‘Opportunity’ Unites Stakeholders at UTEP

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

An ambitious plan to impact the future economic development of the Paso del Norte region and the social mobility of its residents played out on two fronts at The University of Texas at El Paso during UTEP Opportunity Days May 2 and 3.

The University was one of 12 post-secondary education sites around the country that partnered with Opportunity Nation, a national initiative to develop strategies to revitalize social mobility and stimulate economic opportunities.UTEP President Diana Natalicio poses with, from left, UTEP alumni Willarda Edwards, M.D., Pat Mora, and John "Danny" Olivas, Ph.D. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceUTEP President Diana Natalicio poses with, from left, UTEP alumni Willarda Edwards, M.D., Pat Mora, and John "Danny" Olivas, Ph.D. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

On May 2, UTEP hosted more than 100 of the area’s thought leaders in academics, business, nonprofits and government who were given a regional, state and national perspective about access to education, employment options and the quality of life, as well as a prognosis of where the country is headed. They also heard personal testimonials about the value of a college education from successful UTEP graduates who grew up in El Paso. Working in groups, these movers-and-shakers developed preliminary concepts where education and industry could benefit together.

The ideas will be incubated by the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, a collection of leaders from area school districts, institutions of higher education, and local businesses and community organizations, and presented in 2015.

The second day was a mega-open house for more than 8,000 fifth- and seventh-grade students from area school districts who visited campus to hear about the value of education and experience the kinds of fun, creative and valuable work done by UTEP students in science, engineering, liberal arts and the health sciences.

The goals of both days were to create the foundation for a stronger future, organizers said.

“College is the fountain of opportunity to people who get it, but it’s the bastion of privilege for people who don’t,” said Anthony Carnavale, Ph.D., research professor at Georgetown University and director of its Center on Education and the Workforce. He spoke at the May 2 conference. “If you don’t get it, your chances of reaching the middle class or thriving, moving to higher earnings in your lifetime, are not gone, but they are much reduced.”

Pat Mora, award-winning author, Hispanic cultural advocate and distinguished UTEP alumna, spoke both days. She encouraged the children to get their degrees and challenged the decision makers to “invest in what I believe with my heart is the planet’s most important natural resource, and that’s human potential – our young.”

Day One

Local leaders met May 2 for “Building Opportunity and Social Mobility through Collaboration: The El Paso Model” in the Tomás Rivera Conference Center in UTEP’s Union Building East. The stage was decorated with facades of the University’s Bhutanese-style buildings.

Among the speakers was Steve H. Murdock, Ph.D., Allyn R. and Gladys M. Cline Professor of Sociology at Rice University. He shared statistics that showed the steady increase of minorities – especially Hispanics – across the country, and how those minorities are not earning as many college degrees as other demographic groups. He projected that the nation will grow by about 157 million people by 2050 and 62 percent of that growth will be Hispanic. He said that should raise a red flag because the single best predictor of economic growth for people and for regions has been higher education.

“One thing is clear. The future of the United States, the future of Texas, of El Paso … is dependent on our minority populations, and how well they do is how well America will do, how well Texas will do, how well El Paso will do.”

Mark Edwards, executive director of Boston-based Opportunity Nation, said UTEP was selected as a partner in part because of its successful “access and excellence” model. The University enrolls 22,640 students, of which 77 percent are Hispanic.

“UTEP is the laboratory of this country. What happens here is predictive of what will be going on in the next 50 years all over the country,” he said. “Where this region goes is where the country goes.”

During an open discussion, some leaders shared some of their initial ideas such as additional internship programs, more parental involvement and extra volunteerism. Others voiced their personal commitments, such as to help young entrepreneurs and high school students.

UTEP President Diana Natalicio told the group that its primary challenge was to create a business climate that will attract and retain UTEP graduates who are now taking their talents and expertise to fill positions in telecommunications, finance, health, energy and high-tech companies around the country.

President Natalicio, who hosted the event with Woody Hunt, chairman and CEO of Hunt Companies, Inc., said this meeting came at an important point in the region’s development.

“We’re focused on work force development and workplace development – two dimensions of the same issue looked at from different perspectives,” she said. “You can’t have one without the other.”

She tasked Armando Aguirre, Ed.D., assistant provost and director of the El Paso Collaborative for Academic Excellence, to oversee the three-year initiative. The collaborative was created at UTEP in 1991.

Aguirre said a successful outcome would be to give students accessibility to a marketable degree, help them to finish their degrees, and make them contenders for high compensation jobs.

