Rio Grande Valley

Friends and family of the late Elizabeth Garcia, who received her bachelor’s degree from UT in 1987, are working to raise funds as her birthday approaches on Feb. 27 to distribute a scholarship in her memory. 

Their efforts will contribute to the University’s Rio Grande Valley Scholarship Program. Known as the Lisa Garcia Rio Grande Valley Scholarship, the funds will pay four years of full-tuition for one of the students in the RGV Scholarship Program. 

The fund is currently at $90,000 out of a final fundraising goal of $200,000, according to Wendy Anderson, contributor to the scholarship and director of development for the University Development Office.

Anderson said the purpose of the RGV Scholarship Program is to open opportunities for UT students from the Rio Grande Valley who may not have the same access to scholarships and financial aid as other students.

“The local chapters have chapter scholarships that many Valley students benefit from, and a few students might benefit from the prestigious 40 Acres Scholarship program, but we need more full-tuition scholarships for students from the Valley,” Anderson said.

Tiffany Gonzalez, scholarship coordinator for Texas Exes, which will distribute the scholarships, said the program gives RGV scholars a chance to connect with their community in addition to achieving freedom from financial burden.

“It is a large scholarship, which can make a real difference in a student’s ability to attend the University of Texas and the financial burden for their families,” Gonzales said. “Because this scholarship has been created by and is supported by members of the RGV region, these students feel pride in knowing that people ‘from home’ are behind them.”

Christina Nott, nutrition freshman and one of the two RGV scholars, said that the program has been a constant source of support for her while she has been at the University.

“Not only does the scholarship assist with the funds of college, but the RGV Scholars Program is funded by members of the community, all of whom have been so supportive and have consistently offered any assistance to me while I have been attending the University,” Nott said. “By supporting education through scholarships to attend UT, the program is fostering growth and betterment in [the Rio Grande Valley] through a college education.”

To raise the remaining funds, Garcia’s family and friends will hold a birthday celebration, on March 5. It was originally scheduled for Feb. 27 but pushed back because of weather concerns.

Excelencia in Education recognized the University’s Cooperative Pharmacy Program as the top “Example of Excelencia” for its role in encouraging achievement among Latino students.

The program was created in 2001 in partnership with UT-Pan American to inspire students of the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas to pursue a pharmaceutical career and to train pharmacists who understand the culture of the Hispanic community. The program was chosen out of 165 other applicants from 22 states, including the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

“We’re just so excited for the program,” said Lydia Aguilera , assistant dean of pharmacy at UT-PA. “It is a pretty amazing accomplishment and also very humbling. It’s confirmation that we’re doing what we need to be doing.”

Students in the program spend two years at UT-PA to complete their pre-pharmacy work and then transfer to UT-Austin for their first two years of pharmacy school. Aguilera said students spend the third and fourth years of their studies in the Rio Grande Valley as they get real-world experience with internships and other opportunities.

“This program is the true spirit of collaboration and camaraderie between the two schools,” she said. “I’m very excited for the future.”

Aguilera said that with the honor comes a $5,000 award, which she said she will use for research for the students.

“It’s nice having that money to start with this year,” she said. “A couple years ago, 80 percent of our budgets were cut, and it became a real challenge to maintain the program.”

Aguilera said the budget was cut in 2009 in response to the recession. She said the program’s funding is still tight, but she hopes this national recognition will open new doors. 

Lynn Crismon, dean of UT’s College of Pharmacy, said the program has still been successful despite financial challenges.

“Our program has an 80 percent retention rate, which means that a majority of the students stay in the Rio Grande Valley area, which is pretty impressive,” Crismon said.

Pharmacy senior Bianca Perez said she is happy that the program is finally getting the recognition it deserves. Perez said this program ensures that
two-thirds of her training will be in her home region, the Rio Grande Valley, where she said she wants to stay to help under-served communities.

