Representatives and senators from the Texas Legislature visited The University of Texas-Pan American Friday, Jan. 21. It was one stop of many on a four-day Legislative tour of the Rio Grande Valley organized by the Rio Grande Valley Partnership.
The Rio Grande Valley Partnership, which works as a Chamber of Commerce for the entire Valley region, has organized the tour at the start of every Texas Legislature since 1973. Designed to educate visitors about the Valley's importance as a region and to allow local communities to interact directly with legislators, the tour alternates each biennium between the Lower Valley (Cameron and Willacy counties) and the Upper Valley (Hidalgo and Starr counties). The tour includes stops highlighting education, infrastructure, health facilities, transportation, agriculture, manufacturing, tourism and others aspects of the Valley.
UT Pan Am President Robert S. Nelsen traveled with the 28 legislators and either the legislative director or chief of staff of four other legislators on a bus to first visit Rio Grande City before arriving at the UTPA campus at noon. He welcomed the legislators and other guests, including top University administrators, deans, and community and business leaders. The legislators, which included all of the Rio Grande Valley delegation, heard a presentation from Boeing Corporation on border control technology and also held a roundtable discussion on immigration policy and its impact on border business.
Panel participant Sam Vale, chairman of the board of the Texas Border Alliance, said he shared what his group considers are some better options for security on the Texas-Mexico border.
"We support the concept of the virtual wall," Vale said, offering concerns about the costs of maintaining a physical wall.
Nelsen said he hoped to demonstrate the impact of the University on the community by sharing with the visitors a video highlighting one of many UT Pan Am student success stories.
The video told the story of Annabel Salamanca - a first-generation college student who worked as a migrant farmworker with her family, but with financial aid and the support of faculty and other University programs, was able to attend and graduate from UT Pan Am. Salamanca, who earned a degree in business, is now a graduate student at a California university. The current state budget proposal cutting funds to higher education and financial aid to attend college will prevent higher education opportunities for many students like Salamanca, he said.
"If the first version of the budget presented passed, 2,005 of our students would not receive financial aid next year," Nelsen said.
Nelsen said during the tour he hoped to address any misperceptions the out-of-area legislators might have about the Valley. One, he said he had heard, was that UTPA had thousands and thousands of undocumented students.
"I told them that's not true. We have around 600 students who are undocumented out of 18,744 . And they are some of our best and brightest students," he said.
He also pointed out the intense patriotism he has seen by students and Valley residents.
"I have never said the pledge of allegiance more times than I have since I came to the Valley," he said. "It is a very patriotic place and they need to know that."
Out-of-area legislators on the tour, which included a number of freshmen representatives, came from far away as Abilene, Lubbock, Lufkin, Texarkana and Houston.
During the luncheon, University representatives talked to visitors about the need for state funding, especially since UTPA has kept its prices low to serve economically disadvantaged students and their families (30th lowest of 34 institutions in the state). They also pointed out the University's significant space deficit despite a growing student population. In UTPA's 2012-2013 legislative appropriations request, it is seeking funding for a Science Building and a remodeling and expansion of the 33-year old Business Administration Building.
"It is important for the legislators to learn about our priorities and the president's initiative on Texas Grants," said Martin Baylor, UTPA Vice President for Business Affairs.
"We still have a tremendous amount of need but we have worked hard to progress. We want to continue that progress and go forth but we can't do it with the type of cuts and the budget being proposed," she said.
For State Senator Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa (Dist. 20), the visit to UT Pan Am was significant.
"It is important that legislators from other parts of the state visit The University of Texas-Pan American, so they can understand the important role our University plays in education, not only for South Texas students, but for students from the rest of the state," he said.
As a first-time visitor to the Valley, Rep. Lance Gooden, a newly elected legislator representing District 4 (Kaufman and Henderson counties), said he was most impressed with the people he met.
"It is clear that the students and faculty at UT Pan-American are what make it such an attractive university. I feel very fortunate to have spent a few days with such great people," he said.
Before their arrival at UTPA on Friday, State Rep. Ryan Guillen (Dist. 31) led a tour of a colonia in his district as well as a stop of the South Texas College Starr County campus in Rio Grande City. Following their brief visit to UTPA, the tour traveled to the State Farm Arena in Hidalgo to hear a presentation by the Border Patrol and Department of Public Safety as well as view equipment used by the agencies. Their Friday evening included a visit to McAllen's new downtown Entertainment District and a dinner at the McAllen Convention Center hosted by the City of McAllen.
The tour, which ended on Sunday, Jan. 23, also included visits to local healthcare facilities and discussions with Rio Grande Valley healthcare administrators, a stop at the Texas A&M Kingsville Citrus Center in Weslaco to learn about the latest agricultural research, a tour of the Weslaco World Birding Center where they heard about Valley tourism venues, and a presentation by McAllen Economic Development Corporation President/CEO Keith Patridge at the Free Trade Zone on the state of the maquila industry and opportunities available in advanced manufacturing in the region.
UTPA alumna Linda McKenna (MPA,'03), the RGV Partnership's president and CEO, said she was pleased with the places visited and the variety of topics discussed on this year's tour.
"Each one brought a unique perspective to the Valley," she said.
McKenna described Nelsen's participation "from beginning to the end" as "amazing," adding he brought a lot of value to the tour and established some good relationships.
"In the future, he'll be looked to as a resource for legislators as they are facing some big, tough decisions this session," she said. "Some of these freshmen (on the tour) will probably be in Austin for a long time ... so they can be our champions for years to come."