“We want to take better advantage of what is available to us and make it work for us,” he said.

Bob Cook, president and CEO of the El Paso Regional Economic Development Corp., was among the many who shared a positive comment as he left the event.

“I think when we look back on this day three, five, 10 years from now, what happened today will be considered historic,” he said.

To see photos from the May 2 conference, click here.

Day Two

More than 8,000 students wearing their UTEP orange “Pick Your Dream” T-shirts filed into the Don Haskins Center May 3 ready for a day of fun and enlightenment. It started with hundreds of the students participating in an impromptu pre-program line-dance style cha-cha on the arena floor led by emcee Yvonne Carranza, a coordinator in the College of Liberal Arts.

In her welcome to the students, President Natalicio said she hoped that they would become Miners and looked forward to greeting them when they walked across the stage during their UTEP graduation.

The students heard live and video testimonials from three of UTEP’s distinguished, alumni who talked about the value of education, hard work and dedication. The speakers were Mora, the author; John “Danny” Olivas, Ph.D., engineer and retired astronaut; and Willarda Edwards, M.D., internist and past president of the National Medical Association.

“Dream big, study hard and do what you want to do in life,” Edwards said.

In his video, Olivas added: “Push yourself to failure. If you don’t give up, that’s how you’ll succeed.”

The visitors were entertained by skits from UTEP students who promoted education and were introduced to Miner student athletes who talked about their successes in sports and the classroom.

They then visited other parts of campus where they were treated to displays of linguistics, music video production, hovercraft races, a homemade video gaming station, model rocket launches with Danny Olivas, a pool for concrete and cardboard canoes, and health-related skits that focused on public health.

Gloria Castor, a fifth-grade teacher at Dolphin Terrace Elementary School, said the whole experience was “awesome” for her students. They saw demonstrations of physics and chemistry that included flames and mini-explosions inside Memorial Gym.

“This has been a great opportunity for them to come to UTEP and hear about the importance of college from someone other than their teachers,” said Castor, who earned her bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies from UTEP in 2002. “Hearing from the (alumni) was very inspirational.”

The event ended with a stunt show performed by Bill “Dr. Skateboard” Robertson, Ph.D., associate provost, and his Action Science Team, a group of professional skateboarders and BMX (bicycle motocross) riders, and extended blasts from confetti cannons and a balloon drop of thousands of blue, white and orange balloons.

Hundreds of students rushed the floor and began to pop the balloons in such rapid succession that it sounded like firecrackers.

Before the event, President Natalicio had said her goal was to raise the students’ aspirations to think of themselves as UTEP students.

“If we can achieve this kind of goal, it will be a very successful day,” she said.

For photos from May 3, click here.

Here are other observations made by participants from UTEP Opportunity Days – Day One.

Raymond Palacios Jr., president of Bravo Chevrolet Cadillac and Hummer and board member of CommUNITY En Acción

“Great things happen when good people come together. I’ve seen it over, and over and over again. We’ve got all the talent here.”


Richard Dayoub, CEO of the Greater El Paso Chamber of Commerce

“I saw a lot of energy, a lot of enthusiasm,” he said, adding that he noted commitment from people to increase their level of involvement. “I think it was a very positive meeting. I’m excited about it. I think we can expect great things to come from this effort. A year from now I think we should reflect on what we have done differently and what kind of an impact we’ve had.”


Stephen J. Wolslager, vice president of The Wolslager Foundation

He appreciated the special expertise and diverse perspectives of the people at the meeting because they each offered a different way to tackle the problem. “That’s important because not one group can affect change. It takes all the stakeholders working together,” he said.

He added the initiative’s success will be based on continued updates of what is being done and what still needs to be done, acting on the good ideas that came from the meeting, and the realization that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel.


Myrna Deckert, board member of numerous state, regional and national boards and former executive director of the YWCA of El Paso Del Norte Region

She said collaboration will work as long as dissent is done in a respectful manner that does not impede progress. She said more business leaders will get involved when they are approached individually and given a specific task.


Belen Robles, El Paso Community College trustee, former president of the League of United Latin American Citizens

She was glad to see the diversity of the people who attended.

“I believe that in any economic development plan, education has to be very much a part of it. The people at my table (engineers, bankers, entrepreneurs) recognized this fact. I was very impressed with the eagerness of the participants to really make a difference in El Paso,” she said.


For Opportunity Days videos and more information, go to opportunity.utep.edu.