“The Cooperative Pharmacy Program gave me the chance to attend one of the highest ranked college[s] of pharmacy,” Perez said. “I know I am receiving the best education to prepare me for my future career. I hope that I can continue to be an example of the program’s success.”

Perez said that after she was admitted to the program, she met pharmacists and pharmacy students who helped her get into pharmacy school.

“Dr. Aguilera, the director of the program, helped me get through a really difficult time in my life, where not even family could help me, and for that I am eternally grateful,” Perez said. “The staff in this program really do care about you and are committed to ensuring your success.”

Rick Kostecke, lead scientist for The Nature Conservancy, observes the 4,084-acre Barton Creek Habitat Preserve on Tuesday afternoon.  This will be the Conservancy’s fourth year tabling at ACL in an effort to attract a younger and diverse audience.

Jarrid Denman | Daily Texan Staff

Photo Credit: Jarrid Denman | Daily Texan Staff

From West Texas to the Rio Grande Valley and from the High Plains to the vast expanses of East Texas, The Nature Conservancy has left an indelible mark on Texas. 

The conservancy, a solution-oriented, science-based organization, is dedicated to protecting nature and conserving land and water in various regions worldwide. Ranked as one of the world’s most ethical companies in 2013 by the Ethisphere Institute, the conservancy is an honest worker in the conservation space, according to Barbara Laing, director of marketing and communications at The Nature Conservancy. 

For the past three years, the conservancy has had a booth at Austin City Limits where staff members inform visitors about the conservancy’s mission and work.

“We get thousands of people at the festival who turn up at our booth, wanting to know more about the conservancy,” Laing said. “We want more people to be involved. There is something in nature for everyone.” 

The Nature Conservancy has been involved in all 50 states and more than 35 countries worldwide. In Austin, the conservancy works to maintain the Barton Creek Habitat Preserve. Its work in the preserve exists to protect the water quality of the Barton Creek watershed, which in turn protects the quality of the water that recharges the popular swimming hole at Barton Springs.

Across the street from Barton Springs is Zilker Park, where Rick Kostecke, associate director of conservation research and planning, said the The Nature Conservancy will have a booth during both weekends of this year’s festival.

“Staff, including myself, will be at the booth to talk to folks and provide information about TNC’s mission and our work here in Texas — everything from freshwater to Gulf of Mexico to land protection,” Kostecke said.

Kostecke also said having a booth at ACL gives the conservancy the opportunity to interact with a younger and more diverse audience — an audience that they would not have been able to reach by other, more traditional means. 

“Hopefully, some of the people we meet will become interested in our work and … long-term supporters of TNC,” Kostecke said. “At the least, we hope they come away better informed about the importance of conservation. Nature is worth saving, not only for its own sake, but because it has a profound impact on all of our lives. Conservation is often viewed as a luxury, but we consider it to be a necessity.” 

Project South Texas, a plan to merge the University of Texas-Pan American and the University of Texas at Brownsville and establish a medical school in the Rio Grande Valley, commenced Thursday, with former Missouri Southern University president Julio Leon hired to lead all project operations.

Recent studies have shown there is anywhere from 1,050 to 2,146 students currently enrolled at UT-Austin who originate from various counties within the Rio Grande Valley. It is these students who have experienced first-hand the necessity for change in higher education and health care.

Elisa Benavides, biology junior and native of Edinburg, Texas, situated in Rio Grande Valley, said she was offered a full ride to the UT-Pan American campus but elected to attend UT-Austin in hopes of creating a more competitive and challenging environment for herself. 

“After taking summer classes at UTPA my sophomore year of high school, I felt as if I could experience bigger things at UT,” Benavides said. 

Katie Rodriguez, business sophomore from Mission, Texas, said she sees the potential for Project South Texas to inspire confidence and tenacity within residents of the Rio Grande Valley, known locally as the RGV or simply the Valley. 

