"My alma mater rooted me culturally and prepared me to incorporate the best of who we are as a community and to visualize the future where Latinos will set a new standard. I don't think there is a university that can compare," said De Leon, who co-founded the National Hispanic Institute (NHI) in the late 1970s.
This year, the NHI named UT Pan American as its College of the Year for its continued support and cooperation with the institute.
UTPA President Robert S. Nelsen said the NHI award affirms that the University is growing in prominence.
"Pan Am is being recognized throughout the nation," he said. "People know who we are, we are on the map, and it was very nice to affirm what we're doing and what our faculty are doing and what our staff are doing."
Throughout the years, UT Pan American has assisted the NHI in its efforts to prepare the next generation of leaders by offering its facilities to local high school students who are members of the Rio Grande Valley Great Debate team, which competes in the NHI's Great Debate. The University has also facilitated other NHI events when it operated a Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) grant.
The RGV Great Debate team won the 2012 and 2013 Texas Great Debate competitions and the Texas Ambassador Cup eight times. The local team also won the Southwest Great Debate twice, said De Leon, the NHI's executive vice president and at 1995 Distinguished Alumna of UTPA.
"The results speak for themselves," she said. "With an average of 80 students or more participating in the RGV Great Debate, plus GEAR UP students, well over 1,000 students have been primary beneficiaries."
Dr. Martha Cantu, vice president of Student Affairs, echoed Nelsen's sentiments.
"Coming from individuals who work with young Hispanics every day, it feels wonderful, because we know we're doing the right thing for these students," Cantu said. "We open up our doors for them and we are able to provide a picture of what real college life looks like. So, partnering with NHI, we're able to inspire and motivate these kids to fulfill their dreams of going to college."
NHI President Ernesto Nieto, however, said UTPA deserves the award for its generosity, as there are other universities in areas the NHI serves that are not as cooperative.
"UTPA has been a stand-alone institution that has generously allowed young people from the RGV community to access its resources for their training," Nieto said. "And while significant numbers of our students invariably attend UTPA after graduating from high school, UTPA has never asked us to justify or explain the number of NHI students who enroll in their undergraduate studies. UTPA acts as a community resource that extends its services into the community beyond the walls of its enrolled students."
Officials from UT Pan American will accept the award at the NHI's Celebración 2013 awards event Nov. 2 in San Antonio.