and we are most grateful to each of them for their exceedingly generous support, which is essential to the University's future."
Erik Martinez from Mission is a junior majoring in computer engineering and a recipient of the Lloyd Bentsen Engineering Scholarship. Martinez, who hopes to put his degree to work to help improve the environment, said there was no way financially his parents could have paid for his education and that grants and scholarships are what have enabled him to get a college degree.
"I'd like to tell donors that they really are changing people's lives. Without people like them, many students who really want to learn would be unable to go to school. People really appreciate what they do," he said.
The Jesse H. Jones and Mary Gibbs Jones Endowed Scholarships for honors students, made possible through the Houston Endowment, has helped senior Katherine Mendiola, political science major, get through college and be able to graduate in four years she said.
"Although we may not know the donors personally and they may not know me personally, they are impacting our lives," said Mendiola, who will graduate in May. "Once I become a successful lawyer, I hopefully will be a donor too. I want to do the same, to touch the lives of the generations after me."
An endowed scholarship provides the University the ability to sustain its position in awarding student scholarships now and in the future said Lydia Aleman, associate vice president for university advancement.
"Having this ability to provide scholarships helps us recruit and retain students at UTPA. Recruiting and retaining students is mission critical because it allows UTPA the ability to ensure our students earn their degrees - a mutual goal of the university and the students it serves," Aleman said.
While on campus, the donors were also able to visit the H-E-B Planetarium and the Visitor's Center, where a new exhibit "Masters of the Night: The True Story of Bats," is on display. They were also able to hear from and meet new UTPA president Robert S. Nelsen, who talked about his background and the vision he wants the community to share in for the university.
"I was the first one in my family to go to college, much like so many of you in here today. No one had gone to college before in my family. That was not even thought as what we needed to do," said Nelsen, who described working as a janitor and selling "fish hooks" to help finance his college education.
Nelsen said encouragement and mentorship by teachers and faculty helped him toward finally finding the career - a professor of creative writing - that would best allow him to achieve his goal of "changing the world."
"They (teachers) are the true life changers - being in the classroom, being able to work with young minds, being able to share with young minds. It is a wonderful opportunity," he said.
Nelsen said he was drawn to the potential he sees of the University and the region and said his initial priorities were to work with legislators and state government leaders to allocate funding for at least two new buildings at UTPA, one of the most crowded universities in the state - one for business and one for science and engineering. He'd also like to see a simulation lab for health-related students and additional funding for supplemental education.
In addition, Nelsen said he wants to address the problem of sophomore retention, since currently more than 40 percent of sophomores are dropping out to support their families financially. He also offered several areas of excellence he'd like UTPA to focus on in a multi-disciplinary way that will benefit the Rio Grande Valley - health care, advanced manufacturing and engineering, education, particularly bilingual education and entrepreneurship and international business. However, he warned that the current budget situation in the state for education would not make these goals easy to meet.
"I want to be a collaborator. I want people to know that I reached out my hand to them and we worked together. That's with the legislature, the community, the faculty, that's with the students. Here in the Valley there is a very important phrase - mano a mano - linking hands to hands. This university will continue to grow and be great because we are going to work mano a mano with the community and with each other," he said.
Donors Angel Noe and Diola Gonzalez, who have established the Leonides and Genoveva Guerra Gonzalez Endowment Fund for premedical or education students and The Diola Cantu Gonzalez Endowment Scholarship at the College of Education for education students, came from Dallas to meet with students and hear from UTPA's new president.
Both graduates of UTPA when it was Edinburg Junior College, Angel and Diola said they doubted they would have gone on to higher education without the presence of the university in the Valley. All eight children in Angel's family attended Edinburg Junior College and went on to careers that include five teachers, two doctors and a nurse. Diola became a teacher and retired following 53 years as an educator.
"This place (UTPA) is a national treasure and the legislature would be wrong to not help the university out," said Angel, who was visibly moved by Nelsen and the needs of the university and its students. "There are a lot of people who need the help and you can't take it (your money) with you. I've never seen a hearse with a U-haul behind it. So you should give when you can."
For more information on how you can support UTPA, call the Development Office at 956/318-5301.