As The University of Texas-Pan American paid tribute to one of its graduates, President Robert S. Nelsen urged graduates to go forth and make an impact on people's lives.
On Saturday, Dec. 18, the University bestowed a posthumous degree upon Victor Alvarez, who died in August of spinal muscular atrophy at the age of 23. Alvarez would have graduated with honors with a bachelor's degree in history and general studies.
Along with Alvarez, 1,413 graduates from the University's seven colleges received diplomas, including 29 veterans. Since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began, UTPA has awarded 1,600 diplomas to veterans of those conflicts.
Saturday also marked in inaugural commencement ceremonies for the newly formed College of Engineering and Computer Science and College of Science and Mathematics. Those colleges had 83 and 116 graduates, respectively.
During three commencement ceremonies at the McAllen Convention Center, Nelsen told the graduates and their loved ones about how Alvarez, who was an artist, writer and Bill Gates Millennium Scholar, never let his illness stop him from pursuing his dream of becoming a professor at UTPA.
"What he learned was that his mind could take him where his body could not go," Nelsen said. "He changed literally thousands of lives. You are his legacy; you must change lives just as he changed lives, you must reach out and you must touch others ... be that agent of change."
Alvarez's mother, Yolanda Morado, received the diploma in her son's honor and said Alvarez never saw his illness as a limitation toward achieving his goals.
When asked what he would have told fellow graduates, Morado said, "I think the main thing he would say is, 'Don't look at your handicaps, look at your abilities, don't ever sell yourself short because everything is possible.'"
Likewise, the ceremonies' two commencement speakers, Dr. Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, director of the School of Transborder Studies at Arizona State University (ASU), and William C. Hamer, CEO of Hamer Enterprises, praised graduates for their hard work and sacrifice and encouraged them to use their skills to contribute to society.
The speaker for the first two ceremonies of the day - Vélez-Ibáñez - shared some perspectives to help the students appreciate how far they had come to get to this moment of college graduation.
(Vélez-Ibáñez is also the Motorola Presidential Professor of Neighborhood revitalization at ASU, as well as professor Emeritus of anthropology at the University of California, Riverside.)
"There have been many of us here and from the past who have come from places and spaces where things were hard, difficult, and as you say around here - dang near impossible," he said.
He traced the circumstances the students' ancestors faced from the 18th century fighting warrior commaches as Españoles Mexicanos to making a living as small ranchers and farmers who overcame depressions, famines and wars. He touched upon their military service in wars from and Battles from Appomattox to Vietnam and the challenges they faced as farm workers.
"Some of us worked in the fields bent over with short hoes, and prickled fingers from the dreaded celery but you stood up anyway and said, 'basta' (I'm done)," he said.
Vélez-Ibáñez said the students of today have also faced obstacles that have frightened them, such as great financial need or fear of failure and that they have also had to overcome.
"Many of you attended classes and learned greatly while all the time you had to hide your so-called status as an 'undocumented person' even though you had lived an American civil life and you achieved, succeeded and excelled," he said.
Students today, he said, also face the challenges of peer pressure and changing emotional relationships with girlfriends or boyfriends. Despite all these challenges, he told the students, you all achieved in extraordinary ways.
"So here you are now after overcoming all these obstacles, overturning many negative expectations and succeeding and becoming, simply excellent. Like your forbearers before you, you are made of special stuff, you are made of the right stuff, and importantly and crucially, you are graduates of The University of Texas-Pan American. Now, go out and show them what you are made of," he said.
In his speech, Hamer, a 1974 graduate of UTPA, said his education from the University gave him the skills to start his own business, Hamer Enterprises, a software development company that specializes in helping the public sector. He encouraged students to develop their own motto to live by and to cherish life moments.
"A person who does not know themselves will have a hard time plotting their course through life. They could end up letting others and circumstances set their direction," said Hamer, who spoke at the 5 p.m. ceremony.
Hamer said his personal motto, "If you never take a chance you never win a prize," helped him step out in faith, gave him confidence to use his gifts and talents to achieve his goals.
"You cannot sit around waiting and wishing good things into your life; you must reach out and grab them," he said.
Hamer also urged them to remember "life moments" that help define them. He told the group about how his company developed a product that helped blind and visually impaired people conduct transactions on the Internet and how he met the president of a school for the blind, who was blind herself, and how she told him how the product his company made allowed her to register to vote with ease.
"For just like the trials in life that build your character, embracing the details of these special times in your life create the joy that allows you to keep the attitude it takes to survive, to thrive and to really understand the answer to that age old question, 'why am I here,'" he said.
Gerald Williamson, 29, and a career firefighter with the City of McAllen who also serves as a volunteer with the Edinburg Fire Department, was among 205 students receiving degrees from the College of Business Administration. He walked in the morning ceremony that also conferred degrees on 241 graduates in the College of Education.
Williamson, who earned his bachelor's degree in business from UTPA in 2006, said he thinks the master's degree in business administration he earned will help him in his chosen career.
"It can help me as far as management functions, budgeting, human resources, managing your assets and resources. On the administrative side, the fire department is a not for profit but it is still run like a business," said Williamson, who hopes one day to transition from the operations side to the administrative side of fire services.
Williamson's wife Heather is also a UTPA alumnus, graduating with a degree in business and now working as a human resources manager with Lowe's.
"She was one of my mentors who pointed me to what I needed to do," he said.
Williamson and his wife are also first time parents of a 7-week-old little girl. He said he plans to tell his daughter how important an education is.
"Typical teenager, I thought I knew a lot coming out of high school. Ten years later I realized that I didn't know as much as I thought I did," he said. "Your years with education are extremely important - studying that discipline to be able to learn and have that learning mind for life. To have that personality where you are constantly thirsting for more knowledge is important so that you don't ever stagnate and can continue to grow as a person."
Graduate Xochitl Lara's son clearly knows how she stands on education and exactly where she was seated on graduation day. Her mortarboard was decorated brightly with "Hi Alex," so he'd know where she was in the rows of graduates at the ceremony.
Xochitl, 34, from La Feria, earned her degree in interdisciplinary studies and plans to teach, then get her master's and become a reading specialist. She said she was very excited about graduating.
"It has been a long time coming. I am not the typical traditional student. I had to work my whole life and I finally got enough courage to attend college," said Xochitl, who was a 13-year employee with Wal-Mart and worked full time there while going to school.
She was proud that she went straight through in four years and graduated summa cum laude with a 3.95 grade point average.
"I wanted a better life for my son," she said. "Also, as a teacher, I want to help other students who maybe thought they couldn't go to college. I worked for a long time but I was committed to go and I went. I did it and they can too," she said.
Xochitl said she received much support from her mother, especially with watching her son, and from her husband, a truck driver, who helped her by cooking, cleaning and washing clothes.
"He helped me in any way I needed it," she said.
She said she has inspired her husband and her son.
"He (Alex) used to say he wanted to work for Wal-Mart when he grew up. Now he says he wants to go to college at UT Austin and be a lawyer," she said.