It's all about family.
At The University of Texas-Pan American's Spring 2014 Commencement ceremonies May 10 at the McAllen Convention Center, UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen hailed the accomplishments of the 1,600-plus graduates, as well as the rest of the UT Pan American community, during the four and a half years he has been at the helm.
"I take true pride in what we as a family have accomplished in these four and a half years, especially with regard to student access and student success," he said, citing the multi-millions in scholarships, Pell Grants, and Texas Grants awarded to students. "Yes we have made access a priority and we have make education affordable. Our net tuition is the lowest in the United States. Yet we give the best darn degrees and the best darn education there is in the United States."
Nelsen went on to describe to thousands of family members and friends of the graduates who attended one of the three ceremonies a number of key grants and awards UTPA had received, new academic and student support programs that have been initiated or enhanced, and new buildings being renovated and constructed.
"But there is one important number that means most to me, that means everything to me ... we have graduated 13,904 students, yes 13,904 graduates, and we have done it as a family," he said.
Two of the graduates and members of the UTPA family received their degrees posthumously. During a solemn and silent presentation, Monette Arguelles and her son Santiago, 4, and daughter Skyler, 11, accepted the degree of Monette's husband Eddie Arguelles. Eddie, a UT Pan American IT employee who was close to earning his bachelor's degree in general studies with a major in philosophy, was struck by an alleged drunk driver in the early morning April 17 while riding his bicycle. The other degree was for Cynthia Pumarejo who died from lupus just before she was able to receive her bachelor's degree in social work. Her degree was presented to her brother Roberto Pumarejo Jr.
John Garcia, 25, who received a BA in psychology, said UT Pan American became a family for him.
Garcia was among four former foster care youth who became college graduates in the 9 a.m. ceremony. Defying dire statistics - less than 3 percent of youth who age out of foster care graduate from college - Garcia took advantage of a Texas law that waives the tuition and fees for any individual aging out of the foster care system who wants to attend a state-supported higher education institution. At UTPA, he also benefitted from the Preparation for Adult Living (PAL) Program, a partnership the University has with the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services that provides mentorship and a renewable housing scholarship to PAL students who qualify for admission and maintain an acceptable GPA.
Garcia, who entered the foster care system at age 15 and served four years in the Marines, including a tour in Afghanistan, said his PAL mentors were highly influential and always looked out for ways to help him. He called UTPA an "excellent choice" for him.
"There was this huge support system. I'm an orphan so the University became my family," he said. "It says a lot about the University to provide this level of support for this particular population that is in dire need. To have all four of us taking this huge step ....this should help other students move in the right direction."
Garcia has applied for the master of science in social work program and is pre-admitted to law school. He said he chose psychology for his undergraduate degree because foster care youth have a high incidence of PTSD (Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder).
"I have seen the needs of those in foster care and the ins and outs and ups and downs of it definitely pulled me toward that field," he said. "I want to help to improve and to give back to the community that has made it possible for us to succeed."
Rios told them three life lessons she learned: show up and excel, be positive and respectful and do something about which they are passionate.
"Your career is not going to be easy," Rios said. "There's going to be detours, there's going to be on-ramps and off-ramps, and there's going to be some failures. There is no GPS for your career."
González, who grew up in the Rio Grande Valley and helped his family pick crops while working as migrant farmers up north, said his parents told him to have a large family if he were to continue working as a migrant farmer. They also encouraged him to pursue an education. He decided to follow the latter advice.
"You're going to have people who love you, who care about you and mean well, and they want the best for you, but they're giving you advice based on their experience, and, ultimately, while they might mean well, it may be limiting for you," González said. "This is your degree, this is your life. Follow your heart, follow your passion, and be careful with some of the advice that people will give you, because it may limit your potential."
For Mayra G. Oyervides, Saturday's graduation signified another personal goal she achieved. Oyervides, who graduated with a Master of Science in biology, said this accomplishment far exceeded her expectations.
She had dropped out of high school at 16 and soon realized she had made a mistake, so she earned her general equivalency diploma, then her Associate degree in biology from South Texas College. She went on to earn her Bachelor of Science degree in biology degree from UTPA in 2009.
"It's more than I thought I would achieve, but I'm already making plans for a Ph.D. as well," Oyervides said. "Not too shabby for a high school dropout, I guess."
"Them having this faith in me that you can do it and always pushing me to strive for more drove me to have those high aspirations to do it," she said.
She also encouraged younger students to never give up.
"Education is definitely necessary, especially for us Hispanics, because we're a large minority in terms of the number of people here but, in terms of education, we're one of the lowest," she said. "I really think we need to change that because we have the capacity, we have hundreds of grads here today, most of them Hispanics, and if you had a slip up early on in your career, in high school, just don't give up on yourself. You can always do more and there's no goal that's too far-fetched."
See more of the commencement ceremonies in this photo gallery.