Originally published December 10, 2016
By Laura L. Acosta, Daniel Perez and Christina Rodriguez
‘Tis the season to be joyful for more than 2,300 summer and fall graduates who celebrated their achievements and future accomplishments during The University of Texas at El Paso’s three winter Commencement ceremonies Dec. 10, 2016 at the Don Haskins Center.
Several honorees at the evening ceremony seemed to stick with two common themes to describe their feelings: excitement and gratitude.
“This is an awesome feeling,” said Arturo Gonzalez-Lopez a few minutes before he marched into the Haskins Center. The El Paso native earned his bachelor’s degree in microbiology. His next stop is the University of Florida to earn a certificate in biomedical neuroscience on his way to a medical school. “I’ve loved my time (at UTEP). I’m honored to come from this school.”
Gonzalez-Lopez was among more than 740 summer graduates and fall candidates from the colleges of Science, Engineering and Health Sciences recognized during the day’s last ceremony. The morning ceremony celebrated the accomplishments of students from the College of Liberal Arts. The afternoon event acknowledged their peers from the School of Nursing and the colleges of Education and Business Administration.
Among the evening’s highlights were the awarding of 31 Doctor of Physical Therapy degrees and the University’s first doctoral degrees in mechanical engineering. All of the graduates were applauded loudly by the crowd estimated at more than 6,700.
Gabriela Tarin, a native of Juárez, Mexico, said she was excited about earning her master’s degree in environmental science, compared to the nerves that she felt when she received her bachelor’s in the same subject from UTEP three years ago.
She will accept a job with ESSCO, an El Paso-based environmental assessment company, and then apply to get her doctorate in three years. Tarin, who served as a student marshal for the graduate students from the College of Science, said her three-year graduate journey was hard, but fun, and she thanked the Department of Geology for helping her earn a three-month internship in 2015 to study Arctic tundra ponds at Point Barrow, Alaska.
“Now it’s time to explore new things,” she said.
Andres Sanchez, one of the many candidates who donned a bright orange hard hat to signify a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, said he was grateful to his fraternity brothers and faculty members who kept him focused and responsible. The native of Chihuahua City, Mexico, said friends and faculty became his family and supported him when he considered changing majors.
Instead he stuck to his original plan, which he chose because his dream was to return to Mexico to serve communities that need help with safer, more environmentally friendly infrastructure. He chose UTEP because he was aware of the University’s openness to students from Mexico. He said his academics and internships with the Environmental Protection Agency and Western Refining have given him a strong foundation.
Sanchez plans to start his graduate studies in civil engineering in January at UTEP.
“I can’t go back (to Mexico) yet,” he said. “I still have a lot to learn.”
Juan Aguilera, a licensed medical doctor in Mexico, appreciated the opportunity to earn his Master in Public Health degree because that knowledge complements his work as a physician.
Aguilera juggled his studies with a research fellowship with the Institute for Healthy Living, an arm of the Paso del Norte Health Foundation, and UTEP’s Health Exams Research Project, which offers health assessments to people in low-income households.
“I’ve been busy,” said Aguilera, who earned his MPH this past summer.
He started his doctoral studies in fall 2016 in interdisciplinary health sciences at UTEP. His goal is to join the UTEP faculty to continue his interdisciplinary health research and reopen his private medical practice in Juárez, Mexico.
To all the graduates, University President Diana Natalicio said she was proud of their accomplishments.
“You set high aspirations for yourselves, persevered and worked hard to develop your talents and achieve your goals, and greatly increased the probability that the success you celebrate this evening will serve as a springboard for other big dreams that you’ll achieve in the future,” President Natalicio said.
During the afternoon ceremony, more than 840 UTEP graduates from the College of Business Administration, College of Education and School of Nursing closed an important chapter in their lives but reveled in the excitement of starting a new phase with high hopes and confidence.
First-generation college graduate Jessica Valdez proudly displayed “Ms. Valdez” along with an apple on her motor board, which she carefully adorned with pearls. She began her career as a third-grade teacher a week ago and is ecstatic to be able to put her degree to good use by helping children achieve their dreams.
“I have always wanted to work with children,” she said. “State testing begins in third grade, and I feel privileged to be able to share my knowledge and help my kids succeed and do well on their tests.”
The next chapter for newly minted graduate Paul Christian Macias begins just days after receiving his Bachelor of Science in Nursing. On Dec. 12, Macias will start his career at a local hospital as a full-time RN with the telemetry unit, a position for which he feels his education has adequately prepared him.
“My experience at UTEP has been great,” Macias said. “It has been hard, but I enjoyed every moment. Looking back, even the stressful moments don’t seem so bad when you’re about to walk that stage. I feel confident that I will be successful based on what I learned.”
