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President Nelsen to grads: Action trumps symbolism to create change
Posted: 08/20/2012
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Wearing all black is no longer the exclusive daily outfit for Robert S. Nelsen, president of The University of Texas-Pan American.

Roberto Peña, who earned a master's degree in business administration, is pictured receiving his diploma from UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen during the morning summer commencement ceremony Aug. 18.
He told more than 700 bachelor's, master's and doctoral graduates at two commencement ceremonies Aug. 18 that he emulated singer Johnny Cash, who said he wore black for all those in poverty, who had been abused, had died in wars or for those who had been murdered or in prison.

"I wore black for close to 20 years for the same reasons. It was my symbolic protest against what was wrong in this world," Nelsen said.

When Nelsen got the opportunity to head UT Pan American, however, he came with a white shirt and orange tie, deciding that doing something symbolic to end poverty, hunger, injustice and pain was not the same as really doing something.

"The power of action trumps the power of symbols every day," he told the graduates and their families. "I challenge you to be engaged in your community...to be agents of change, to reach back and help not only those who helped you but also all those who need help."

Nelsen also shared the stories of three students who had overcome challenges and made great sacrifices to earn their degrees, joining the only 17 percent of Valley residents who have bachelor's, master's or doctoral degrees.

"You will walk out as role models and mentors for so many others in the Valley who are following behind you, many who aspire to be college graduates like you, many others who are afraid to aspire to such a lofty goal. By making the most of what you are taking away from this University, you can make such a difference for so many," he said.

Marlen Chapa, who graduated with a master's degree in criminal justice, shared her memory stole with her daughter and Bronc fan Yaritzi Nichole following the morning summer commencement ceremony.
Texas State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa spoke at both ceremonies held at the McAllen Convention Center. The morning ceremony was for the graduates in the Colleges of Business Administration, Education, and Social and Behavioral Sciences. Graduates who walked in the afternoon ceremony were from the Colleges of Arts and Humanities, Health and Human Services, Science and Mathematics and Engineering and Computer Science.

Hinojosa, who earned his bachelor's degree in political science from then Pan American University in 1970, said he would not have achieved the level of success he had without the education he received from the University.

Hinojosa, who was the first in his family to graduate from college, said he grew up in the Rio Grande Valley picking crops alongside his parents, and that his parents always stressed the importance of obtaining an education.

"Education is knowledge, knowledge empowers you to succeed," Hinojosa said.

Hinojosa, who earned his law degree from Georgetown University, said he learned while earning his second degree that the undergraduate degree he received at Pan American University prepared him just as well for the rigors of law school as did his peers who graduated from other, more well-known institutions.

The state senator also urged students to set goals and achieve them. He also warned them to dismiss discouraging remarks from people and to stay away from negative people.

"All they do is hold you back," he said.

Already showing its commitment to preparing transformative leaders, UT Pan American awarded graduate degrees to 160 students.

"In order for the University to really be serving the needs of the community, we need to have more people at the graduate level of education," said Dr. Cynthia Brown, vice provost for Graduate Studies. "Most transformative leaders need advanced degrees, and Pan Am has positioned itself with the community to help transform the community by awarding more master's and doctoral degrees. These people will be going back and working in the community."

Brown said she hopes the family, friends and loved ones of bachelor's degree graduates who attend the ceremonies also see UTPA as a place where people can earn high-caliber master's and doctoral degrees.

And as the Hispanic population in the United States continues to grow, it is imperative that more Hispanic people attain higher degrees to take on leadership roles, Brown added.

Texas State Sen. Juan "Chuy" Hinojosa, a UTPA alumnus, spoke at both UT Pan American summer commencement ceremonies held Aug. 18 at the McAllen Convention Center.
"I know, in particular, for students who are becoming faculty in other places, not only will they be playing a role as perhaps the only Hispanic faculty member, but it's also really good for UTPA, because in back of every catalog colleges list their faculty and where they graduated from," she said. "So we're going to be seeing more catalogs that have UTPA by these doctoral-degreed people who are faculty from other universities. We are helping shape the next generation."

Miguel Baeza, 39, will be taking his Ph.D. in Business Administration-Management and his Bronc Country roots to teach at Tarleton State University in Stephenville (near Fort Worth) this fall, where it appears he may be the only Hispanic faculty member in his department there. He was among 11 who earned doctoral degrees in the College of Business Administration.

Baeza came to the United States from Reynosa, Mexico in 1989. After graduating from McAllen High School in two years, he enrolled in UTPA where he earned a bachelor's in business administration, specializing in computer information systems. He earned his MBA in 2002 while working in the college's networking center. He worked for two years as assistant to the vice president of technology at Rio Grande Valley Homes and he's taught business classes at the University since 2006.

He said he got interested in pursuing a second master's after a study abroad trip to Germany and Spain, but the business college's dean, Dr. Teofilo Ozuna, encouraged him to enter the Ph.D. program.

"Back then, I thought getting a Ph.D. was big and only 'smart people' could do it," Baeza said. "But Dr. Ozuna put a seed in my mind that this would be a good option. Later on, I realized I was a good candidate to come back and earn my Ph.D." he said. "Being smart helps, but what it takes is a lot of discipline and I was capable of that."

He said the years working on his Ph.D. were among his most productive and he's grateful for the help and mentorship he received from the faculty.

The family of Lorie Zamarripa, who graduated Magna Cum Laude with a bachelor's degree in criminal justice, showed their pride in her accomplishment following the first of UTPA's two summer commencement ceremonies Aug. 18.
"I want to make a difference in people's lives like my professors made in mine," Baeza said. "I will encourage students to perform their best in everything they do, so they can reach their maximum potential. Thus, we (faculty members) can deliver excellent professionals to society."

Jazmin Ley, who earned her master's degree in mechanical engineering after serving several years as a math teacher, said she loved teaching, but believes that research is what she was meant to do.

Ley plans to continue helping Dr. Constantine Tarawneh produce stronger and safer railroad bearings as a research assistant for the near future.

"It's been really exciting getting to work with engineers and working on projects that are making a dramatic difference in the railroad industry," said Ley, who had a load sensor she developed for her graduate thesis patented.

Ley, who earned her bachelor's degree from UT Pan American in 2006, started on a different track in her professional career. As an undergraduate student, she originally set out to major in engineering and minor in English, but ended up majoring in English and minoring in math after deciding she wanted to teach English in secondary schools.

Instead, she was hired to teach math at schools in La Joya and Donna before she chose to return to school to pursue her love of engineering.

It was a meeting she had with a former professor, the late Dr. Hashim Salman Mahdi, that convinced her to come back to UTPA.

"By the time I knew it, when I left his office, I was enrolled in the master's program," Ley, an Edinburg resident, said. "Dr. Mahdi had a way of convincing you to do things you thought you didn't want to do when you really wanted to. So I didn't think I wanted to get my master's in engineering. But now that I have it, I'm like , 'Yes, I do want it.'"

View the photo gallery to see more photos from the 2012 summer commencement ceremonies.