First generation college student Reynaldo Leal says he is gratified that donors of endowed scholarships at The University of Texas-Pan American chose to invest in students.
A Marine veteran who completed two tours in Iraq, Leal said he didn't feel he could enter college when he got out of the service because of the need to take care of his wife and young son. He went to work at what he said he knew, the oil fields.
However, with the help of the GI Bill, the Valley Heroes Scholarship for veterans and, recently, the Munoz scholarship, he has been able to pursue higher education. He transferred from South Texas College to UTPA in 2010. His wife Ashley, with the help of the Texas Grant, was also able to attend UTPA at the same time. He said it took a lot of belt tightening and described the effect receiving even a $500 scholarship had on his family.
"For someone who has everything budgeted out and they are making it, but barely, $500 is the world," a thankful Leal said. "If it wasn't for you (donors) I wouldn't be here."
He's proud of his wife who graduated in December 2011 with a 3.6 GPA and a degree in anthropology. She is currently in a master's program at the University. Leal, who has a 4.0 GPA and is co-editor in chief of The Pan American student newspaper, has already published articles in the Virginia Quarterly Review and the Austin American and hopes to impact the nation's environmental policy through his writing.
Leal was one of many students receiving academic endowed scholarships at the University for the 2011-2012 academic year who were able to meet March 1 with endowed scholarship donors and/or their family members at the annual Guiding Stars, Rising Stars luncheon hosted by the Division of University Advancement. UT Pan American and The University of Texas-Pan American Foundation manage 281 endowments, of which 236 are endowed scholarships.
During a welcome to donors and students, UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen described the importance of education in his own life and his appreciation for the people who helped him achieve success. He told the students they could achieve anything they wanted to including becoming a president of a university like him.
"Students look around you. Realize that these donors have invested in you because they believe in you. They believe that you are the future ... and will build on the tradition and history and culture and that you will make a tremendous difference in this world," he said. "Always remember that somebody gave you a chance by giving you a scholarship ... think about that and then do what they did, reach back and help someone yourself."
Nelsen shared information on the progress the University has made since last year's event including the Vista Summit, which attracted foundation leaders from across the country to the campus to talk about ways to help the region and its talent, and the $40 million investment by The University of Texas System Board of Regents to provide more faculty, innovative programs and facilities at the University. Nelsen showed pictures and described the features of the new Fine Arts Academic and Performance Complex that will commence construction in September 2012.
"Pan Am 10 years from now will have 30,000 students. We will double the number of faculty. We will have to build four new buildings ... and we will put 750 classes online. So we need to increase the amount of donations to the University to pull our plans off," he said. "We got to take care of our kids. The shame in the Valley is that only 30 percent of the kids who go to high school ever make it to college. Every kid should have the opportunity to go to college."
Yvette Padilla, director of stewardship and annual giving, said donors look forward to meeting their scholarship recipient every year.
"The students have a great impact on our university donors," she said.
Attending his first Guiding Stars, Rising Stars event was donor Jagdish Kanwar, who recently established the Jagdish S. and Prakash Kanwar Family Endowment at UT Pan American. The endowment, which also honors his late wife Prakash, will provide scholarships for students in the College of Science and Mathematics. Both of Kanwar's sons graduated from UT Pan American -- Davender in 2004 with an MBA and Maninder in 1986 with a degree in management information systems. Davender went on to earn a pharmacy degree from Texas A&M University-Kingsville.
A native of India, Jagdish, who has a degree in business and a background in banking, eventually landed in the United States through a series of jobs he held, the last as Comptroller Latin America with Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., a seed company located in McAllen, where he has lived since 1982. Jagdish's endowed funds for scholarships at UTPA will be matched through Pioneer's corporate match gift program.
"Education is very important. It opened up many avenues for me," said Jagdish, who said he liked the idea of getting to talk with scholarship recipients. "I like meeting someone who has achieved something with my help."
Cecilia Longoria, an attorney in Houston, was able to sit alongside Muhammad Shamin, a freshman majoring in premed biology, who received a Raul L. and Earlene Longoria Scholarship established by an endowment to UTPA from her late parents.
Raul was a former Texas state legislator and district judge, who, Longoria said, always had a strong focus on education during his life. She said her parents would have been proud of Muhammad and the impact their endowment has had.
"They would be thrilled to death that their legacy is an opportunity for someone else to succeed," Cecilia said.
Shamin said the scholarship is a great help to his family because he has other siblings going to college at the same time. The financial assistance it provides has allowed him to not have to work during his academically demanding premed program.
"My strongest emotion right now is gratefulness. Giving to someone you don't even know out of the kindness of your heart is an amazing thing. I would like to do that myself when I get established. Receiving the scholarship inspired me to not only pursue my education but to give back to the community as well," he said.
Lydia Aleman, associate vice president for university advancement, said her division will continue to share the stories of the University's successes and expressed the University's gratitude to the donors.
"We thank you for your friendship, we thank you for your generosity, but, most of all, we thank you for the support and belief in our students," she said.
View a photo gallery of the luncheon here.
If you would like to learn more about supporting the advancement a UT Pan American, contact the Office of Development, Division of University Advancement, at (956) 665-5301 or via email at development.utpa.edu. You can also visit the Division of University Advancement website.