Benito Quintero said the best part of his job is seeing his clients happy and in jobs they love - and not letting whatever disabilities they have keep them from pursuing their dreams.
"I enjoy when people come up to me after they follow through with the whole process and are working and are at where want to be at," he said. "Helping people is what I call my calling and I really enjoy doing that," said Quintero, a 2009 graduate of The University of Texas-Pan American's rehabilitative services program and now a vocational counselor with the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services.
Like Quintero, Eva Zarate, a 2006 graduate of UTPA's Bachelor of Science in Nursing program, loves her job and credits her ability to have moved into the administrative side of nursing to her training at the University. The training she received at UTPA also helped her find a lump on her breast that was cancerous.
"It has been a blessing to have gone through the nursing program at UTPA," Zarate said.
The popularity of these two programs among their current and former students has caught national attention.
The Hispanic Outlook in Higher Education magazine ranked UTPA No. 1 in awarding degrees to Hispanic students in rehabilitation and therapeutic professions and No. 6 in awarding bachelor's degrees in nursing to Hispanic students.
The magazine listed the top 15 schools across the country based on how many Hispanic students they graduated in specific programs for the 2009-2010 school year. Hispanic Outlook used data from the U.S. Department of Education's National Center for Education Statistics and its Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System to compile the lists.
In the 2009-2010 school year, UTPA conferred 143 degrees - undergraduate and graduate - on graduates, of which 128, or 90 percent, were awarded to Hispanic students in rehabilitative services. In the same school year, the University bestowed 95 bachelor's degrees in nursing, 75 of which (79 percent) were given to Hispanic students.
Quintero, who has helped people with disabilities receive the training and services they need to obtain jobs in professions including retail and certified nursing assistance, said he credits his success to the training he received from his educators.
Faculty members pulled from their experiences in helping others and, in some cases, achieving success while working through the disabilities they have, which motivated him to keep up with his studies, he said.
"Having those professors helps us in getting a mental picture of how it's really like (to live with a disability)," said Quintero, who is returning to UTPA this fall to start work on his master's degree.
Earlier this year, The U.S. News & World Report ranked UTPA's rehabilitative services program 17th out of 98 schools in the country in the publication's "Best Graduate Schools" rankings.
The accolades the rehabilitation services program has received is reflective of the quality of students and faculty UTPA has, said Dr. Jerome Fischer, chair of the Department of Rehabilitative Services.
"The quality of our students is incredible," Fischer said. "They come into the program and have such great enthusiasm, and they embrace the values of the profession. Rehab professionals are in high demand and I think, because of our track record of placing professionals in the field throughout Texas, and now the United States, more people are attracted to the program."
The University's renowned faculty is another reason more students are choosing to study rehabilitative services at UTPA, Fischer said.
"They all have national reputations, they are recognized in the field," he said. "When I go to our national meetings, all of my faculty are spotlighted. They are held in high regard; they definitely contribute to the high rankings of UTPA and our program."
Zarate, who is now the director of nursing services at Grand Terrace Rehabilitation and Healthcare nursing home in McAllen, said her previous and current employers said they were impressed by the fact that she earned a bachelor's degree, and that has led her to move on to administrative positions.
She also praised the UTPA faculty for being supportive of her as she battled cancer while working on her degree and said that experience helped her be a better healthcare provider to her patients.
"It helped me see things from the patient's point of view," she said.
Dr. Carolina Huerta, chair of the Department of Nursing, said she is happy and proud that the nursing program has been once again noted by Hispanic Outlook. In 2007 the magazine ranked UTPA's nursing program 13th in awarding degrees to nurses.
Huerta credits the hard work of the University's nursing faculty and their efforts to make sure students learn the material and become successful care givers.
"We are very blessed here to have a very committed nursing faculty," she said. "We have had some of the faculty here for probably 10,20, some even 30 years. And we've seen our program grow from just having an associate degree program to a full-fledged baccalaureate program with a master's program and we have so many of our faculty who now are doctorally prepared ... and I think they are able to focus on our students, and that's been part of the success."
Another part of the program's success is the effort faculty members make in helping students improve their academics, Huerta said.
"We have really made a concerted effort to have remediation for students so we can continue to have them advance in the program," she said. "For example, we've had what we call minimesters ... for those students we deem to be at-risk, who have not done really well on their final exams and their final grades. We gave them the opportunity to come back and show us that they really have the material and the majority were able to progress to the next courses."
Those efforts have paid off for the nursing program. For the past five years the nursing program has had a 95 percent passing rate of its students on the NCLEX licensing examinations.
"I think that we've been doing a spectacular job for so many years that it's nice to get some acknowledgement that we are indeed producing many graduates out there, not just Hispanics, so we're very proud to have been recognized in being a leader in producing these graduates," she said.
For more information, contact the College of Health Sciences and Human Services at (956) 665-2291.