Rodriguez’s mother, who works as a principal at an elementary school within the Valley recently struggled with her school district to allow her to bring her fourth and fifth graders to UT-Austin and display the possibilities that lay outside the county borders.  

“There are many students in the Valley who want to go into the medical field, but do not have the knowledge or resources to leave the Valley,” Rodriguez said. 

Project South Texas not only aims to inspire a sense of purpose for RGV students, but it also helps mend the growing health and economic problems within the Valley as well. 

“Texas in general, compared to the rest of the country, has a large need for doctors but South Texas in particular has a serious dearth of physicians,” UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said. 

Aside from lengthy waits for the chance to schedule appointments, quality assurance is also a source of trepidation. Rodriguez said her younger brother recently dealt with a severe case of “Cat scratch fever” and needed to be taken to facilities in San Antonio to receive proper care. 

“The doctors in the Valley, who could not diagnose this, wanted to perform exploratory surgery along his neck and the base of his skull,” Rodriguez said. “We took him up to San Antonio, where they immediately diagnosed and treated him.”

LaCoste-Caputo said that statistically, people who go through medical school and practice their residency within the region are 80 percent more likely to stay and practice in that region.

“Giving the opportunity for people to train in South Texas will mean we can build a workforce of physicians there to provide care,” LaCoste-Caputo said.

At the time of its opening, which is scheduled for 2015, the South Texas medical school will be the first medical school within the UT System to be directly integrated with a university. Shortly to be followed by the Dell Medical School at the flagship campus in 2016, the two historically different colleges are now united by a common goal: to provide community health care. 

“We need more opportunity for quality higher education in Texas,” LaCoste-Caputo said. 

The Texas House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill Tuesday to establish a new UT System university in the Rio Grande Valley.

Lawmakers voted 149-0 to combine UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution and allow that institution to access the Permanent University Fund, a $1.3 billion state endowment that funds the UT and Texas A&M systems. The Regional Academic Health Center, which currently offers residency programs, would gain a medical school that offers medical degrees under the proposal.

Tearing up after the vote, UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen said the university would provide new educational opportunities to students in the Valley and allow them to attend what may become a tier-one research university.

“When you live in the Valley and you see the need and you see how education changes lives, you can’t help but be emotional,” Nelsen said. “Every child we educate takes one more family out of poverty.”

UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American are the only UT System institutions that do not currently have access to the Permanent University Fund.

Speaking on the House floor before the vote, Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, said the new “super university” would improve the Valley’s economy, allow students to stay in the region to attend college and help address the statewide doctor shortage.

“The passage of this bill isn’t just good for South Texas, it’s good for all of our state,” Oliveira said.

Oliveira said there are 33 medical residency positions available in the region but an additional 115 slots are expected to be available by 2016 when the medical school is projected to open its doors.

Rep. Sarah Davis, R-West University Place, said she wanted to emphasize that adding new slots in the Valley would not completely solve the statewide doctor shortage.

“My concern is that I don’t want anyone in this House chamber to think that because of this new medical school, we’re in any way going to solve the doctor or physician shortage that we have in this state,” Davis said.

Upon its establishment, the university would have about 28,000 students, research expenditures of more than $11 million and an endowment of $70.5 million, according to a report by the House Research Organization.

The institutions involved in the consolidation could save $6 million in administrative costs, according to the report.

The new university would automatically admit students who currently attend the institutions involved in the consolidation.

The UT System is currently committing $100 million over 10 years for the prospective Valley medical school and will seek $10 million in annual state funds for the consolidation.

The bill now moves to the Senate, which approved a similar bill last week by a vote of 30-1. Each house must approve the measure by a two-thirds vote for it to take effect.

State Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, said legislation establishing the new university may be on Gov. Rick Perry’s desk within the next few weeks.

During his State of the State address in January, Perry said he supported allowing UT System schools in the Valley to access the Permanent University Fund.

Lucio said 70 to 75 percent of medical students will seek employment in South Texas if they complete their residencies there.

