For almost 90 years, The University of Texas-Pan American and its earlier iterations have transformed lives in the Rio Grande Valley and beyond, awarding more than 81,000 degrees to graduates who have gone on to make a difference in their communities.
On Saturday, Aug. 22, UTPA awarded more than 900 degrees at its final graduation ceremony at The McAllen Convention Center. UTPA and its sister institutions —The University of Texas at Brownsville and The University of Texas Health Science Center at San Antonio’s Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen — will unite to form The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley this fall.
Addressing a full auditorium, UTPA President Ad Interim Dr. Havidán Rodríguez encouraged graduates to address challenges, seize opportunities and embrace their achievements. He also reminded them to always make positive contributions to their communities.
“You have the knowledge to help us transform the world, to have an impact,” Rodríguez said. “No matter in what area or discipline you completed your degree, you can have a positive and long-lasting impact on your communities. I trust you will make a difference.”
As UTPA moves forward to become UTRGV, Rodríguez reflected on UTPA’s eight decades of achievements and credited graduates for their part in making the university a success.
“I hope that you will take pride in knowing that you have played an important role in laying a very strong foundation for the future of higher education in the region,” he said.
Graduates express their gratitude toward UTPA
Jorge Cantu, 24, who earned his master’s degree in biology, will head to South Texas College on Monday to start a job as a biology instructor for dual-enrollment students.
“I’m excited,” the Mission native said about his graduation day and tackling a new job. “I feel a sense of accomplishment.”
Cantu said he returned to the Valley purposely to get his master’s at UTPA after earning his bachelor’s degree in the same field from Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas. At UTPA, the faculty support was amazing, he said.
“I love the faculty here, they were always willing to help me,” said Cantu who, with an undergraduate minor in horticulture, became heavily involved in UTPA’s agroecology lab, which provided him opportunities for conducting research and community involvement.
As a graduate research assistant to Assistant Professor of Biology Alexis Racelis, Cantu led a 32-member team of students over three semesters to inventory all of the nearly 2,000 trees on the Edinburg campus. The work of Cantu and the students helped garner for The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley the 2014 Tree Campus USA designation, which signifies the university’s commitment to urban forest management and engaging the community in environmental stewardship.
“It was a great experience. I knew I liked botany and here I learned that ecology was the focus I wanted,” he said. “Also, I had to talk to a lot of people and explain what we were doing. It helped me with my public speaking and leadership skills.”
Cantu said he’d like to become an urban forester and also hopes to earn a Ph.D. one day, preferably at UTRGV, where he is confident they will offer a biology doctoral degree in the future.
“UTRGV is bringing in a medical school and there will be more research going on here and more diversity,” he said. “It’s going to be good change for the future.”
Valerie Rodriguez, who received her doctoral degree in rehabilitation counseling, said being a part of the final graduating class at UTPA was bittersweet.
“My educational experience at UTPA has been nothing short of exemplary,” Rodriguez said. “Without having attended UTPA for my bachelor’s master’s and now, finally, the doctoral degree, I certainly wouldn’t be where I am today.”
An Alton native and a first-generation college graduate, Rodriguez also earned her bachelor’s degree in rehabilitation services in 2006 and her master’s degree in rehabilitation counseling in 2008. She also was named Doctoral Student of the Year by the National Council on Rehabilitation Education in 2013.
Rodriguez, who works as a regional program specialist for the Texas Department of Assistive and Rehabilitative Services Region V, which includes the Rio Grande Valley, praised the faculty and staff of UTPA’s Department of Rehabilitation, saying they were not only supportive of her as a student, but also in her career as a vocational rehabilitation counselor.
“They’ve all become somewhat of a second family to me,” she said.
Though Rodriguez said she is glad to have all of her degrees from UTPA, she is happy her alma mater is continuing to grow and improve as it becomes UTRGV. She said she encourages students who will be a part of the new university to dream bigger than their circumstances, stay focused and surround themselves with people who will be supportive of them.
“What you’re really doing is preparing yourself to be a valuable asset to the community-at-large,” she said. “At the end of the day, it’s more about helping others and what you’re doing is preparing yourself — your mind, body, spirit, soul — to be really well-prepared to adequately and exceptionally do that.”
The first day of classes at UTRGV is Aug. 31.
See more of UTPA’s final commencement in this photo gallery.