Commencement Offers Opportunities to Reflect, Celebrate

By Daniel Perez

UTEP News Service

In true zero to hero fashion, Ben Gallegos will prove a lot of his former K-12 teachers wrong when he walks across the stage to earn his Master of Education degree during The University of Texas at El Paso’s afternoon Commencement ceremony Dec. 15.

Gallegos was an admitted mischievous class clown who often failed academically, but believed he was college material. Things started to click for him at UTEP. Where he was thought of as “weird” in high school, he now was considered innovative and encouraged to research his ideas.UTEP President Diana Natalicio addressed some of the graduation candidates who participated in one of the spring 2012 commencement ceremonies inside the Don Haskins Center. This year’s exercises will be Dec. 15. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News ServiceUTEP President Diana Natalicio addressed some of the graduation candidates who participated in one of the spring 2012 commencement ceremonies inside the Don Haskins Center. This year’s exercises will be Dec. 15. Photo by Laura Trejo / UTEP News Service

The first-generation college student earned his bachelor’s in interdisciplinary studies from UTEP in 2007 with a 3.5 GPA and had a 4.0 through graduate school, where his emphasis was in special education. Today he feels empowered and humbled by what he has accomplished at UTEP and plans to use what he has learned to do more research and help others.

“It’s all about perseverance,” he said during a break from his job as a fourth-grade teacher at East Point Elementary School on El Paso’s East Side. He uses what he has learned at UTEP and through his own personal journey to push his students, including some with special needs, to exceed expectations. “We all have potential.”

Gallegos, who thanked his hard-working and patient parents and the UTEP faculty who guided and supported him, will be part of a record 2,350 candidates and graduates eligible to participate in the three winter exercises at the Don Haskins Center. The University’s 129th Commencement ceremonies are scheduled at 9 a.m. for the College of Liberal Arts, 2 p.m. for the colleges of Education and Business Administration, and 7 p.m. for the School of Nursing and the colleges of Science, Engineering, and Health Sciences.

His family will be among the thousands hooting and hollering for their children, parents, uncles, aunts, cousins, grandparents and friends who have balanced struggle and sacrifice with achievement.

The record number includes 438 summer graduates and an institutional best 51 doctoral degree recipients who could walk across the stage. The former winter record was last year’s 2,014, said Richard Bartlett, University graduation coordinator. He added that the University has experienced a 3 to 5 percent annual increase in spring and winter Commencement participants during the past five years.

Benjamin C. Flores, Ph.D., dean of UTEP’s Graduate School, said the number of doctoral degrees to be awarded was 50 percent more than the previous winter and put the University on track to award 100 doctoral degrees per year by the time the institution celebrates its Centennial in 2014.

“With this impressive record, UTEP moves closer to its goal of becoming the state’s next Tier One institution with a student demographic that is truly representative of the nation’s population in the 21st century,” Flores said. “We are also extremely proud of our doctoral graduates who will go on to represent UTEP and speak, through the quality of their work, of our institutional commitment to excellence in graduate education and research.”

Among those doctoral graduates will be Anibal Sosa and his fiancée, Paula Andrea Gonzalez Parra, who will be the first to walk the stage as recipients of UTEP’s Ph.D. degrees in computational science, an interdisciplinary program where computers play a fundamental role in solving complex issues. Kiran Kumar Katta was the first to earn the degree in August and now works for Visa in Fremont, Calif.

Colombian natives Sosa and Gonzalez Parra are among the 223 international students from 21 countries who could participate in the day’s festivities. Gonzalez Parra said she is excited about the upcoming Commencement and especially looked forward to being hooded. Her parents and an aunt made their first international trip to watch her walk the stage during the evening ceremony.

“It’s been my dream to earn a Ph.D.,” said Gonzalez Parra, who earned the department’s research excellence award for her dissertation. Sosa earned the same award for academic excellence for his dissertation. “(My family is) so happy and excited for me. It’s so nice that I’m here with my family and I’m graduating with my fiancé.”

The two plan to marry in August 2013 after Sosa completes a postdoctoral assignment at UTEP. She will return to Colombia to do research and teach applied math in business or computer engineering at the Universidad Autonóma de Occidente in Cali, Colombia, where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in math.

Katta, who earned his master’s in mechanical engineering at UTEP in 2008, praised the computational science program for its breadth and depth, and said he was happy to be the University program’s first doctoral degree recipient. He regretted that circumstances would keep him from walking the stage.

“I really wanted to attend the Commencement,” he wrote in an email. “This is an honor which I didn’t want to miss.”

The evening ceremony also will include the first cohort from the 31-month Doctor of Physical Therapy program. The 21 graduates will enhance the region’s ability to provide rehabilitative services, said Kathleen A. Curtis, Ph.D., dean of the College of Health Sciences.

“UTEP is proud to contribute to our regional health care workforce with these outstanding graduates of the Doctor of Physical Therapy program,” Curtis said. “As our community ages and experiences higher levels of chronic disease and disability, these services will be invaluable to ensure our population’s well-being, as well as contribute to our community’s economic growth and prosperity.”

Ben Gallegos, who is weighing possible doctoral program offers from universities in Florida and Missouri, has a final piece of advice for graduates as they listen to the final strains of “Pomp and Circumstance” reverberate around the Haskins Center.

“Life is what you make of it. Stay humble, treat people well and do your best, whatever you do,” he said.

Class dismissed.