|UTPA and UTB supporters get together at the State Capitol for RGV Higher Education Day on Jan. 30.|
More than 100 students, faculty and staff from UT Pan American and more from UT Brownsville traveled to Austin for the Rio Grande Valley Higher Education Day to tell legislators and their staffs about The University of Texas System’s desire to unify UTPA and UTB and create a new medical school in the Valley. The UT System Board of Regents unanimously approved the plan in December 2012.
“We’re here to talk about the Valley and the amazing things that are happening down there,” said UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen. “We don’t even know the name of the university but we know that it will graduate more and more students. We will be even more successful and we will be an emerging research university and finally, we’ll have PUF (Permanent University Fund).”
Nelsen and UTB President Dr. Juliet V. Garcia said that the Valley’s two universities are the only UT institutions that do not have access to the PUF, which are revenues from oil and mineral reserves. Access to the PUF would allow the Valley to create an emerging research university.
Nelsen, Garcia and Dr. Francisco Gonzalez-Scarano, dean of The University of Texas Health Science Center-San Antonio, thanked all the students, faculty, staff and alumni from the institutions, as well as community members who came to Austin to show their support for the venture. Transportation for UTPA students, staff and faculty was provided by RGV Partnership.
The universities also took this opportunity to highlight their students’ talent by having the award-winning UTPA Mariachi Aztlán and UTB’s Guitar Ensemble perform in the rotunda.
“Once in a while we get to be a part of history, not because you caused it, not because you’re responsible for all the work that has gone into it, but because you’ve proven to be in this moment with all of us,” Garcia said. “We all get to be part of this wonderful moment. So for all the students who are here today who played so beautifully, who worked so hard to get up so early in the morning to board buses to come here, it was worth it. It was worth it because you got to be here at the State Capitol to celebrate working on this most important issue that you will always be able to tell everyone in your family and yourself that you played an important role into making that next major step for higher education in the Rio Grande Valley.”
Texas House Representatives Bobby Guerra (TX-41) and Terry Canales (TX-40), who represent parts of Hidalgo County, thanked supporters who attended and spoke about the importance of what the UT schools are working to accomplish. Earlier in the day, both the House and Senate passed resolutions in support of the UT System’s plan to create the new university and medical school.
“I’m the former president of alumni for Pan American University, so this is dear to my heart,” Guerra said. “My mother was on the Board of Regents for many years, many of my great uncles were part of the junior college when it was first established in the 1920s... so this is very important to me. But I think it is important to all of us and what a wonderful opportunity to expand on what we’ve already built and to be part of the wonderful things that will bring. To be part of this history is unbelievable.”
Alumnus Joe Brown (BBA ’84) is a UTPA Development Board member who traveled to Austin to show his support. He said he had a commitment to the University and to give back. He called the unification of the schools and the establishment of a medical school a tremendous opportunity for the Valley.
“I know the Valley is united about it, everyone is excited about it,” Brown said, president/CEO of Border Capital Bank in McAllen. “The economic benefits are going to be tremendous for the Valley. The fact that the Valley has as many students as they do in the universities and the local community college shows there is a great need for education and that’s the way we are going to improve the Valley, the income in the Valley. All of that will have a positive effect obviously. The Rio Grande Valley always seems to be behind the rest of the state and even in this respect we are following. But now is the time we can catch up with some of the other universities and the money they are getting through the PUF funds, so this will be a big plus for us.”
Students and fellow alumni shared Brown’s excitement for the new university.
Matthew Garcia, president of UTPA’s Student Government Association who is a premedical student with a double major in biology and political science, said he is excited about the UT System’s plans and to be a part of the Valley delegation to push for the new university and medical school’s creation.
“It’s really the only opportunity for students, staff, faculty, and administration to really come together as a whole and let our legislators know that this is what we want as a community and it will be beneficial,” Garcia said. “To be able to have this real show of force, so to speak, and to be able to come here, I think it’s extremely exciting.”
Garcia, who plans to attend medical school, said he is looking forward to having access to medical education in the Valley so he won’t have to move far from home to pursue his goal of becoming a doctor.
“I can stay here, I can serve my community,” he said. “I know there’s a lot of talk that wherever you do your residency that’s where you’re going to end up. So I’ll be able to spend my years in medical education down here instead of going off to another community that isn’t really my home.”
Matt Ruszczak (BA ’03, MBA ’05), president/CEO of the Greater Mission Chamber of Commerce, called it a pivotal moment for the Valley.
“The unification of the two institutions will raise the standard of the institution and its ranking and status. It will spur future growth. The medical school is critical because again it will raise our status on the state and national level as well as provide access to education – professional education – to our residents. There are statistics on how far we are behind in terms of the residents to doctor ratio in the Valley. So we really need to have residents here who stay here,” he said.
Valley native and UTPA Foundation Board Chairman Jaime Ramón, an attorney with K&L Gates in Dallas was excited about the prospects the initiative brings to the Valley and the support he’s seen so far from the legislators.
“It creates so much opportunity for both education and development in the Valley,” Ramón said. “We hope this will be done by a very wide margin vote.”
Ramón further expressed the impact the new university would have on the community and the state.
“It means a lot to Texas,” he said. “You will now have one institution that will have greater capacity to provide more post graduate degrees and capital development. The creation of a medical school has tremendous implications for the Valley. You will see a tremendous growth in the health care industry in the Valley without a doubt. With that there are a lot of attending industries that will also start up in the Valley – there will be research, science, collateral things will be happening with the creation of a medical school here. Then what will follow will be other post-graduate degrees, more doctoral degrees will be offered in the Valley… you will have the brain talent in the Valley retained in the Valley. People won’t have to go outside the Valley to get post-graduate degrees,” Ramón said.
The RGV delegation broke down in groups that included administrators, faculty, staff, students and development or foundation board members to “walk the halls” of the Capitol to drum up support for passage of a bill that will approve the unification and medical school. The bill will require a two-thirds vote in favor to pass.
“We’re working very hard together to make this happen,” State Rep. Guerra said of the Valley delegation to the State Legislature. “We want to make sure this proposal makes sense to our districts but quite frankly for the whole Rio Grande Valley, and it does. It’s important for the whole state because we are going to have a better educated workforce. It’s important that this thing works.”
To celebrate the day's events, the UTPA Foundation hosted an evening reception, sponsored by Verizon, at Serrano's restaurant near the capitol for friends of the University, alumni, staff, faculty, administrators and legislators.
Verizon Vice President of Governmental Relations Richard Lawson said it is important to make legislators, who are focused on their own district's issues, aware of the needs of the other parts of the state.
"I think it’s necessary in this day to communicate with the legislators and the public policy makers who are obviously coming from all over the state, so having a Valley contingent come here and spend the day in the Capitol, having the wonderful Mariachi play, and giving a lot of publicity to the needs in the Valley - it's just a necessary and wonderful event. Verizon was happy to be able to sponsor it and help make it happen," Lawson said.
To see more photos of RGV Higher Education Day at the State Capitol, visit the UTPA facebook page.