“Ultimately, that is our goal — for them to stay in the Valley,” Lucio said.

Published on March 20, 2013 as "Texas House votes for new UT school". 

A law school may join the proposed consolidated UT System institution in the Rio Grande Valley despite claims by the state’s higher education agency that Texas does not immediately need another law school.

Two bills filed in the Texas House of Representatives would grant university systems the authority to establish a law school in Cameron or Hidalgo counties, two border counties near the Gulf of Mexico.

Barry McBee, UT System vice chancellor for governmental relations, said the System is prioritizing the establishment of the consolidated university over the establishment of a law school, which could become part of the new institution at a later date.

“Our initial goal is the successful creation of the new university,” McBee said. “If legislation passes and other systems wish to establish a law school, we would not stand in the way of that and would look forward to partnering with them in some fashion.”

The Texas Legislature is considering bills filed in both houses that would combine the University of Texas at Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution. The bill would give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund, a $1.3 billion state endowment that allocates money to institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems. The Regional Academic Health Center would become a medical school under the proposal.

In a 2010 report, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board recommended against creating a new law school, citing data that projected the state does not face a shortage of lawyers. However, the report said a law school in the Rio Grande Valley would increase opportunities for underrepresented groups, primarily Hispanics, who comprise 7 percent of the State Bar of Texas’ membership.

Similar legislation was introduced during the past three legislative sessions, but did not gain approval.

State Rep. Eddie Lucio III, D-Harlingen and UT alumnus, filed a bill that would grant the UT System Board of Regents the authority to establish and operate a law school. He said the bill would be amended to allow other university systems to establish a law school in the Valley. 

The proposed law school would cost the state more than $80 million during a five year period for construction costs, hiring faculty and operations. The UT System is currently committing $100 million over 10 years for a prospective Valley medical school and will seek $10 million in annual state funds for the consolidation. Lucio said the potential cost should not bar legislators from addressing legal education in the Valley.

“I’m not naive to the cost restraints of establishing a new school,” Lucio said. “I’m not naive to the fact that we’re going to probably spend a substantial amount of money establishing this umbrella university in South Texas, but we can’t stop having the conversation.” 

Lucio said the region has one of the lowest lawyer-to-resident ratios in Texas.

Cameron County has one lawyer for every 768 residents, and Hidalgo County has one lawyer for every 832 residents, according to a study of attorney population density for 2011-2012 gathered by the State Bar of Texas. 

In contrast, Travis County has one lawyer for every 115 residents, Bexar County has one lawyer for every 320 residents and Harris County has one lawyer for every 193 residents.

State Rep. Armando “Mando” Martinez, D-Weslaco, filed a separate bill to establish a law school in the Valley and said residents may not have the financial means to move elsewhere to attend law school even if they are qualified to attend.

“If we’re pushing a medical school and understand that we don’t have a medical school close by, why not have a law school?” Martinez said. “We should be afforded the same opportunity as the rest of the state.”

Published on March 4, 2013 as "South Texas law school proposed". 

A bill to consolidate three UT System institutions in the Rio Grande Valley into one university will be the first piece of legislation considered by the Texas House Higher Education Committee during this session. 

Bills filed in both houses of the Texas Legislature would combine University of Texas at Brownsville, UT-Pan American in Edinburg and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen into one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund. The fund, currently assessed at $1.3 billion for the 2014-15 biennium, allocates money to institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems.

State Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas and committee chairman, said Wednesday that he promised members of the South Texas delegation to hear the bill at the committee’s meeting next week.

“It’s very, very exciting news,” Branch said.

The UT System Board of Regents approved spending $100 million of its own funds over 10 years to transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine, which will be part of the consolidated university. The System will also seek $10 million per year in state funds to assist the consolidation.

UT spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said System officials will give testimony on the bill.

