Heather Martinez started college some 18 years ago. It just wasn't for her at the time, she said.
Martinez, now 37, got married and had three children. She worked at a law firm and for an accountant between years of raising her children, ages 13, 11 and 6. She thought about going back to school but wasn't sure how to manage the time it would require with her family responsibilities. However, she discovered a way back to school through a chance meeting with a college faculty member at a barbeque.
"She told me I could get a lot of courses online. I enrolled the next day," she said.
Martinez got her associate degree online at South Texas College in 18 months and then transferred to The University of Texas-Pan American, where she appreciated the support of caring faculty whom she said always made themselves available to help her when needed.
"I was able to get my four year degree in three and a half years," said Martinez, an honors graduate who hopes to work for the FDIC. "It's never too late to go back to school and to keep learning."
Martinez was among more than 1,300 students who received their degrees from The University of Texas-Pan American in three Fall 2011 commencement ceremonies held Saturday, Dec. 17 at the McAllen Convention Center. She was also among three students highlighted by UT Pan Am President Robert S. Nelsen during the day's ceremonies.
"The reason I wanted to tell you about her is she exemplifies the drive and the power in the Valley. She did it in a way (online) that wasn't even available to her 19 years ago", Nelsen said. "Each of you has your own story to tell, your own successes, your own challenges and they are amazing stories."
During each of the ceremonies, Nelsen also acknowledged the veterans who were graduating. More than 1,600 veterans have enrolled at UTPA since the Iraq war began and close to 700 have graduated.
Nelsen said one of the greatest opportunities Americans have is to be able to learn and be educated, noting a free society depends on an educated citizenry. He described as "profound and so true" a quote from writer and philosopher G.K. Chesterton, who said "Education is simply the soul of a society as it passes from one generation to another."
"Today, what I ask for you all to think about is what can I do to help future generations. What can I do to make sure that there are not just 60,000 students who have graduated from Pan Am but 120,000; 200,000; 300,000 graduates," he said.
During the 9 a.m. morning ceremony, graduates heard from UT Pan Am alumna Minerva Perez, who talked about the challenges and successes during her long career as a pioneering and award-winning Latina TV journalist.
An Alamo native who grew up poor, Perez said she depended, like many of the graduates, on scholarships and part-time jobs to go to UT Pan Am, where she earned her mass communications degree in 1981. She began her TV news career locally at KGBT-TV before moving on to be a reporter and anchor at major news markets across the United States, including San Antonio, Austin, Dallas, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and Houston.
When she became the first Hispanic female to anchor the news at KTLA in Los Angeles, Perez said she was criticized as being too Latina and letters to the station asked her to "go back to Mexico."
"Those were some of the hoops I had to jump as the only Latina and first Latina anchor there," she said. "It was not easy. Sometimes it was hurtful. But because of my journey and job I have seen the world."
Perez described some of the well-known stories she covered, including the Rodney King beating and the Pope's visit to Los Angeles, as well as some of the personalities she has met, including Cuban leader Fidel Castro and late actor Marlon Brando. Her reporting colleagues have included Elizabeth Vargas, among others.
She currently co-hosts "Latina Voices: Smart Talk," a show she said she created to give a voice to not just Latinas, but to women at large. The show airs locally on KGBT-TV, is syndicated nationally, and also appears on latinavoices.com. Perez ended her talk with some advice for the graduates.
"Stay grounded folks, it is the only way you are going to succeed. Stay adventurous and have fun out there. And most of all, stay Valley," she said.
During the 1 p.m. ceremony, former Hidalgo County Judge J.D. Salinas tore up a speech he had prepared, telling the crowd it was too much about him and not enough about the graduates.
Instead, Salinas, who graduated from UTPA in 2003 with a Master of Public Administration, congratulated graduates on their accomplishments and encouraged them to help others who are looking to better themselves through education.
"As President Obama said, the key to the economy is education. (It is) you who will need to be ambassadors, to pull people up the hill ... perhaps how others helped you," said Salinas, who is now a regional administrator for the U.S. General Services Administration.
At that ceremony, Nelsen acknowledged graduate Gloria Hamill, a young wife and mother who received her Bachelor of Arts in Theatre.
Hamill, a native of San Luis Potosi in Mexico, came to the United States at age 10 with her parents. She struggled at first in an all English speaking class but the puppet shows and plays she enjoyed and participated in as a child at her church helped her better grasp the language and gave her confidence. It also initiated her love of theatre.
"I thought this is fun. I can pretend to be someone else and get away from my problems," she said. "I love acting. It's beautiful how humans can interact that way."
A first generation college student, Hamill, now 28, said she lacked direction and support when she first entered UTPA and eventually dropped out. She later married, had a son and finally returned to school at STC, where she earned an associate degree.
At UT Pan American, Hamill had the opportunity to become involved in the Latino Theatre Initiative, which performed children's plays in Spanish for many Valley children who had never seen a play. The ensemble later performed the bilingual play "Crawling with Monsters."
Hamill transcribed and translated interviews taken of people in Mexico affected by the drug war in that country. Their interviews were the basis of the play, which received a top award at an international festival in New York City.
"It was a play to us at the beginning, it eventually turned into a message ... we have to let people know what is going on in Mexico, especially to kids. Kids are suffering," said Hamill, who hopes the play will also generate more support for community theatre.
She described her experience at UTPA as amazing, with faculty who always made themselves available to her. Her future plans include pursuing a master's degree, possibly in drama therapy.
"A scholar, a mother ... she's everything we stand for," Nelsen said.
At the final ceremony at 5 p.m., Nelsen lauded the achievements of Cassandra Reyna, who graduated that day cum laude with a Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitative Services.
Reyna developed a passion for helping others through mission trips she would take with her family to Mexico. She has continued to help others in the Rio Grande Valley through various community outreach programs. At UTPA, Reyna was the president of the Sigma Lambda Gamma National Honor Sorority and the Multicultural Greek Council and worked as a student career counselor in the Office of Career Services.
"She is the perfect example of what the health professions are all about," Nelsen said.
Before the ceremony, Reyna said she has been going on mission trips with her family since she was 5 years old and through those experiences she was inspired to help underserved children.
"I felt if I had a degree I could help them more," Reyna said.
The Harlingen native said she was honored that the president was going to mention her in his speech and praised UTPA's Rehabilitative Services and its faculty. Donning her graduation cap decorated with the words, "I made it," Reyna said she is glad she didn't have to travel far from her family to get the full college experience and feels that UT Pan American has prepared her well for helping children with special needs.
Reyna was recently hired by Valley Ear, Nose and Throat Specialists, where she will assist audiologists in giving hearing aids to people with hearing impairment or total hearing loss.
That ceremony's keynote speaker, Texas National Bank President Joe Quiroga, talked about how he moved to the United States from Mexico when he was 5 years old not knowing any English, and how his love of reading led him to be the first one in his family to graduate from college and have a successful banking career.
Though he found success, Quiroga told graduates that humility is the foundation of success and that they should not be afraid to learn from their mistakes.
"Graduates, don't be afraid to humble yourself and seek guidance from others more experienced," Quiroga said.