Originally published in UTEP Magazine, Winter 2015
By Laura L. Acosta • Photos by Ivan Pierre Aguirre and Laura Trejo
Among the 27 students who started the first day of classes at the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy (now The University of Texas at El Paso) on Sept. 28, 1914, was Raul Barberena, the first student from Mexico.
A native of Tampico, Mexico, Barberena also earned the distinction of being the University’s first Hispanic instructor. Dean Steve H. Worrell hired Barberena to teach Spanish while he completed his studies to become a mining engineer.
Since 1914, thousands of talented and highly motivated students from Mexico have followed Barberena’s example and come to UTEP in pursuit of a world-class education in the United States.
“This institution of higher education has become the alma mater of thousands of people in my country, and today UTEP is the American university with the highest number of Mexican students,” said Mexican Ambassador to the U.S. Eduardo Medina Mora during the dedication ceremony of the sculpture Esfera Cuántica Tlahtolli by Mexican artist Sebastián at UTEP in September 2014. “This continuous exchange has contributed significantly to strengthening our bilateral ties and consolidating regional
cooperation in an increasingly globalized world,” he added.
UTEP’s location on the U.S.-Mexico border has been the catalyst for many partnerships with programs and people in Mexico involving student engagement, research collaborations, cultural exchanges and academic initiatives. These partnerships have allowed students on both sides of the border to develop their talents and contribute to the social and economic advancement of the Paso del Norte region.
“Many of our achievements over the past century are the result of strong partnerships with others, including our good friends in Mexico,” said UTEP President Diana Natalicio. “Together, we have worked hard to raise the aspirations and educational attainment of this region’s young people, and to enhance our collective quality of life.”
Access to Excellence
UTEP’s commitment to provide students an affordable and high quality education prompted Cecilia Osornio Tokunhaga to pursue her bachelor’s degree in nursing from UTEP. Tokunhaga was one of 1,085 Mexican nationals pursuing their academic careers at the University during the fall 2014 semester.
UTEP enrolls more undergraduate Mexican students than any other university in the nation.
Tokunhaga’s dream to study at an American university became a reality thanks to the Programa de Asistencia Estudiantil (PASE) at UTEP.
Implemented at UTEP in 1987 by the Texas legislature, the PASE program has enabled Mexican students to pay in-state tuition.
About 97 percent of Mexican nationals studying at UTEP benefit from the program.
Without the program’s assistance, Tokunhaga estimates that she would have paid $7,000 more per year in tuition, prohibiting her from continuing her education.
“Paying for tuition out of pocket is hard, especially if you are an international student,” said Tokunhaga, a PASE Peer Adviser with UTEP’s Office of International Programs. “UTEP is one of the best universities in the country. I would highly recommend to other students from Mexico to come and study here.”
In collaboration with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mexico, UTEP has helped to foster the higher education goals of students from Mexico by providing them with financial resources through the Institute of Mexicans Abroad (IME)-Becas program. Becas is the Spanish word for scholarship.
In December, UTEP received $20,000 from IME-Becas to award scholarships to 17 students from Mexico who are enrolled full time at the University. Paola A. Ramos Villegas, a cellular and molecular biochemistry major from Chihuahua City, was one of the recipients.
Villegas has taken full advantage of the research opportunities UTEP offers undergraduate students. Her experience working on prostate cancer research at the University helped her earn an internship at Princeton University in molecular biology during the summer of 2014.
“Getting my bachelor’s degree in the U.S. for me was a good start,” said Villegas, who expects to graduate in May 2015 and plans to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees. “I think it’s really great that (IME-Becas) encourages students to go to foreign places to learn.”
IME-Becas was established in 2005 through a bilateral agreement between the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Mexico through IME and the University of California, Berkeley.
Since 2010, IME has funded the scholarship gift to UTEP through the Consulate General of Mexico in El Paso to provide and improve access to academic opportunities for Mexican students who want to attend adult education programs and universities in the United States. Recipients use the funds to develop skills in high-demand fields that will enhance their job opportunities in this country.
To date, 32 students have received new and renewed scholarships for a total of $85,000, including Jorge Baños Gomar, whose scholarship was renewed from 2010 to 2014.
“Without IME-Becas, I am most certain that I would have needed to reduce my course load or simply not continue with my degree,” said Gomar, a native of Mexico City who earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees from UTEP. “The scholarship allowed me to cover part of my tuition costs and give back to the community and focus on academics and leadership.”
Promoting Binational Unity
On Sept. 10, 2014, UTEP and the Consulate General of Mexico in El Paso celebrated the enduring relationship between the University and the people of Mexico with the unveiling of the sculpture Esfera Cuántica Tlahtolli in front of the Fox Fine Arts Center.
A gift from the people of Mexico to commemorate the University’s 100th anniversary, the sculpture symbolizes the bonds of friendship and partnership between the people of Mexico and the University.
“It is great news to learn that the work of Sebastián, one of Mexico’s most distinguished contemporary artists, will have such a prominent place at UTEP, an academic institution that since its inception has welcomed Mexican students,” said the Honorable Jacob Prado, Consul General of Mexico in El Paso.
The Mexican Consulate in El Paso has become one of the University’s most engaged partners.
Through the years, both have worked collaboratively on several projects related to U.S.-Mexico border issues, the arts and cultural programming.
Since 2013, the College of Health Sciences at UTEP has provided health-related resources to Mexican nationals and their families at the Mexican Consulate in El Paso through the Ventanilla de Salud, a health collaborative established by the Mexican government.
Services include health information and education, referrals to health and social services in the community, health fairs and more.
“The partnership between the Consulado General de Mexico in El Paso and the College of Health Sciences provides an excellent venue to improve the physical and mental well-being of Mexicans who live in the U.S., and to increase their access to primary and preventive health care, (Seguro Popular) health insurance coverage, and delivering these services in a culturally sensitive and appropriate fashion,” said Eva Moya, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work.
From July 2013 to June 2014, the program’s health and education presentations attracted 16,714 participants. During the same time span, the program made more than 1,200 referrals to health and human services agencies.
“Ventanilla de Salud is an excellent venue for UTEP students, faculty and staff to practice and model collaboration, education and service,” Moya said. “Together we strive to achieve a holistic approach and create a culture of health focused on prevention.”
The Mexican Consulate also is a frequent co-sponsor of the University’s Centennial Lecture series, which included the first Centennial Lecture of the fall 2014 semester by Mexican Ambassador Eduardo Medina Mora.
Each year, the consul general of Mexico in El Paso performs El Grito de la Independencia, or the cry of independence, at the UTEP Union Plaza to enable Mexican nationals to commemorate Mexico’s Day of Independence on Sept. 16.
“All these things make you feel like (this is) home,” Paola A. Ramos VillegaS said. “(UTEP) keeps a lot of traditions and that helps a lot. I got to learn more about my own country while being here.”
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