The University of Texas-Pan American at Starr County has a permanent building to call its own.
On Wednesday, Sept. 8, UTPA was joined by local and state dignitaries, as well as representatives from its new neighbor, South Texas College (STC), in dedicating the 17,391-square-foot facility located on Farm-to-Market Road 3167 in Rio Grande City.
"We're here for a great and a marvelous day, a day the people in this area have been waiting for, for a long time," said Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, president of UTPA. "On behalf of UT Pan Am we are proud to be here. ... I have said that if we don't get it right in the Rio Grande Valley we won't get it right in the nation. Today is proof that we are getting it right in the Valley, we are getting it right in the nation."
UTPA has been offering undergraduate courses in Starr County for more than 10 years, starting with education classes. Courses were first offered in classrooms borrowed from local school districts, then they were moved to portable buildings.
The University expanded its course selections to include early childhood bilingual and generalist classes for education majors, criminal justice and master's-level courses in education leadership and reading. Interdisciplinary courses in history, English and anthropology are also offered.
At the ceremony, local and state officials, as well as representatives from the University and STC, said they were glad UTPA had a permanent home in Starr County, but it couldn't have been done without their teamwork and the help of the Texas Legislature and city and county officials and residents.
Nelsen was joined by State Sen. Judith Zaffirini, TX-21st District, State Rep. Ryan Guillen, TX-31st District, Starr County Judge Eloy Vera, STC Starr County Campus Administrator Ruben Saenz and UTPA Interim Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Ana Maria Rodriguez in dedicating the new facility.
They also thanked former UTPA Presidents Blandina Cárdenas and Miguel Nevárez, as well as State Sens. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, TX-20, Eddie Lucio Jr.,TX-27, and former State Rep. Roberto Gutierrez for their roles in moving the project forward.
"Having a local university is sometimes taken for granted in communities because they've been there for generations, but they bring opportunities, they bring growth and they bring prosperity to the local communities," Guillen said. "This facility, working closely with STC, will do the same for our area. This facility will enhance the ability of UTPA to touch the lives for more students right here in the Valley."
There are currently 164 students taking a full course load at the Rio Grande City facility and 344 students who completed their undergraduate studies at the center have graduated, Guillen said.
"Each of their lives has been enriched and changed by the opportunity to receive their education here," he said.
Rodriguez put into perspective the success of the Starr County center, saying there have been 347 students enrolled, and the 344 who graduated represent a 99 percent graduation rate from that facility, something that is unlike anything anyone else has seen in the country.
"That tells us the students in Starr County are deeply committed," Rodriguez said.
The facility is the first the University has built following Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) guidelines to promote the University's sustainability initiative. It includes a distance learning classroom, learning center, computer lab, laboratory and a multi-purpose room, an administration wing that includes a student lounge and multi-purpose area, a library, teaching lab, two general classrooms and faculty offices.
"It is all about the students and what we're trying to do for the students," Nelsen said.
Native flora was used for the landscaping and the facility - composed of three buildings connected by a courtyard in the center - was designed honoring the traditional architecture of the area.
"The building and the way we built this building shows our commitment to being here forever," Nelsen said. "We're not here just for awhile, we're here to grow and we're here to serve Starr County."
The total project cost $7,872,909, which was funded by $6 million in tuition revenue bond proceeds and $1,872,909 in higher education assistance funds.
Several students currently enrolled in classes at The University of Texas-Pan American at Starr County said they appreciate having a university close to home. Many live and work in Starr County and the commute to Edinburg can take up to an hour and a half for some of them.
Having a new state-of-the-art facility also is a great improvement from the portables where they've been attending classes.
"It has been 10 years that we have been waiting for this building," said Andres Tello, a junior majoring in bilingual elementary education who lives in Roma. "The old building, which were portables, is nothing compared to this building."