They stayed up many nights studying for exams and putting the final touches on their research papers. They worked full-time jobs and raised families while taking a full load of courses.
On Saturday, May 14, the 1,760 graduates of UTPA - as well as their loved ones - received praise from President Robert S. Nelsen as they reaped the reward for their hard work.
"Today that sacrifice has yielded success. The harvest is at hand ... as we celebrate, we recognize that your individual success came at great collective sacrifice," Nelsen said.
Among those who graduated were 31 veterans. Since the beginning of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, UTPA has graduated 650 veterans and another 1,600 have returned to continue their studies at the University. Nelsen also honored Christopher Wheat, a veteran of the Iraq war who is now working on his master's degree in rehabilitative counseling, who gave the president a UTPA flag he flew in Iraq.
Specifically, the University conferred degrees upon 333 graduates from the College of Arts and Humanities, 201 from the College of Business Administration, 278 from the College of Education, 325 from the College of Health Sciences and Human Services, 126 from the College of Engineering and Computer Science and 225 from the College of Science and Mathematics.
Iruegas commuted from Reynosa to UTPA every day at 6 a.m. and worked the evening shift at Ticketmaster before crossing the U.S.-Mexico border again to return home at 10 p.m.
"Israel knew all about hard work. His parents had set an inspiring example for him to follow. They had always worked hard to make sure their American-born son got an American education," Nelsen said.
The University bestowed a posthumous degree on Iruegas, which was accepted by his father, Israel Iruegas Sr. Nelsen told graduates that they have the responsibility to honor Iruegas and their families by doing good in the world.
"You will face challenges, big challenges," Nelsen said. "I hope you will also be inspired by Israel."
Graduates also received inspiring words from Steven Robinson, who serves on the White House Domestic Policy Council, and Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia.
Robinson, who spoke at the 9 a.m. and 1 p.m. ceremonies, told graduates to recognize opportunities and respond to them, never stop learning and help others. Robinson talked about his experiences going from a science teacher in Oregon to working for President Barack Obama.
"In my life - and probably in yours - there were times when I could have missed opportunities or tried things that would have turned out very differently - points where I could have made other decisions for myself," he said. "In some ways, I am more lucky than clever, but I am grateful, and I have learned something about opportunity. ... For many of you the path has not been easy, and the way ahead will not be without challenges. At times, you will feel discouraged, but you will always be able to recall the joy you feel today."
"Throughout our South Texas area, we had leaders in every community wanting a good education for all children. They sacrificed and fought for equality and fairness in an unselfish manner. Almost all of them knew that they themselves were never going to achieve what they were fighting for but they nonetheless made sacrifices that enabled us to be here today," Garcia said. "You represent the hopes and dreams of their future."
He passed along some oft-repeated advice from the late Federal District Court Judge Reynaldo Garza, the first American of Mexican descent to be appointed as a U.S. District Court judge.
"Get a good education because once you do, no one can ever take that away from you; never forget who you are; and never forget where you came from," he said.
Garcia described their graduation as the culmination of years of hard work and the beginning of endless possibilities, new directions and the start of their professional careers. However, he called upon them to honor the hard work and sacrifices of those who helped open the doors of opportunity for them.
Karla Treviño, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in business administration, knows all too well about sacrifice and rewards.
The single mother from McAllen returned to school after taking time off to work to support her and her daughter. Treviño's boss, attorney Abel Hinojosa, offered to make her a partner if she returned to school and got her law degree.
She accepted and finished the first part of her studies. Treviño plans to attend law school at the University of Houston this fall and eventually specialize in immigration law, she said.
"Don't give up, no matter how hard it is," Treviño said.
A former Navy engineer and fighter pilot, Mike Braun earned his first degrees years ago in political science and naval ships systems engineering from Rice University. During the day's final ceremony, the 63-year-old graduated from UTPA with his newest diploma - a master's degree in public administration.
Currently a projects director for Hamer Enterprises, a McAllen company that writes software for county governments nationwide, Braun is also working on a master's at UTPA in global security studies which he will complete in August 2011. He hopes to also earn a doctorate.
Earning the additional degrees, he said, puts a fine point on his professional skills, enabling him to be more effective in working with county executives to solve problems within their organizations.
"It gives me that additional edge," Braun said. "The MPA is absolutely instrumental in helping an individual be able to organize and plan particularly in a leadership role in government."
"They have an edge because they have learned discipline and that discipline, like it or not, comes with age," he said. "And they have experience. Combine those two together and it is a different level of maturity than you have when you are younger."
Valeria Rodriguez, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in psychology, hopes to continue her education to earn a Ph.D. in clinical psychology and one day open her own private practice.
She said her family and friends played an important role in helping her achieve her goals.
"I have a very close knit family. Every time I have a goal set, everybody works to help me achieve that," she said.
At UT Pan Am, Rodriguez was able to work closely with her instructors and conduct research with Dr. Grant Benham, associate professor of psychology, on border violence and its effects on stress levels of university students. She was one of five students selected from seven states to present her research this spring in the Student Research Competition at the South Western Psychological Association's annual conference.
"We have an advantage at UTPA of getting to do research that undergraduate students at other universities do not get to do," she said.
She was joined at the commencement ceremony by her parents, grandmother, her aunt, her best friends and her younger sister, a high school sophomore, whom Rodriguez hopes she is inspiring to continue her education.
"I think it is important to push on the younger people that college is not an option, but what you are supposed to do after high school," she said.
Click here to see more of the Spring 2011 Commencement.