Krystal Marroquin, a first-generation student and Texas Grant recipient, will graduate in May 2011 from The University of Texas-Pan American. But because of cuts being proposed to higher education funding in Texas she's afraid that same opportunity to go to college won't be available to her two younger sisters.
"For my parents to support two students in college, it is not going to happen," said the communication studies major who plans to be a teacher. "The light of opportunity seems to be getting dimmer and dimmer."
In a rally held at noon in the Capitol Rotunda, UT Pan American President Robert S. Nelsen said he wanted all 181 Texas legislators to know that the University has 18,744 students, with 89 percent being Hispanic and 69 percent being first-generation students. Graduates from UTPA, he said, go all over the world and change it because of the education they have received there.
"Education in the Valley and the students are the future of Texas," Nelsen said. "If we don't get it right in the Valley, we won't get it right in Texas. We're here to make it right, break poverty and transform the state and the nation."
The current house budget proposal cuts the state's contributions to UTPA's biennial budget by 22.68 percent. It also does not fund Texas Grants for new students. In 2009, UTPA awarded Texas Grants to 2,005 students.
Rio Grande Valley legislative delegation members - State Reps. Veronica Gonzales, Aaron Peña and Ryan Guillen and State Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa - spoke at the rally to the nearly 100-member delegation which, along with the students, included UTPA Foundation Board members, alumni from across the state, local government representatives, faculty and other top University administrators and staff. The legislators assured the crowd that funding for higher education is a top priority and acknowledged the impact of being able to obtain a college education on their own success.
"Education changes lives and families," Gonzales said."We will fight for funding so you and future generations can continue to go to college ... because education is the key to success."
Hinojosa also confirmed the Valley delegation's support for access to higher education opportunities.
"I am what I am today because of UT Pan American and we will make sure that UTPA gets the funding it needs," Hinojosa said.
Following a performance in the rotunda by UTPA Mariachi Atzlan and a Pan American Day group photo on the front steps of the Capitol, the UTPA groups broke into teams and set out to visit the offices of as many legislators as possible and ask for their support, particularly for its 2012-2013 appropriations requests. The requests, which primarily address UTPA's severe space deficit, include funding for a new science building, a remodeling and expansion of the business building, and expansion of UTPA's McAllen Teaching Site, which also accommodates classes being offered by South Texas College. UTPA also wants refunding for its successful Sophomore Academic Mentoring retention program.
In their office visits, team members brought a gift bag that included a few UTPA mementos and a brochure about the University's accomplishments. Team members took turns telling the University's story to legislators or their staff representatives from a number of perspectives.
Jesus Buitron, a senior business computer information systems major, described to State Representative Rodney Anderson (Dist. 106) from Grand Prairie, Texas, how he sometimes had to sit in the aisle or on the floor in some of his business classes. He also told Anderson how important the Texas Grant is to many Valley students. Anderson, Buitron said, was nice, taking time from a meeting he was in to greet the team from UTPA that visited his office.
"He was familiar with Valley needs and knew the kind of people that we are. He is supportive of the Texas Grants and we talked about that," Buitron said.
"You can't shrink your way to success, especially in education," said Faulkes, who proudly described four scientific papers published last year that were co-authored with him by undergraduate students. "That's what it is all about. Our students are producing professional level work."
UTPA alumnus Edgar Morales, who now works at the Capitol in the office of State Rep. Raphael Anchia (Dist. 103) from Dallas, said his education at UTPA opened up several doors of opportunity to him but he couldn't have gone to college without the Texas Grant.
"It was definitely a lifesaver," said Morales, who graduated in 2008 as a political science major and is now a fellow with the Mexican-American Legislative Caucus. He is also enrolled at Texas State University to obtain a master's in public administration.
Morales, a first-generation graduate originally from Reynosa, Mexico and raised in McAllen, said he's talked to his boss, Anchia - also a first-generation college graduate - about the need for financial aid by the majority of Valley students.
"If we cut back funding from education, we are going to hurt Texas in the long run," Buitron said.
UTPA Foundation Board member Alejandro Badia from IBM's Systems and Technology Group said he benefitted from financial aid as a student in New York where the state paid for his first degree he earned, an associate degree.
Badia, who has been with IBM for 32 years, wanted legislators to know that it is important to support students desiring to pursue higher education to ensure a skilled and diverse workforce, vital to not only IBM but other corporations to remain globally competitive.
Nelsen said the Pan Am day alone would not make a difference, but in the long run it would make a tremendous difference.
"These legislators got to meet our kids from the Valley, they got to know their stories. The legislators are no different than anyone else, they don't want to cut the budgets. They are in a bad situation. I think seeing the students, the money for the Texas Grants will come back and they will support them in other ways. We can't solve the budget problems today, but we can help protect higher education," he said.
At the end of the long but exciting day, which included a Capitol tour for students, Marroquin said she thought the rally provided a great opportunity for students to have their voice heard.
"Coming here helped us to realize that the legislators are willing to listen," she said.