Two summer commencement ceremonies of The University of Texas-Pan American held Aug. 21 at the McAllen Convention Center not only celebrated the success of 827 graduates but those of the faculty and the institution.
In his welcome to students and their guests, UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen said it was his chance to brag about UT Pan American and pointed to its recent ranking by Forbes Magazine for the second year in a row on America's Top Colleges list, this year ranking fifth among public universities in the state. He also named the six UTPA professors who were recently awarded The University of Texas System's Regents' Award for Excellence in Teaching and highlighted Dr. Jerry Polinard who was only one of 15 professors in the state this year to be named the Minnie Stevens Piper Professor.
"The world is beginning to recognize Pan Am and what we do for students at this university," he said.
He also recognized the students graduating in the rigorous Rafael A. "Felo" & Carmen Guerra Honors Program as well as the nine veterans graduating in the Aug. 21 ceremonies. Since the Iraqi and Afghanistan conflicts began, 1,600 veterans have graduated from UTPA, he said.
During the two ceremonies, Nelsen awarded 197 degrees to students in the College of Arts and Humanities, 69 in the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, 130 in the College of Science and Engineering, 168 in the College of Business Administration, 113 in the College of Education and 150 in the College of Social and Behavioral Sciences.
Serving as commencement speaker at the 9 a.m. ceremony was Kelli Rod, vice president of Community Relations at TXU Energy, a retail energy company with more than 2 million residential, commercial and industrial customers. A corporate supporter of the university, TXU last year donated 30 trees for planting on the campus through its Committed to Community Growth program and more recently provided solar panels to UTPA to promote the university's sustainability efforts.
She said she hoped the students would take from her commencement advice an appreciation of four things: breathing, dreaming, community and coffee.
Rod asked them to not forgo their dreams as reality and the responsibilities of life make them harder to achieve.
"The greatest contributors in history were dreamers. But don't forget the more seemingly mundane but possibly more important dreams of seeing your children succeed, your community flourish or your family happy," she said.
She also asked that they not forget who they are and where they came from and to think about their impact on the world.
"We are but brief stewards of this planet holding it in trust for the generations that follow. That is what I believe and that is what the company I work for, TXU Energy, believes," she said.
While Rod didn't encourage non-drinkers of coffee to start the habit, she said the social experience of drinking coffee and the relationships that activity generates is what she wanted the graduates to think about.
"True relationships can only be created in person, face to face, when you can look into another person's eyes and know their hopes, joys and sorrows ... and sustain those relationships that matter because there will be times when you need those relationships, built over a cup of coffee, to sustain you," she said.
Julio Rodriguez, a UTPA alumnus and exploration controller for ExxonMobil, spoke to graduates at UTPA's 12:30 p.m. ceremony, telling them that a successful professional and personal life includes a good education, hard work and good character.
Rodriguez, who was raised in Harlingen with his nine siblings, said he became one of the best shoe shiners in town at the age of 10, traveled with his family to Michigan for migrant work and took on many different jobs to help support his family.
"All along I heard my father just tell me one thing over and over; he'd say, 'Son, you have to go, you must go to college and get a good education. The work you're doing is an honest living, but you can do so much better for yourself,'" Rodriguez said. "So parents, you obviously have given the same advice to your sons and daughters, and for that you should be proud because the key to achieving professional success starts with a good education."
Rodriguez earned his bachelor's degree from UTPA in 1978 and began working for ExxonMobil Corp. Through his career he has been able to travel to 25 countries on five continents.
"That's a lot for a small town boy from Harlingen," he said.
But more importantly, Rodriguez said, it is important for graduates to remember and keep their values and never lose sight of what is important to them.
Presiding the last time over the awarding of degrees to students in the College of Science and Engineering was Dean Edwin LeMaster, who is retiring Aug. 31 after 40 years at UTPA. It was also the last commencement ceremony for that college which has been split into two colleges -- Engineering and Computer Science and Science and Mathematics -- starting this fall.