Many seasoned professionals also took the stage during the 2 p.m. Commencement ceremony, earning their graduate degrees with the hope of taking their already successful careers to the next level.
UTEP alumnus Dino Coronado has been in education administration for many years. After retiring from the military after 22 years of service, he began working as a substitute teacher and worked his way up. Coronado was the principal at Canutillo High School, had an administrative role with the Houston Independent School District and currently is an area superintendent with El Paso Independent School District. The same day he defended his dissertation, he received a job offer from EPISD.
“Receiving my doctorate is an emotional accomplishment for me,” said Coronado, who earned his Doctor of Education degree. “My hope is to be a leader by example. By continuing my education, I am showing my students and teachers that education doesn’t end with a degree; it is constant. I am living the dream of a lifelong learner.”
It wasn’t an easy task for UTEP alumna Brandy Natividad to earn her Master of Science in Nursing Education. In the process of pursuing her master’s, she went through a divorce, worked a full-time job at University Medical Center as a labor and delivery nurse and had her house on the market. Not only did she accomplish her goal, but she earned her master’s with a 4.0 GPA.
“Working at a teaching hospital made me want to teach. Being immersed with the residents, medical students, EMT students and nursing students made me think I wanted to teach as a lifelong career,” Natividad said. “I did this all for my son. He saw the struggle, and I wanted to show him that if Mom can do it, so could he, but he could do it 10 times better.”
Ivan Montes currently works at UTEP as a manager for the Vice President of Business Affairs. He previously earned his bachelor’s in marketing and international business from UTEP and today received his Master of Business Administration. He plans to stay at UTEP and use his master’s to further his career.
“My hope is to use the skills I learned while pursuing my master’s and apply them to my current job,” he said. “I got everything meaningful to me from UTEP, even my wife,” Montes joked.
Today’s graduates are from different backgrounds and lifestyles but came together to complete a significant milestone in their lives.
“You set high aspirations for yourselves, persevered and worked hard to develop your talents and achieve your goals, and greatly increased the probability that the success you celebrate this afternoon will serve as a springboard for other big dreams that you’ll achieve in the future, much as you did this one,” President Natalicio said during her Commencement remarks. “You’ve capitalized on UTEP’s climate of academic rigor and excellence, and our culture of mutual respect and honor, to develop the competencies, acquire the knowledge, and draw on the abilities needed to achieve your highest aspirations.”
The University conferred more than 660 degrees to graduates from the College of Liberal Arts to the cheers and applause of about 5,200 family members, friends and UTEP faculty and staff who attended the 9 a.m. ceremony.
“I knew this day was going to come,” said an excited Denisse Franco, who was among the dozens of graduates who decorated her mortar board. She used repurposed Christmas lights.
“I was trying to think of a way to mix everything together,” said Franco, who graduated summa cum laude with a bachelor’s degree in organizational and corporate communication. “It’s like a mix of joy. It’s Christmas and I’m graduating and I was trying to see if these lights fit on my cap. I made it work.”
Sergio Manriquez, who earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in dance, has the bright lights of Broadway in his future. Manriquez plans to save enough money to move to New York in September.
“The professors here trained me and drilled technique in me,” said Manriquez, who has already proved his acting chops in the UTEP Dinner Theatre productions of “Footloose,” “West Side Story” and “Mary Poppins.” “I think I’ve been prepared really well. I can’t wait to get out there.”
In addition to honoring graduates, the ceremony also recognized the special people in their lives who were part of their higher education journey.
For José Miguel Chávez Leyva, who received a master’s in history, one of those special people was his mother, Yolanda Chávez Leyva, Ph.D., chair of the UTEP Department of History and an associate professor.
At Commencement, José Miguel Chávez Leyva served as the Liberal Arts Graduate Student Marshal while Yolanda Chávez Leyva served as the Liberal Arts College Marshal.
“I was interested in history because I grew up around it,” said José Miguel Chávez Leyva, who has been accepted into UTEP’s history Ph.D. program. “I hadn’t planned to study history, but during my undergraduate I took some courses and really fell in love with it. I’m going to be a professor.”
During the ceremony, UTEP President Diana Natalicio reminded graduates to be proud and confident in their UTEP education, which has prepared them to compete in the global community.
“As representatives of a talented and highly meritorious 21st century student demographic, you are the next generation of professional leaders and engaged citizens and part of the UTEP success story that I’m often invited and very proud to present in settings across this country and the world,” President Natalicio said.
To see photos from the morning Commencement ceremony, click here.
To see photos from the afternoon Commencement ceremony, click here.
To see photos from the evening Commencement ceremony, click here.