Vania Barrera was all set to graduate from The University of Texas-Pan American December 2010 with her master's degree in sociology. However, the chance to gain a better awareness of her own identity as well as the community's intervened.
Barrera, who moved from Monterrey, Nuevo Leon, Mexico at age 3 to Roma, Texas, delayed her graduation to May 2011 to pick up the extra hours required to earn a graduate certificate in Mexican American Studies (MAS), which provided her a unique opportunity to gain specialized knowledge and do interdisciplinary research focusing on the Mexican American experience.
"I learned more about my Mexican American culture, our hopes, our struggles and our victories, the places we have been in, how we got here and where we can be," said the 29-year-old who plans to be a college professor.
Barrera was one of nine in the first group of graduate students who obtained the certificate, which was approved and first offered in spring 2010 at the University. To earn the certificate, a student must already be admitted to a graduate program at UTPA and take 12 hours of course work in Mexican American Studies from any discipline with no more than six hours in any one subject.
The courses range across many disciplines of study - anthropology, English, art, sociology and others - with many course offerings that include Border Music of South Texas, Language in Health Services, and the Sociology of Poverty, to name a few.
At a recent graduation symposium and celebration, Barrera joined other students who presented their research to faculty and University administrators on a MAS-related topic, a final project requirement to complete the certificate. Barrera's topic: "Undocumented Mexican Youth in Higher Education in the United States: Looking Beyond their Social and Legal Limitations."
"The most important thing I learned through this project was that undocumented students have the exact same hopes and dreams as their documented peers except their path to reaching them is full of more obstacles. I was amazed with their persistence, dedication and positive contributions to our community," she said.
Other Spring 2011 MAS certificate graduates and their research included: Lucas Espinoza, "The Roots of Chicana Feminism: Resistance and Transformation;" Dennis Garza, "Hegemonic Masculinity in Luis Valdez's Zoot Suit;" Orquidea Morales, "Re-casting La Llorona: Slashers, Virgins and Feminism in the Wailer: La Llorona;" Karmin San Martin, "La participación y representacióde la mujer chicana durante y después del Teatro Campesino;" Veronica Sandoval "Lady Mariposa," "Creative Borderlands: Using Anthropology for New Narratives;" Rodrigo Cano, "Attitudes Towards Language in a Border City;" Milena Melo, "Access to Healthcare for Undocumented Citizens in the Rio Grande Valley;" and Hugo Paz, "Journey to Identity: Crossing Boundaries and the Other Side of the Border-Writing for Social Action at L.U.P.E."
Barrera said completion of the certificate has made her more culturally competent and marketable, a goal the certificate program promotes.
"This certificate demonstrates you have this cultural knowledge which can be applied to many fields - journalism, marketing, nursing - in any job, you will have an advantage. If you want to be able to make culturally based decisions in your professional life, your personal life and your social life - that is the key to your success when you are living in a diverse society," said Dr. Stephanie Alvarez, assistant professor of Spanish in the Department of Modern Languages and Literature.
Alvarez is part of a group of faculty members that has worked to revise the Mexican American Studies major and minor program at UTPA and pushed to initiate the MAS Graduate Certificate program. She's delighted that in only its first year, the program is already graduating nine students with the certificate.
"I believe this is a historic moment for UT Pan American and the Mexican American Studies Program and we need to celebrate it," Alvarez said.
For more information on the MAS Graduate Certificate, go to the Mexican American Studies website.