It was a bittersweet experience to be in the last class to graduate out of the College of Science and Engineering, said Raghuveer Puttagunta, who earned his bachelor of science. As last year's Student Government Association president, Puttagunta led the student support for the split of the college into two.
"We've seen it grow and it's kind of sad but at the same time I know in the future of both colleges, that they are going to be more prepared and more homologous in what they do," said Puttagunta, a cum laude graduate who will be attending medical school at Baylor College of Medicine.
He recalled the amount of progress the College of Science and Engineering made in programs and facilities under LeMaster's tenure.
"He brings to the table so much knowledge, so I hope he continues to be a part of the University," Puttagunta said.
A UTPA graduate in the College of Education, Geneva Scott said she returned to earn her master's degree in educational leadership to help teachers.
Scott, who is a special projects coordinator for the College of Education's Office of Field Experience and taught at schools in the McAllen and La Joya independent school districts, said she wanted to help college students because she believes many times they are overlooked in needing help in their preparation for entering the workforce.
Scott credits the support from her family for being able to return to school while balancing work and family -- she even gave birth to her second child, a son, a week before commencement.
"Without their support none of this would be possible," she said.
Marci Caltabiano-Ponce was among the graduates in the College of Arts and Humanities. She said when she returned to graduate school at UTPA to earn her master's degree in Spanish with a specialty in literature, it was the first time she had taken a college class since 1980.
"That's a heck of a break from academics, but I wanted to concentrate on my journalism career and just never got around to going back to grad school," said Caltabiano-Ponce, who is editor of the Brownsville Herald newspaper. "I went back for my master's ... because I needed the mental gymnastics. I needed the challenge. It was time, and Spanish language and literature has been a passion of mine since high school."
Originally from Maryland, Caltabiano-Ponce had earned her BA in Spanish, with a concentration in Latin American literature, from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County.
She said it was difficult working full-time at a job that is "24-7" and "stressful" while trying to manage time for coursework, academic papers and exams, and class and study time.
"For me, it was the time management equivalent of scaling Everest," said Caltabiano-Ponce, who added she couldn't have done it without her supportive husband, Manuel, and her father, Marco.
"I've waited 82 years to see this moment," Marco said. "She worked hard, it was not an easy job."
Caltabiano-Ponce said she was impressed by the growth of the Spanish curriculum at UTPA and felt blessed to have Dr. Monica Diaz as her professor in her first graduate school class.
"She heaped on the work, pushed me to the wall and challenged my mind beyond anything I had anticipated," she said.
Proud that she maintained a 4.0 GPA and was selected as a member of Phi Kappa Phi honor society, Caltabiano-Ponce said she plans, after taking a semester off, to start on her Ph.D. at UTPA, through a cooperative agreement with the University of Houston.
"I'll probably always be a newswoman, that's just in the blood. But lifelong learning seems like a great plan," she said.
Another advocate of lifelong learning is Mela Mendoza Trimm, who earned her bachelor of social work at age 70.
A one-time high school dropout, she earned a GED in 1969 with her sister, who is now 77. She retired in 1996 from her last job doing word processing in a chemical plant. Since then she has worked in security and continued what she called her professional volunteerism in a variety of organizations over her lifetime including the United Way and Red Cross, among others.
"As a volunteer, you can show your empathy but I wanted to do more with the people I came into contact with," she said.
"I was scared. I didn't know anything about entrance exams. I decided to show up at the college and ask," said Trimm, who was on the dean's list when she graduated from the University of Texas at Brownsville/Texas Southmost College with an associate's degree in social work in 2008.
"I'm so proud of these young folks who are going into social work. This work is all about giving of yourself. You are not going to get rich," said Trimm, who has already applied for positions at social service agencies locally and in Houston.
Trimm said her six children - two daughters and four sons - were very supportive and some of her fellow students told her how inspiring she was to them to go and encourage their parents and other older relatives to pursue going to college.
"I like to tell people it is never too late. Don't feel like I used to feel that people will laugh at you. You are never too old to learn. I still want to learn to read music and play the piano. There are a lot of things I haven't done that I want to still learn how to do," she said.