The University of Texas-Pan American has entered into a partnership with the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) to house one of three new USDA regional directors for Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSIs) nationwide on the UTPA campus.
The announcement came from USDA Deputy Under Secretary for Rural Development, Victor Vasquez, who travelled from Washington, D.C., and met with university officials and academic departments Friday, April 10.
"We (USDA) are very interested in increasing our opportunities in attracting and recruiting Latino students. This particular university and this region is a very good strategic choice for us, because of the number of students and the quality of your engineering and business programs and the caliber of students graduating from them. Historically, the USDA has had a relationship with the university and that adds more value to it as well," Vasquez said.
The new USDA HSI regional director for Texas will be Ruby De La Garza, a Rio Grande Valley native from Alamo who earned her bachelor's degree in health from Texas A&M University-College Station and her MBA from UTPA in 2007. She previously worked in UTPA's Border Health Office and later oversaw the Healthy Start program while employed with the Valley Primary Care Network. De La Garza will have an office in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences Research Center located on the second floor of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Building.
"I am very excited. I have worked in the community and done a lot of nonprofit work with community-based programs so I know the area well and I'm very familiar with the needs of the community," De La Garza said.
De La Garza will serve as a liaison between the USDA and the nearly 40 HSIs in the state of Texas. USDA's HSI National Program was expanded in the past year from three to now six university sites.
The existing sites are in Florida, California and Texas. The Texas site moved from San Antonio to Edinburg. The newest site is in Illinois and a sixth one will be opened in California.
"We choose institutions based on good leadership and their commitment to create partnerships to serve the community and the surrounding Hispanic Serving Institutions," said Maria Goldberg, executive director of USDA's HSI National Program. "We are very excited; there is great potential here and we see it as a great partnership for both of us."
An HSI is generally defined as an accredited nonprofit university or college that offers at least two-year academic programs that lead to a degree and have at least a 25 percent Hispanic undergraduate full-time-equivalent student enrollment.
The USDA's HSI National Program promotes the continued growth of Hispanic enrollment in higher education and the development of future leaders through the establishment of strategic partnership with colleges and universities across the country. The program offers fellowship, scholarship and internship opportunities to students and promotes available grant, funding and collaborative opportunities available from the USDA and other federal agencies. Vasquez, who described the 19 agencies under USDA ranging from the Food Nutrition Service to the Forest Service to his area of Rural Development, said the need to attract talented employees is critical in light of the number of employees at USDA who are close to retirement age.
"The whole portfolio of what we do requires engineers, graduates with financial backgrounds, CPAs, analysts, IT specialists. Anything you would find in the private sector, we have a need for," he said.
Dr. Van Reidhead, dean of the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences, who helped facilitate the university's partnership with the USDA, said having the regional director housed on the UTPA campus provides a great opportunity for not only students but the university and the region.
"Housed on the campus of UTPA, this person will be readily available to the community and the faculty and staff at UTPA and the other colleges and universities in the region to scope out problems, plan solutions and to devise ways to seek funding for our region," Reidhead said.
Reidhead said De La Garza, who will be in formal training for approximately four months prior to being permanently based on campus, will work heavily on student career development and internship and career opportunities for students, outreach into the public schools, particularly in the STEM fields, and working with UTPA and other HSIs on access to grant opportunities with the federal government.
De La Garza said she already collected four résumés during a conference regarding federal job opportunities she attended while on the UTPA campus.
"The opportunities are there for them. I want to encourage them to apply for the internships and programs we have. I can't wait to get on all the campuses and to work with the students as well as the faculty and staffs," she said.