“We are very pleased that Chairman Branch has recognized the importance of this legislation to the UT System, the region and the entire state of Texas by agreeing to set it as the first bill to come become the House Higher Education Committee,” LaCoste-Caputo said.

Photo Credit: Chelsea Purgahn | Daily Texan Staff

Texas lawmakers heard testimony Thursday about the impact of a proposed consolidated UT System school in the Rio Grande Valley on a state fund intended for institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems.

Bills filed in both houses of the Texas Legislature would bring UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American in Edinburg and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen under the administration of one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund. The fund, established by the Texas Constitution, allocates money to institutions in the UT and Texas A&M systems.

Sarah Keyton, higher education team manager for the Legislative Budget Board, told the House Appropriations Committee the fund will have $1.3 billion during the 2014-15 biennium.

Kris Kavanaugh, higher education team member at the Legislative Budget Board, said there would be fewer funds for other UT System institutions if the Legislature approved the consolidation. He said the Legislature would not approve how much the consolidated school would receive from the fund.

“That would be a Board of Regents decision,” Kavanaugh said. 

Two-thirds of the Permanent University Fund is allocated to UT System institutions. The remaining amount goes toward the A&M system. 

Kavanaugh said the fraction of the fund allocated to the UT System would not change if UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American gain access to the fund.

The UT System Board of Regents approved spending $100 million of its own funds over 10 years to help transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine, which will be part of the consolidated university. The System will also seek $10 million per year in state general revenue funds to assist the consolidation. Those appropriations would be separate from the Permanent University Fund.

UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American are the only schools in the UT System that are not eligible for inclusion in the Permanent University Fund.

UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said the institutions were not previously included because they were not originally established under the UT System.

“The only way the Texas Legislature can allow UT-Brownsville and UT-Pan American to be PUF eligible is to create a brand new university,” LaCoste-Caputo said.

LaCoste-Caputo said the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen is part of the UT Health Science Center at San Antonio, which means it is already eligible for money from the Permanent University Fund.

“Making the new medical school in South Texas part of the new university opens up many opportunities for synergies and partnerships with other academic departments and programs, much like we anticipate at UT-Austin with its new medical school,” LaCoste-Caputo said.

Published on February 8, 2013 as "State may open fund to proposed university". 

Bills filed in both houses of the Texas Legislature on Monday would lead the UT System to consolidate its institutions in the Rio Grande Valley into one entity.

The bills would bring UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen under the administration of one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund. The fund, established by the Texas Constitution, allocates money to the UT and Texas A&M systems.

It is unclear how much the initiative will cost, but the regents approved spending $100 million over 10 years to help transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine, which will be part of the consolidated university.
The bills would direct the UT System Board of Regents to establish a temporary advisory group that would design, develop and choose a location for the proposed medical school.
“We believe the students of South Texas deserve access to a first-class education and that this new, PUF-eligible university will have a magnificent impact on the educational and economic opportunities in the region,” Board Chairman Gene Powell said in a statement released Monday.

In January, UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa told the Senate Finance
Committee that the System will seek $10 million per year in state general revenue funds to assist the consolidation and the establishment of the medical school. 

The UT System is not currently seeking state funds to pay for the UT-Austin
medical school, which will use revenue from the regents, the regional Seton Family of Hospitals and property tax revenue collected by Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district. At the Senate Finance Committee meeting, Cigarroa said the Rio Grande Valley does not have the tax base necessary to support such an arrangement.

Rep. René Oliveira, D-Brownsville, who filed the bill, said the city may have to create a special taxing district that would help fund the medical school but that the school would have to seek revenue from additional sources such as philanthropic funds.

“We cannot raise the kind of money you could raise in Austin or El Paso or Houston or Dallas, so we are going to have to be creative about other kinds of funding packages,” Oliveira said.

Oliveira said the bill filed by Rep. Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville, to establish a UT System law school in the Rio Grande Valley is not related to the consolidation bill but said the proposed law school could be part of the consolidation.

