Graduates of The University of Texas-Pan American have accomplished much more than earning a degree. They have proven themselves to be engaged leaders in their community.
On Saturday, Dec. 15, UT Pan American President Robert S. Nelsen praised the approximately 1,500 graduates for their dedication to helping others during the Fall 2012 Commencement. UTPA awarded bachelor's, master's and doctoral degrees to graduates during three commencement ceremonies at the McAllen Convention Center.
"At Pan Am, we are committed to be an 'engaged community,'" Nelsen said. "All of our students are so committed to giving back to the community. I am proud of everything you have accomplished."
At each of the ceremonies, a moment of silence was observed in honor of the 20 children and six adults who were killed at an elementary school in Newtown, Conn.
Graduates and their loved ones also heard from three alumni who shared their stories of success and imparted advice to their fellow Broncs.
At the 9 a.m. ceremony, health care entrepreneur Ruben Perez (BBA '77) gave students 10 rules to live by to have a successful life: to set career goals, have confidence and courage, do what they love to do, take risks, maintain their integrity, surround themselves with like-minded and positive people, not quit, keep learning, balance their lives and don't forget where they came from.
Perez, a Donna native and a UTPA 2012 Pillar of Success, also used a popular quote in offering wisdom to the graduates, "Listen up, the best way to predict the future is to create it."
Edinburg resident Alejandra Flores, who graduated with a bachelor's degree in nursing Saturday, said she is looking forward to start her dream career.
Flores said she hopes to work for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance and pursue her master's degree as a nurse practitioner and in health administration.
"I'm excited for the journey and I really think I'm going to make a difference in this career in many different areas," Flores said.
Economedes High School Principal Anthony Garza became Dr. Garza Saturday, earning his doctorate in educational leadership.
Garza, who previously served as principal of South Middle School in Edinburg, said he decided to go back to school to set an example for his fellow educators and students.
"I like to lead by example," said Garza, who was named as the Region One Education Service Center's Principal of the Year last year.
Garza said his long-term plans include becoming a school superintendent and teaching at the university level.
During the 1 p.m. ceremony, Weslaco native Saul Ortega (BBA '86), chairman and CEO of First National Bank, described his upbringing guided by hard-working, supportive parents who left Mexico to find a better life. He said he and his six brothers learned from his father, a farmer, the importance of hard work and getting an education while his mother taught him to believe in himself.
He encouraged the graduates to set goals and take advantage of opportunities that come their way. Ortega also advised them to do what they really love to do.
"I love my job. I have a passion for it. I wake up in the morning excited and ready for the day ahead," he said.
McAllen native Dr. Belinda Gonzalez (BS '89) spoke to the graduates at the final ceremony of the day. Gonzalez, who attended medical school at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston, has been in private practice specializing in family practice for nearly 17 years in Corpus Christi.
While in medical school, she said her class was filled with graduates from colleges across the country, including Princeton, Norte Dame and other prestigious schools.
"All those well known schools are great schools but so is ours. I played with the 'big boys and big guns' and I held my own," she said. "My point is this, it's not where you start but where you end up."
She shared what she called her "pearls of wisdom" with the graduates. Gonzalez urged them to "swing big" in pursuit of their goals and not be afraid of failure. She also advised them to try something new.
"Change is inevitable, but growth is optional. It is up to you to adapt," she said. "I'm always trying to learn something new every day which always makes the day interesting."
She asked that they use their skills, education or career to give back to their community, not just in donations but in volunteering their time. Gonzalez also recommended embracing and learning from the differences in people and the perspectives they bring to life.
"In closing, I encourage you to live each day with passion and purpose because you are unique and special in your own way and you do have something to offer," she said.
Rodriguez, who graduated from Edinburg High School in 2008 with a 4.0 GPA, first attended Ohio State University but later transferred to UTPA. He said it is hard to move from the Valley but coming from a seasonal farm working family, he was used to traveling away from home. He spent time previously in Maryland during a recent internship with Northrop Grumman, which he said offers many career opportunities and benefits, including financing his pursuit of a master's degree.
Rodriguez said he benefitted greatly from the scholarships and services made available to students by UT Pan American.
"I thought I would get a good job coming from UTPA but this has exceeded my expectations," he said. "I'm very grateful for the career services UTPA offers. I've used all their resources - the mock interviews, the résumé build up and the career fairs. Now I have a job offer and I'm grateful."
Although he was a little scared about how he would compare with interns from other schools at Northrop Grumman, he said he was well prepared and received praise from his co-workers there.
"I believe UTPA students can compete with any other schools and students," Rodriguez said.
Sisters Patty Espinoza and Laura Rodriguez are both first-generation graduates who walked in the afternoon ceremony. They were among numerous students at the commencement who worked full time at the University campus while pursuing their bachelor's or master's degrees.
"We have great bosses who let us pursue our education," said Espinoza, a mother of three whose husband Javier is also a UTPA student. "They are helping us to develop a professional career. They want the best for their employees."
The employee waiver she qualified for as a full-time employee pursuing a degree paid for up to six college credits within a year. The University also has policies which allow making up time for classes that the employee may have to take during the work day, Espinoza said.
"That opened the door of opportunity for me, I said 'you know, I need to go back to school,'" said Espinoza, who now plans to pursue a master's in rehabilitation counseling to reach her goal of becoming a counselor. "The University has been very supportive."
See more of the Fall 2012 Commencement ceremonies in this photo gallery.