UTEP Celebrates Spring Commencement

By Laura L. Acosta and Sandy Hicks

UTEP News Service

May 12 was a big day for more than 2,600 graduates who received their degrees during three commencement ceremonies at The University of Texas at El Paso.

The tunnel of the Don Haskins Center was abuzz with excitement just prior to 7 p.m. as 860 Miners prepared to file into the arena and receive the fruit of their labors – a college degree. The UTEP Symphony Orchestra heralded the entry of graduates from the colleges of Engineering, Health Sciences and Science, the School of Nursing and the UT Cooperative programs. Cameras flashed and the audience cheered in waves as each new banner was carried down the aisle.Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News ServicePhoto by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP News Service

Graduates searched for family and friends as they filed in, waving and smiling, some with mortar boards that lit up with flashing lights or elaborate decoration. Once inside, the sea of black, square caps were dotted with the orange hard hats of the Engineering graduates, also bearing tassels.

Just prior to entering the Don Haskins Center to receive his bachelor's degree in engineering, senior Ryan Aguayo waited nervously in Memorial Gym.

“It’s a little surreal,” he said, “but it’s starting to sink in that I have really accomplished this.” Aguayo planned to pursue a master’s in transportation engineering.

Among the graduates were 16 doctoral students, one of whom received UTEP’s first Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Rebecca Escamilla, a 36-year-old single mother of three, expressed a huge sense of accomplishment and excitement about earning the degree.

“I am so honored to be the first to represent this doctoral program,” she said. Escamilla said she would pursue postdoctoral research at the University of Colorado – Boulder, studying how climate and human activities impact biodiversity and natural vegetation.  

Another degree new to UTEP in 2012 was the Master of Rehabilitation Counseling. Bernadette Baca, one of the rehabilitation counseling graduates, stood in Memorial Gym smoothing her stole with the embroidered letters representing the Student Rehabilitation Counseling Association (SRCA). The SRCA is the student group created for the new degree program – and Baca said her experience with the group was one of the best memories she will take with her from UTEP.

“It’s overwhelming to be one of the first to earn this new degree” she said. She hoped to work for the Veteran’s Administration or the state helping people with disabilities find meaningful employment.

UTEP President Diana Natalicio recognized many groups of honorees; among them were high G.P.A. earners, graduates who were parents or grandparents, those who were the first in their family to graduate from college, those who worked while in school and those who have served or are actively serving in the military. For the first time, veterans, reservists and active duty graduates were honored by the Military Services Office with red, white and blue cords added to their graduation robes.

Receiving her Doctor of Pharmacy degree, graduate Elizabeth Horn was relieved to be finishing her education.

“I’ve been in school for 21 years of my life,” she said with a smile, “but I will carry such fond memories of the closeness I had with the faculty.” During the course of her studies, Horn was married, had a baby and spent a year apart from her husband, retired Capt. Matthew Horn, who was deployed to Iraq. Horn said the family is moving to Houston, where she will seek a position in hospital pharmacy.

Steven Denis walked across the stage as the first person in his family to earn a college degree. Denis, 42, now has a Bachelor of Science in microbiology, but plans to return to UTEP in the fall to pursue a second degree in nursing. 

“I’m very excited and a little nervous” he said. “I am proud of my accomplishment and to represent my family.”

“The University is proud of the work of today’s graduates,” President Natalicio said, “and we expect to be proud of their accomplishments in the future.”

College of Business Administration and College of Education

More than 800 students graduated from the College of Business Administration and the College of Education during the afternoon Commencement ceremony. Among them were eight doctoral students, including Miguel Serrano, who earned the University's first Ph.D. in Teaching Learning and Culture (TLC).Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServicePhoto by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

The TLC program prepares advanced professionals with special skills to increase the alignment of educational policies and practices within rapidly changing U.S. population demographics.

“This program has the potential to demonstrate the leadership role that UTEP can play in helping shape the transformation of educational opportunities and successes in the 21st century,” President Diana Natalicio said.

Serrano is the principal of Socorro High School. He said he was grateful to the TLC faculty for giving him the guidance and the support he needed to fulfill his dream.

“I waited for this Ph.D. to start because this area is my passion,” Serrano said. “It allows me to do research in the area of curriculum and instruction and to learn more ways to use research and apply it to my work to better students’ lives and their education.”

As the graduates prepared to file into the Don Haskins Center, Yvonne Carranza was busy double checking the proper pronunciation of their names.

Carranza, a coordinator in the College of Liberal Arts, has read thousands of graduates’ names during the past eight years during the morning and afternoon ceremonies. 

If she’s not sure how to correctly pronounce a name, she’ll ask the graduates while they’re getting ready in Memorial Gym, or she’ll call them ahead of time.

“It’s a very important day for them and they deserve to have their name read correctly,” Carranza said. “I get nervous because I want to get it right for them.”

One of the names that she read for the College of Business Administration belongs to Syed Zaidi, who earned his Ph.D. in international business. Zaidi emigrated from Pakistan 14 years ago and his parents flew in from their native country to see him graduate.

“It feels awesome,” said Zaidi who will leave El Paso to become an assistant professor of accounting at California State University at San Marcos.  “All the hard work paid off.”

Hard work and determination also helped Leticia Gutierrez earn her master’s in educational administration 22 years after she received her bachelor’s degree from UTEP.

“Given that I’m 45, it feels pretty awesome because I never thought I’d come back to school,” Gutierrez said. “My family came along and I felt that I had to be there for them. I finally realized that it was time because it was something I wanted to do always.”

College of Liberal Arts

During the morning Commencement ceremony, staff from the Department of Enrollment Services cheered on more than 800 graduates, including five doctoral degree recipients, from the College of Liberal Arts as they exited Memorial Gym to cross the street to the Don Haskins Center, where they were greeted by jubilant applause from family and friends.Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServicePhoto by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

“It’s a big moment for (the graduates) but it’s an emotional time for us also,” said Braulio Delgado, a future engineer and member of the department’s cheering squad. “We haven’t graduated yet, but I hope that my friends and the other people who are here do the same when I graduate.”

Cecilia Meraz-Torres received her bachelor’s degree in multidisciplinary sciences after taking a break from UTEP for more than 10 years. For Meraz, who is the mother of 11- and 14-year-old daughters, her graduation is extra special because it happened the day before Mother’s Day.

“I’m doing a double celebration today,” Meraz said. “I was determined to finish my degree because I wanted to be a good example for my daughters.”

Her daughter Amanda said she, her mom and her sister, Samantha, would do their homework together at the dinner table.

“I’m so proud of her because I knew she could do it,” Amanda said. 

In typical graduation fashion, graduates decorated their caps with LED lights, sparkles and pictures to stand out from the crowd.

Marissa G. Garcia received her Master of Science in intelligence and national security studies. She glued a picture of the Justice League and a photograph of her grandmother, who passed away in 2008, to her mortar board.

“It’s kind of surreal,” Garcia said. “I didn’t think I was going to make it, balancing school and work. My grandmother always supported me.”

Commencement was also an opportunity for President Natalicio to recognize members of the Class of 2012 for their achievements, which serve as an example of the University’s progress toward becoming the first national research University with a 21st century demographic.

“Members of this Class of 2012, your lives have been transformed by your experience on this campus, and each of you has also been a participant in and contributor to UTEP’s very exciting transformation,” President Natalicio said. “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.”  

Visit UTEP’s official Facebook page to see photos of the Class of 2012 graduates and their families and friends at www.facebook.com/utepminers.