According to each bill, students already enrolled at UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville before the bill takes effect would be allowed to enroll at the new university. The bills state that the new university will hire as many faculty and staff as possible from the abolished universities.

UT System spokeswoman Jenny LaCoste-Caputo said it is too soon to tell how the proposed school’s administration would include administrators at UT-Brownsville, UT-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center.

“There will be some consolidation but it is premature to discuss details, as a bill to create the university still has to be passed by a two-thirds vote of both chambers in the Legislature,” LaCoste-Caputo said.

The House bill is authored by nine representatives including Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee. 

The Senate bill is authored by four senators: Sens. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville; Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

The initiative has support from outside of the legislative branch and the UT System. 

During his State of the State address last week, Gov. Rick Perry said he supported allowing the schools to have access to the Permanent University Fund.

“This area of the state is critical to our state’s future,” Perry said, “and our investment in the children of South Texas will be returned a thousand-fold.”

Printed on Tuesday, February 5, 2013 as: Bill proposes merging Valley schools

Bills in Texas Legislature would consolidate UT System schools in Rio Grande Valley

Bills filed in both houses of the Texas Legislature on Monday would bring the UT System to consolidating its institutions in the Rio Grande Valley into one entity.

The bills would bring the University of Texas at Brownsville, the University of Texas-Pan American and the Regional Academic Health Center in Harlingen under the administration of one institution and give that institution access to the Permanent University Fund, a fund established by the Texas Constitution to allocate money to the UT and Texas A&M systems.

The bills would direct the board of regents to establish a temporary advisory group that would design, develop and choose a location for the proposed medical school.

At their Dec. 6 meeting, the UT System Board of Regents voted to allow UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa to work with the Texas Legislature to establish the school.

“We believe the students of South Texas deserve access to a first-class education and that this new, PUF-eligible university will have a magnificent impact on the educational and economic opportunities in the region,” Regents Chairman Gene Powell said in a statement released Monday.

It is unclear how much the initiative will cost, but the regents approved spending $100 million over ten years to help transform the Regional Academic Health Center into the proposed South Texas School of Medicine.

In January, Cigarroa told the Senate Finance Committee that the System will seek $10 million per year in state general revenue funds to assist the consolidation and establishment of the medical school.

This is unlike the arrangement that will fund the UT-Austin medical school, which will use revenue from the board of regents, Seton Family of Hospitals, a regional hospital network, and property tax revenue collected by Central Health, Travis County’s hospital district. At that meeting, Cigarroa said the Rio Grande Valley does not have the tax base necessary to support such an arrangement.

According to each bill, students already enrolled at UT-Pan American and UT-Brownsville before the bill takes effect would be allowed to enroll at the new university. The bills state that the new university will hire as many faculty and staff as possible from the abolished universities.

The House bill is authored by five representatives including state Rep. Rene Oliveira, D-Brownsville, who filed the bill, and state Rep. Dan Branch, R-Dallas, who chairs the House Higher Education Committee. The bill also has five co-authors.

The Senate bill is authored by four senators including state Sens. Juan Hinojosa, D-McAllen; Eddie Lucio Jr., D-Brownsville; Judith Zaffirini, D-Laredo; and Kel Seliger, R-Amarillo, chair of the Senate Higher Education Committee.

For the System to establish the school, both houses of the Legislature must approve the measure by a two-thirds vote.

In a statement, Branch said the bill gives the Legislature and UT System an opportunity to enhance education, research and business activity in the Rio Grande Valley.

“It's our vision that the Rio Grande Valley will one day rival Silicon Valley as an intersection of education and innovation," Branch said.

The initiative has support from outside of the legislative branch and the UT System.

During his State of the State Address last week, Gov. Rick Perry said he supported allowing the schools to have access to the Permanent University Fund.

“This area of the state is critical to our state's future, and our investment in the children of South Texas will be returned a thousand-fold,” Perry said.