Amber Feist has always had the passion to help enhance the lives of people with disabilities. With a background in psychology, sociology and minority studies, Feist sought a way to treat her patients holistically. The South Dakota native found what she was looking for in The University of Texas-Pan American's doctoral program in Rehabilitation Counseling and was part of its inaugural class in the Fall of 2009.
"Coming in as the first group, we had opportunities to work with all of the faculty," Feist said. "We were able to publish peer reviewed journals, I was able to teach classes, help with grant writing, so they really opened up those doors to us, to not only have that hands-on clinical experience but also the academic world as well be to able to get our feet wet and step into that world. It was a wonderful experience."
On Saturday, Aug. 17, Feist became UT Pan American's first recipient of a Ph.D. in Rehabilitation Counseling. Her accomplishment was one of many praised during the ceremony held at the McAllen Convention Center, where degrees were conferred upon about 700 graduates.
In his address to UTPA's newest alumni, President Robert S. Nelsen congratulated them and encouraged them to continue achieving.
"Lately the University has been abuzz with the successes of so many people, especially of so many high-achieving women," Nelsen said.
The president highlighted the success of UTPA's first female to graduate with a degree in computer engineering, Samantha Lozano Silvas (BS '09), as well as faculty members Dr. Karen Lozano, the Julia Beecherl Endowed Professor of mechanical engineering, who was been appointed to the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Engineering Advisory Committee, and Drs. Cristina Villalobos, Jessica Lavariega-Monforti and Marie Mora who, along with Provost and Vice President for Academic Affairs Dr. Havidán Rodríguez and Vice Provost for Faculty Affairs Dr. Ala Qubbaj, worked together to create the ADVANCE Leadership Institute, which was funded by an NSF grant. Their success, Nelsen said, resulted from saying yes to opportunity.
"Graduates, I challenge each of you to take advantage of the opportunities that are presented to you," Nelsen said. "I challenge you to set your sights on achievement rather than success ...achievements that, in some way, will help others, that will help your family, and that will add value to your communities. If you dedicate yourself to those goals, you will be guaranteeing yourself success."
UT Pan American graduates also heard from a fellow Bronc who was named one of the University's Pillars of Success. Alumna Norma Cantú (BS '73 English and government), a distinguished civil rights lawyer and educator who participated as co-counsel in landmark cases in Texas that provided greater access to higher education and more equitable public school funding for South Texas students, gave the commencement address.
Currently a professor of law and education at The University of Texas at Austin, Cantú described her dream from childhood of becoming a lawyer. When she had a opportunity to go to Harvard Law School after graduating from then Pan American University at age 19, she said her first "case" was against her parents who didn't want her to go away but came to support her.
"The lesson is dream big ... and believe in your dreams," said Cantú, who also served as the first Hispanic female assistant secretary to head the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights in the Clinton administration.
While in Washington, D.C., Cantú said she was challenged to streamline and modernize the office she oversaw while battling Congress in enforcement of Title 9, which provided greater opportunities for females. However, she was proud to be recognized nationally for being a good steward of taxpayer monies during her time in D.C.
"The lessons of working hard and standing up for what is right are lessons I learned here at UT Pan American," she said.
A vice chair of the board of Excelencia in Education, a noted national nonprofit organization that promotes Latino student success in higher education, Cantú recognized the co-founder and president of the organization Sarita E. Brown, who attended the commencement ceremony.
"You sitting here in this room are examples of excellence because you are leaders," Cantú said.
But she told them they are not finished.
"There is work still ahead of you - to invest in yourselves and to support others to secure an education," she said.
Graduate Linda Martinez wore a white sash over her graduation gown representing the organization Latinos in Science and Engineering, in which she was involved at UTPA. The Pharr native is a first-generation college graduate who earned her bachelor's in electrical engineering. She said from childhood she was interested in how things, like MP3's for example, worked.
"I wanted to know what was inside it. What is the math behind it," said Martinez, who was encouraged by her dad who worked for an electric company.
At UTPA, Martinez said she was able to participate in several areas of research with faculty and received a lot of help and mentorship from them. She cited electrical engineering faculty member Dr. Hasina Huq as one of her female role models.
"She's really a smart professor and knows her math from the top of her head," Martinez said.
While searching for a job, Martinez said she plans to again volunteer at this year's Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Conference at UTPA and will continue to tell young people, particularly young girls, about the opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math.
"I like to talk to kids about engineering. I talk to girls, tell them the benefits. I describe the classes and the projects we get to do and they get excited about engineering," she said."I also tell them to study hard, ask questions... and never give up."
See more of the commencement ceremony in this photo gallery.