It all started with $100.
When Valente Rodriguez graduated from high school, one of his teachers encouraged him to start college right away. But Rodriguez gave his teacher many excuses, including that he did not have the money to enroll in classes. That's when his teacher helped find him a $100 scholarship from a community organization from Rodriguez's hometown of Edcouch.
"That $100 scholarship introduced me to this whole other world and was the opening of the door that led me to where I am now," said Rodriguez, an alumnus of The University of Texas-Pan American and a Hollywood actor best known for his role as Ernie in the "George Lopez Show." He also has appeared in many films including "Erin Brokovich" and "It's Complicated."
He credits UTPA and its faculty with his success and several years ago decided to pay it forward to help University students just like him.
Rodriguez, who is back in the Rio Grande Valley this summer working on his master's degree in theatre and film at UTPA as well as some film projects, has recently contributed $10,000 to the University's Theatre Special Account to help its theatre/TV/film program.
"To think that $100 can change the whole life of a student, and not just change, but provide an opportunity that they would not have had otherwise been able to do so, (and) for me to think I could provide something that's going to change one young person's life ... really excites me, and it's the least that I can do to pay back those people who changed my life and who helped me move forward with what I wanted to do," Rodriguez said.
The contribution will help the University's Department of Communication on many levels, said Dr. Timothy Mottet, the department's chair.
"One thing I like about Valente is his generosity, his kindness," said Mottet. "He's genuine and I think he also helps our students look at Hollywood differently. I think sometimes we look at Hollywood as being very selfish and he's very selfless. I think he's a very good role model for successful actors. I think it is important for our students to be able to visualize their own success through him."
Dr. Dahlia Guerra, dean of the College of Arts and Humanities, said Rodriguez is a role model for UTPA students.
"It is extremely exciting just to see Valente and his success and to know that we had something to do with his training," she said. "The fact that he's back home with us is incredible. He's a role model for our students and it's exciting to be able to show our students this is the potential. Valente is a dream come true." The contribution will help students and the University greatly, she said.
"But it's not just the money it's his spirit, it's his enthusiasm and his love for the region. At the same time he's giving the Valley life. In so many ways he's giving back to us," Guerra said.