By Steve Taylor
Rio Grande Guardian
EDINBURG,TX – To loud applause at a recent VAMOS annual scholarship banquet, UTPA President Robert Nelsen boldly asserted that the future of Texas lies with young Latinos.
“The future is here, today. The future is not Texas, it is deep South Texas. The future is the Latino Hispanic youth in this Valley,” Nelsen said, in a keynote speech. “Si Se Puede.”
The banquet was held at the Edinburg Conference Center at Renaissance and the hall was filled with students who were fortunate enough to secure four-year scholarships thanks to the Valley Alliance of Mentors for Opportunities and Scholarships (VAMOS).
Sitting with the students at their tables were their parents and siblings. Nelsen started his speech by saying how humbled he was to be asked to speak at such an important event. He described VAMOS as an “amazing organization” that cares about its students, cares about changing lives and cares about eliminating poverty in the Rio Grande Valley. “VAMOS is trying to make your dreams come true,” he said.
Nelsen grew up on a small ranch in Montana. He said he feels more at home in the Valley than he has felt anywhere else. The reason, he said, is the students at UTPA. He asked all those in the audience who graduated from UTPA to stand. He said these are the people who are leading the Valley.
Nelsen then ran through some numbers. He said UTPA has 19,034 students. He said it has graduated 70,000 people. He said UTPA students who want to go to medical school have a 64 percent chance of doing so, which is far better than the 30 percent average in the rest of the UT System. He said the passing rate for UTPA students who want to become nurse practitioners is 95 percent. He said the passing rate for those who want to be attorneys is 90 percent.
Nelsen said he is not supposed to be prideful. However, he noted that students studying accountancy at UTPA have won the KPMG national championship three times in the last four years. He noted that UTPA’s Panorama magazine has been recognized as the best student magazine in America, that UTPA’s Mariachi Aztlan has been national champions four times running and that UTPA’s Ballet Folklórico recently performed at the Kennedy Center and has been recognized as the best dance company in America.
Nelsen wanted the students in the audience to relate to his stories about his upbringing because he, like most of them, grew up in poverty. He told the story of how a beat-up old saddle that used to belong to Calamity Jane ended up in his office. He said he was given it by a 93-year-old man named Shorty Oliver.
“I know what poverty is. We got one pair of pants every year. We made do,” he said.
As a boy, Nelsen was asked by his father to work on a neighboring ranch in order to bring in hard cash. With that cash his parents could purchase cans of green beans. “I remember green beans tasted so good coming out of those cans,” he said. His family only had one saddle and he had to ride three miles each day in order to work at the neighboring ranch.
“Students, I am telling you that story so that you remember VAMOS,” Nelsen said. “It is the kindness of others that changes you and gives you opportunities.”
Nelsen said that although work was hard on a small family ranch, he was always able to dream thanks to the books he could read.
“I would see another world, another life, another possibility. It didn’t matter how hard I had worked that day because books let me dream,” he recalled. Among the books he read were Brave New World, Gulliver’s Travels and the works of Shakespeare.
Nelsen then paid tribute to a teacher of his, Mr. Sullivan, who used to be a police officer but was badly beaten up by a gang. Close to death in a hospital bed, Sullivan decided to change careers and become a teacher so that there were fewer gangs in the world.
“He gave back,” Nelsen said.
Nelsen then told one of his favorite stories, about a former migrant student at UTPA named Alicia Camarillo Rigney. It was Camarillo Rigney who coined a phrase Nelsen wished he had come up with: ‘When you know there is more, you want more.’
Nelsen said that seeing her father work so hard in the fields gave Camarillo Rigney a good soul. He said seeing her mother and siblings work in the fields gave her strength. He said she would tell him about the snakes, bugs, and insects she would encounter working in the fields. And she would tell him how it would get so cold she could not move her hands. Her father would not let her stop, however. He told her she had to keep moving.
Camarillo Rigney wanted to study at Monterrey Tech, Nelsen said, but her parents hardly had enough money to feed their children. So, they crossed the river and worked all year long picking fruit and vegetables in northern states. Thanks to the hard work of her parents, Camarillo Rigney was able to enroll at UTPA. She is now a teacher at PSJA ISD.
“Alicia saw her father cry for the first time when she graduated. We were so lucky to have a recorder there,” Nelson said. “She is giving back to her community and giving back to kids like her.” He then quoted Camarillo Rigney again: “When you know there is more, you want more. I have tasted what life is and the difference is now I know what is possible.”
Nelsen referenced Camarillo Rigney’s story in order to reinforce his view that the Valley is a magical place. “The magic isn’t the citrus, it isn’t the dirt. It isn’t even the river. It is the people. It is you,” he told the students. He pointed out that the Valley’s average age is 25.9 percent. Its poverty level is twice the state average and the number of students the Valley graduates is half the state average, he said.
“We need to change that,” Nelsen said, asking the UTPA students to rise. “You will make a difference. You will change us.”
Nelsen said when Valley leaders want to get a message across about the challenges the region faces, they do not get angry. Rather, he said, they tell stories. He proceeded to tell the story of Elsie Garza, who was undocumented when she arrived at UTPA as a student.
Nelsen said he first met Garza at an airport in Dallas. She rushed up to him and hugged him. “Oh, no, she has the wrong bald guy,” Nelsen thought. Garza said she knew Nelsen was president of UTPA because she had seen him at HESTEC. She said she was on her way back to the Valley to tell her mother the great news. She had been named engineer of the year at Raytheon.
Nelsen said Garza’s mother owns Susie’s Tacos on Hwy 281. When she first went to UTPA Garza was planning to become an accountant to help her mother with her business, Nelsen said. She was fortunate to stumble across the engineering building instead and, thanks to a UTPA professor, was persuaded to take a course in engineering instead. Now, Nelsen said, Garza has 21 men working for her at Raytheon and they have to bring her coffee every morning.
“You can do anything and you can succeed,” he told the students.
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