UTEP’s 130th Commencement Celebrates More Than 2,600 Major Milestones

A record-breaking more than 2,600 graduates from The University of Texas at El Paso celebrated the culmination of years of hard work, study and sacrifice during the University’s three spring Commencement ceremonies May 18 at the Don Haskins Center.

Future scientists, engineers, nurses and other health professionals crossed the stage of the Don Haskins Center Saturday evening to receive their diplomas. Graduates wait for their turn to cross the stage at the Don Haskins Center. Photo by Josh Garcia / UTEP News ServiceGraduates wait for their turn to cross the stage at the Don Haskins Center. Photo by Josh Garcia / UTEP News Service

The final Commencement ceremony of the day awarded a total of 48 doctoral, 199 master’s and 765 bachelor’s degrees to students. It was the largest of the day’s three ceremonies with more than 1,000 graduates from the colleges of Engineering, Science, and Health Sciences, and the School of Nursing.

“My favorite memory while being here at school would have to be going to nationals twice with the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE),” said Luis Hernandez, who donned an orange hard hat, the 2013 class medallion, two cords and a stole awarded by the ASCE for the ceremony.

Graduating with a bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, Hernandez now plans to get hands-on experience in the transportation industry.

Similarly, Andrea Corral, who received a bachelor’s in biology with a biomedical concentration, is now headed for the workforce.

“I have a summer internship with Texas Tech working in neuroscience,” said Corral, whose family and boyfriend were in the stands cheering her on. “We’ll be working on bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. After that, I plan to attend medical school.”

A special highlight of the night was the completion of the first eight Doctor of Nursing Practice degrees.

Inaugurated in 2011, the D.N.P. is the first doctoral degree offered by the nursing school.   

“The beauty of the D.N.P. program is that we can share information with our colleagues and together we can learn some very unique and interesting solutions to improve health care in the communities we serve,” said Hector Rodriguez, a D.N.P. graduate.

Another highlight was President Diana Natalicio’s father-daughter recognition during her Commencement address.

Renato Aguilera, Ph.D., professor of biological sciences, bore the University Mace and served as Grand Marshall of the evening ceremony. His daughter, Elizabeth, was honored as one of several outstanding students representing the collective excellence of the graduating class of 2013.

“Today, Elizabeth is graduating with 4.0 G.P.A. and a Bachelor of Science degree in microbiology,” Natalicio said. “During her time at UTEP, Elizabeth has conducted research under Dr. Manuel Llano, associate professor of biological sciences, studying fruit flies with HIV in order to better understand the virus in its simplest form.”

Four women full of joy and enthusiasm were representative of the 740-plus graduates assembled for the
College of Business Administration and College of Education ceremony on Saturday afternoon. Banner bearers Karen Castillo, Erika Castaño, Ingrid Bergs, and Shannon Murphy were appreciative not only of their degrees, but also the honor that had been bestowed on them to lead their peers in the Commencement procession.

“I would never have imagined being here on this day, completing my college education after having put it aside for 17 years,” Castaño said. “It’s one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.”

Murphy added, “It’s almost like a gift for all of our hard work. It wasn’t easy to get here, I know, for all of us.”

Finance and marketing double major Emanuel “Manny” Azarte, who was recognized for his outstanding achievements as an undergraduate — including the Robert Ross MDA Personal Achievement Award, the Orientation Leader of the Year Award, the American Marketing Association MVP Award from the campus chapter, and the Personal Courage Award from UTEP’s Lambda Chi Alpha chapter — earned particularly loud applause as he crossed the stage in his motorized wheelchair. President Natalicio called Arzate out during her opening remarks for always putting forth a positive attitude and serving as a role model despite spinal muscular atrophy.

The afternoon’s celebration also recognized UTEP’s first Bhutanese student to earn a doctoral degree, Khendum Choden. 

Festivities kicked off during the morning’s Commencement with the conferral of more than 860 degrees to graduates, including six doctoral candidates, from the College of Liberal Arts – the University’s largest college.More than 2,600 students graduated during the May 18 Commencement ceremonies, an all-time record. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServiceMore than 2,600 students graduated during the May 18 Commencement ceremonies, an all-time record. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

As they marched into the tunnel, some graduates became teary-eyed when they heard the UTEP Symphony Orchestra play the first notes to “Pomp and Circumstance.” But spirits were high in the Don Haskins Center as shouts of congratulations from family and friends echoed throughout the arena.

Itzel Figueroa, an organizational and corporate communication major, searched the stands for her family. She spent an hour the night before bedazzling pink, yellow and white rhinestones on her cap to make sure her parents, younger sister and cousins could spot her on the floor.

“I told them, ‘This is so you can find me,’” Figueroa said, pointing to her head.

This year’s ceremony marked the first time that four students graduated from the Liberal Arts Honors Program (LAHP).

Started last fall, the LAHP offers students a rigorous curriculum that focuses on interdisciplinarity, community engagement, professional experience and graduate opportunities.

The program’s graduates met with noteworthy visitors to campus including Philip Levine, the 18th poet laureate of the United States, and former U.N. Ambassador Sichan Siv.

“I choose to join LAHP because I wanted to expand and grow as a student,” said Cynthia Rubio, who received her bachelor’s degree in psychology. “I figured that joining the program would not only make me a more competitive applicant for graduate school, but push me out of my comfort zone.”

The occasion also was a time for graduates, like Alejandro Velez, to reflect on their past.

While waiting in Memorial Gym before the ceremony, Velez said he felt almost the same way he did five years ago at UTEP freshman orientation.

At the time, Velez was about to enter unfamiliar territory where the standards of education were much higher than in high school.

“Today it feels just as scary,” Velez said with a laugh. “It’s a little bit more exciting. There’s a little bit of a sense of freedom, but at the same time, it’s the real world.”

Velez, who speaks Arabic, French, German, Spanish and English, graduated with his bachelor’s degree in linguistics.

In honor of Armed Forces Day, UTEP students who have served, or are serving, in all branches of the military were recognized at the ceremony.

Among them was Master Sgt. Donald Sparks, who received his Master of Leadership Studies (MLS).  

“In the military we’re pretty nomadic when it comes to getting our college degrees because you bounce around all over the (world) to different places and different schools,” said Sparks, who took college courses at nine different universities before starting the MLS program last year.

When Sparks found out that he was going to be stationed at Fort Bliss for four years, he took the opportunity to enroll in the program.

“This program opened my eyes to the academic side of leadership,” Sparks said. “I’ve been living leadership as a soldier but this exposed me to a different part of leadership from the theoretical side.”

During Commencement, President Natalicio acknowledged the contributions that members of the spring 2013 class made to the University’s exciting transformation in its quest to become the nation’s first national research university with a 21st century demographic.

“The many awards and honors that you have earned in national competitions, the graduate and professional schools to which you have been admitted, the prestigious scholarships and fellowships you have received, and the highly competitive jobs that you’ve been offered all validate your and UTEP’s quality,” President Natalicio said in her Commencement remarks.

Visit UTEP’s official Facebook page to see photos of the graduates and their families and friends.