UT System institutions, philanthropists commit to helping the Rio Grande Valley at Vista Summit
Posted: 10/12/2011
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As the population of the Rio Grande Valley of Texas continues to grow, the educational, health care and economic development opportunities must increase with it.

Pictured from left to right are: Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institution; Wynn Rosser, executive director, Greater Texas Foundation; Dr. Robert S. Nelsen, president of UTPA; Dr. Juliet V. García, president of UT Brownsville; Dr. Francisco G. Cigarroa, chancellor of the UT System; Micah Sagebiel, program officer, U.S. Education, Michael & Susan Dell Foundation; Jaime P. Merisotis, president and CEO, Lumina Foundation; Darren Walker, vice president, Education, Creativity and Free Expression Program, Ford Foundation; Pablo. J. Farías, vice president, Economic Opportunity and Assets Program, Ford Foundation; and Hilary Pennington, director of education, Postsecondary Success and Special Initiatives, United States Program, The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

But first, the area must catch up and begin providing necessary services to its current residents.

That is why The University of Texas-Pan American has joined The University of Texas System and The University of Texas at Brownsville (UTB) in seeking cooperation from philanthropic organizations in developing and steering programs through which the quality of life in the Valley can improve.

On Oct. 5-6, the UT System and its Valley institutions hosted the UT Vista Summit at UTB where they touted the area's benefits and discussed the challenges they face in producing a well-educated and healthy workforce to hundreds of people representing nonprofit groups, the universities, businesses and local government and educational institutions.

"No one is here because we have the answers," said The University of Texas System Chancellor Dr. Francisco Cigarroa. "All of us come from diverse backgrounds and we represent different disciplines and life experiences, but we all share one thing in common: we have a can-do spirit and we believe that transformation can and will take place in the Lower Rio Grande Valley."

Cigarroa, Dr. Robert S. Nelsen and Dr. Juliet Garcia, presidents of UTPA and UTB, respectively, opened the summit Oct. 5 by giving philanthropists and others in attendance an overview of the area.

Of the more than 203,000 students The UT System educates, more than 70,000 are in South Texas and more than 34,000 are attending its institutions in the Valley. But those students are part of the minority in the Valley. Most adults do not have beyond a high school education, and there remain many without even a high school diploma or General Equivalency Diploma, they said.

Garcia told the group about how several Valley high schools have been named among the most successful in the country by national magazines and how UTB and Brownsville area elementary and secondary schools have award-winning chess teams. She also told them about 40 percent of adults in the Brownsville area have less than a high school education and even though the area is instrumental in the state and country's trade with Mexico, it lacks a major interstate highway.

"You can't turn around a century of neglect in 20 years," Garcia said.

Nelsen spoke of the Valley and its students' successes through cuentos, or anecdotes.

Specifically, Nelsen told the story of two women who came from low-income homes and earned their degrees from UTPA. One is now a teacher at the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District and the other was named woman engineer of the year at Raytheon Corp.

UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen, pictured second from left, shares his thoughts on what needs to be done to advance the Rio Grande Valley during the UT Vista Summit, held at The University of Texas at Brownsville Oct. 5 and 6.

"The Valley is a magic place," he said, noting that the area was once called the "Magic Valley" by businessmen marketing the area because farmers could grow a wide variety of crops here. "Today the magic is the people."

But more needs to be done to ensure a better quality of life for the future population, he said. The average age in the region is 25.9 years old and more than 800 babies were born in August at just one of the five hospitals in Hidalgo County, where UTPA is located.

"Now is the time to invest in the Valley," Nelsen said. "If we don't get it right in South Texas, we're not going to get it right anywhere."

They also heard from Richard Fisher, vice president of the Federal Reserve Bank in Dallas, via video, who talked about the growing Hispanic community and its assets to the workforce, and UT Board of Regents Chairman Gene Powell, who talked about the system's ongoing commitment and support to UTPA and UTB.

Powell told attendees about his childhood growing up in the Lower Rio Grande Valley city of Weslaco and how his family saw great potential in the region.

He told the group about the Board of Regents' recent approval of allocating $30 million to UTPA, UTB, and the Regional Academic Health Center to develop programs to promote the STEM fields and more than $42 million to UTPA to renovate its Fine Arts Complex.

"This is not just the two of us going to do this. The board has totally bought into this and they are sincere about it," Powell said.

The $72 million-plus is just the beginning of the board's commitment to the Rio Grande Valley, Powell said.

"I'm here to commit to you that I'm really your servant and I'm fortunate to be here... and I want you to know I care just as much about you," he said. "We are going to get this done."

On Thursday, Oct. 6, the philanthropists heard from mothers of children who are attending or who have attended UT System schools, as well as from alumni from those institutions who all talked about how obtaining higher education allowed them to escape poverty and provide a better quality of life for their children.

"To this group I would say every time you see a number on a piece of paper, remember it is a human being with hopes and dreams," said Elizabeth Llongueras, a Brownsville resident who has children who attended UTB's Math and Science Academy.

They also heard from Nancy Cantor, chancellor of Syracuse University in New York, who shared her institution's success in working with local school districts and local and state governments to revitalize the community surrounding the university, and from Bruce Katz, vice president of the Brookings Institution, who talked about the economic development potential in the Rio Grande Valley.

The philanthropists also had the opportunity to provide feedback and said they felt optimistic about the opportunities to work in the Valley.

"You share our commitment to two key things: you have partnership, but it's partnership with a purpose; you understand better than most places throughout the country that we have to create systems for our young people and our communities that, by design, take them into high school and college and into college success," said Hilary Pennington, director of education for Postsecondary Success and Special Initiatives of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

Pennington also praised the Valley institutions for being innovative in developing programs to improve student achievement and encouraged them to continue working together.

Those who attended the summit said afterward they were optimistic about the Valley's future.

"The Vista Summit was truly an inspiring event for me. As a Valley native, and as an educator, I was extremely excited to be a part of this unique gathering of powerful leaders as I witnessed representatives from education, community health care, industry, public policy and philanthropy coming together to discuss the future of our region," said Dr. Dahlia Guerra, dean of UTPA's College of Arts and Humanities.

Guerra said she is looking forward to doing her part to ensure the Valley's bright future.

"I have high hopes that the foundations and community citizens present will realize the need for their continued support of education as a transforming agent in South Texas, especially since the summit stressed the vital role that the Rio Grande Valley plays in the future of our entire nation," she said.

Cigarroa said the UT System plans to host more summits regarding the Valley's economic development, education and health care issues in the future.