More than 1,200 graduates of The University of Texas-Pan American were thanked Dec. 14 for laying the foundation for a great new university - The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley - that will shape an exciting future for the region.
"With each name change the University has grown stronger and reached out to more and more people in the Valley," he said. "We have a strong legacy. In 2015 UT Pan American will no longer exist but because of you students and the needs in the Valley, a greater institution will rise."
Nelsen said the new university will bicultural, bilingual and biliterate as well as technologically advanced.
"The new university will be a font of innovations and change," he said. "That university is because of you. You pushed us to be better."
Graduates also received words of wisdom and advice from alumni who have gone on to successful careers: local attorney and civic leader Marcus Cayetano Barrera (MBA '94), Public Affairs Manager for H-E-B's Border Region Linda A. Tovar (BBA '08), and Senior Principal Mechanical Engineer at Raytheon's Space & Airborne Systems Division Dr. Mauricio A. Salinas (BS '96).
Barrera, who spoke at the first ceremony, first thanked his lifelong best friend Ernie Aliseda for attending the ceremony. Aliseda is the newly appointed regent from the Valley to The University of Texas System Board of Regents.
"I didn't actually get to go through commencement when I got my MBA at UTPA so this is kind of like my commencement," said Barrera, managing partner of Barrera, Sanchez & Associates, P.C.
Barrera advised the graduates to not be afraid of failure and to speak up for what they believe in. Recalling a mission he went on in college to help people in impoverished areas of South America, he encouraged them to use what they have learned to help others.
Citing a long list of favorable rankings and accolades about the region - from long term job growth to low cost of living - Barrera ended by asking them to be passionate ambassadors for UT RGV and the Rio Grande Valley and to seize the opportunities available here.
"Be proud of where you are from and where you graduated from. For young people graduating from college in the Rio Grande Valley is a gold mine. The future is bright for all of you here today," he said.
Daniel Tamez, 25, of McAllen, who was one of 49 graduates of UTPA's Physician Assistant Studies program at the first ceremony, said he and his fellow physician assistants are relieved to have successfully completed the rigorous two-and-a-half-year program that included many sleepless nights and seven exams a week.
"It's been a tough year and a half but, with all our classmates, we've made it through and now we're done, ready to practice," Tamez said.
Tamez, who plans to work in internal medicine, said he is looking forward to the opening of the new medical school that will be a part of UT Rio Grande Valley.
In the second ceremony for graduates in Colleges of Arts and Humanities and Business Administration, Tovar had some life lessons for the graduates arising from her own story of dropping out of college to work full time for the Boys and Girls Club of McAllen. She said she loved the job that fulfilled her career plan of working for a nonprofit organization and allowed her to assist her family financially. However, she said, something was missing.
"I was the first in my family to ever attend college but I still didn't have a degree," she said.
When she re-entered UTPA, she said it was challenging but her professors encouraged her to keep an open mind and to look outside her life plan at other employment opportunities that would be as fulfilling. She is now a five-year employee of H-E-B, a company she describes as "amazing." Tovar told the graduates to keep an open mind.
"Take risks and try new things. You never know what opportunities you will find, even if it's not a part of your life plan," she said. "Always want more, do more and strive to learn more."
Although Zoelia Diaz, 30, will move from the Valley back to Washington state following her graduation, she will take with her a master's degree in Business Administration from UTPA. Diaz, who received her diploma at the 1 p.m. ceremony, was one of the first five graduates in UTPA's online Accelerated MBA program first offered in Fall 2012.
The mother of a 1 year old moved here while her husband was on a three-year Border Patrol assignment. She said the program is a good choice for those wanting to gain an MBA in a shorter time frame or unable to attend classes on campus. Diaz hopes her MBA will land her a quality assurance management position in a hospital.
"If it wasn't for that program I was thinking of taking a break - with the baby, the house and moving," said Diaz, who transferred from the on-campus MBA program to finish her last five courses before relocating. "It is very challenging but it is possible. I'm glad I completed the program here. I am going to recommend it to friends."
"We were a small class and our professors knew us by name and they really cared about us," he said.
Salinas said he felt like a "small fish in a very big lake" when he ventured out of the Valley as a student to attend a NASA summer internship in Cleveland, Ohio.
"I survived that day and that summer, and I must have done OK because they invited me back four more times," said Salinas, who went on to earn his master's at Stanford University, a Ph.D. at the University of Texas at Arlington, and a top job at Texas Instruments before his employment at Raytheon. "By graduating from this university, you have practiced, acquired, and mastered the ability to learn. With this important skill, you can do anything you want to do in life. You are the big fish. Don't feel insecure. You have the skills and talents to compete with anyone in the world."
He also asked the parents at the ceremony to allow their children to explore opportunities away from the Valley.
"Don't worry moms, the food alone will bring them back," Salinas said.
Yale University or the UT Health Science Center in San Antonio is one of the hopeful destinations of new graduate Karina Patino-Guzman, who received her bachelor's degree in biology. She plans to pursue a doctoral degree in molecular and cell biology while also earning an MBA.
She said her father, a small business owner, inspired her on the business end.
"Scientists are also inventors," Patino-Guzman said. "With the collaboration between engineers, mathematicians and scientists we can create so many new and amazing things. I feel that is what is missing down here in the Valley - creating more innovation, creating more scientists, creating more passion about breaking new boundaries."
She said her parents never got beyond a middle school education, although her mother just earned her GED. Her family struggled financially, but at UTPA, she said she got financial support and valuable mentorship from faculty to help her realize her potential as a successful scientist.
"I have been able to publish in a scientific publication, I have been able to win grants to do scientific outreach as an undergraduate," she said of the opportunities she had while a student. "I want to give back one day. I want to have a lot of outreach programs for school kids in the Valley for entrepreneurship and mobile science."
Enjoy more photos of the three ceremonies at the UTPA December 2013 Commencement Ceremonies Facebook album.