It was a year of many firsts for The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV), the first public university created in Texas in the 21st century.
New leaders came aboard, and new courses were created. State-of-the-art buildings opened their doors, while others were approved or are currently being constructed. With the creation of UTRGV, The University of Texas at Brownsville and The University of Texas—Pan American became distinguished legacy institutions, sharing all their resources to create one distributed yet unified campus.
The combined student body soared immediately to nearly 30,000 students who enthusiastically began putting their “V’s Up” and donning the orange, gray, blue and green.
Students heard from John Legend at the piano and listened to soaring arias from “The Mikado.” They cheered on a new NCAA Division I soccer team and applauded a second-place national finish for their chess team.
National honors continue to roll in for faculty and students. Match Days and White Coat ceremonies were milestones, as the School of Medicine received its preliminary accreditation and came alive with a flood of nearly 3,000 applications. Never before had there been a School of Medicine where Valley students could have an opportunity to earn a medical degree close to home.
On Aug. 31, 2015, two campuses came together as one, to make history in South Texas.
“So many people have worked incredibly hard to launch this new university and it is tremendously gratifying to see that hard work paying off,” President Bailey said. “We are committed to providing a world-class education for our students and for transforming South Texas with unlimited educational opportunities. This is only the beginning.”
On a typically hot South Texas day, almost 30,000 students started classes at UTRGV. But nothing about the newest UT System university, located on the Texas-Mexico border, was ordinary. This was something new that promised ever-expanding educational opportunities for the 1.3 million people living in the 1,881 square miles of South Texas known as the Rio Grande Valley.
Adopting a distributed university model new to the UT System, UTRGV doesn’t have one “central” campus. Instead, the university is spread along 120 Texas miles — from Rio Grande City to South Padre Island, with the largest facilities currently in Brownsville, Edinburg and Harlingen.
With President Guy Bailey (former president of Texas Tech) at the helm and Dr. Havidán Rodríguez serving as provost and executive vice president for Academic Affairs, the founding academic year resulted in valuable opportunities for student success, health and medical education, impactful research and community engagement.
STUDENT SUCCESS IS AT THE HEAD OF THE CLASS
The ultimate measure of student success is the graduation of its students, so a lot of UTRGV’s focus is on retention.
“We need them to stay enrolled in order for them to graduate,” Provost Rodríguez said.
And when it comes to retention rates, UTRGV is showing not only Texas but also the nation how it’s done. Preliminary reports show an 81.6 percent freshman-to-sophomore retention rate – besting the national average of 78.6 percent.
“This data tells us we are doing something right,” Bailey said. “Our focus is on our students and their success. Our work doesn’t begin when they enter the university, but as early as elementary school.”
Forbes magazine, in its “America’s Top College 2016,” ranked UTRGV third-highest in the UT System – behind flagship UT Austin and powerhouse UT Dallas — based on graduation rates, student satisfaction, debt and post graduate success.
The establishment of a University College is also nurturing success for students. Many UTRGV students are first-generation college students, and the University College plays a significant role in their achievements.
Rodríguez said one of the many benefits of having a University College is that it “provides a smooth transition for students into the university by providing the information and background they need to be successful.” This means learning to navigate departments, utilize resources, seek assistance, resolve problems and prepare early in their college careers.
UTRGV is situated in one of the most rapidly growing communities in the country, and with a 90 percent Hispanic population, the university is one of the largest Hispanic Serving Institutions (HSI) in the nation. In the August 2016 edition of “Diverse Issues in Higher Education,” UTRGV was ranked number one in Texas for graduating Hispanic students—both at the undergraduate and graduate levels (third nationally in graduating Hispanic undergraduate students and sixth nationally for master’s degrees conferred to Hispanic students).
Woven into the fabric of UTRGV is a bilingual, biliterate and bicultural initiative recognizing the culture and building on it, honoring the values and traditions of the area.
FOUNDATION OF EDUCATIONAL OPPORTUNITIES
Since UTRGV’s earliest planning phase, providing educational opportunities for students has been a core priority.
“We want UTRGV to be an institution of choice, and to do that we need to continue to expand our undergraduate, graduate and doctoral programs,” Provost Rodríguez said.
UTRGV opened with more than 100 degrees and programs at the undergraduate and graduate levels, and a newly created medical school that welcomed its very first cohort on July 25, 2016, for the first day of classes.
In addition to the development of new programs throughout its first year, UTRGV also expanded access. Building on existing programs from the legacy institutions, 13 undergraduate and 12 graduate degrees that were previously available only on one campus are now fully available on both the Brownsville and Edinburg campuses, providing more access and opportunity for both students and faculty.
“New programs are also being developed,” Bailey said. “We have a Ph.D. program in clinical psychology going through the pipeline right now, and that program will be fully funded with private funds when it is opened.” This will be the university’s seventh doctoral program, which includes cooperative degrees in pharmacy (with UT Austin) and physics (with UT Arlington).
People are taking notice. Applications for fall 2016 undergraduate admissions are up 21 percent over 2015, and the entering freshman and transfer class has passed the 5,200 student mark. In addition, top students are choosing UTRGV, with valedictorian and salutatorian enrollment increasing by 18 percent, and the top 10 student enrollment increasing by 14 percent.
One of the most transformative moments of UTRGV’s first year was the naming of the Robert C. Vackar College of Business & Entrepreneurship, made possible by a generous gift from Robert C. Vackar, CEO of Bert Ogden Motor Group.
“These gifts come along very rarely; that is why they are transformative,” Bailey said. “When you have a College of Business named, suddenly you graduate at a different level. You are perceived in a different way. Not only will it help our students, but the prestige of the school will help them, too. This will help them in ways we have not yet even imagined.”
This commitment to educational opportunities is evident within the South Texas community, as giving to UTRGV grew by an explosive 435 percent.
THE DOCTORS ARE IN
Healthcare in the Rio Grande Valley has lagged significantly behind that of both the state and nation for many years. Doctor-to-patient ratio is barely half the national average and significantly lower than the state average. The new UTRGV School of Medicine, one of 143 in the nation, aims to change those statistics in big ways.
It took nearly seven decades for the medical school to become a reality for the Rio Grande Valley. As UT System Chancellor William McRaven stated, “The loop has finally been closed that will change the trajectory for the entire region.”
With its main academic building in Edinburg, the region-wide medical school interacts with and complements facilities in Brownsville and the Clinical Education Building in Harlingen, and uses extensive online and distance learning to support continuing education in the region.
For a medical student, the white coat symbolizes a commitment to the study of medicine. But for the 55 medical students who make up the inaugural class of the UTRGV School of Medicine and the more than 125 founding School of Medicine faculty, the symbolism is tangible. They are trailblazers, the first who ultimately will transform healthcare in South Texas.
Cristina Cepeda, who grew up in Edinburg and attended schools in nearby Donna before graduating with a bachelor’s degree from UT Pan American in 2014, said her parents instilled in her the importance of earning a college degree. Now that the medical school is a reality, she is earning her medical degree at home, and has the opportunity to give back to the community that has supported her.
“I grew up seeing the necessities of my community and knowing that now I can stay here while I’m learning medicine and then apply it to my own community,” she said. “It’s a dream come true.”
Though there were only 55 spots in the first class, the school received close to 3,000 applications and has recorded more than 4,700 applications thus far for the second cohort, the class of 2021.
The School of Medicine is doing more than educating new doctors; it’s also serving a community. The trend in the American healthcare system is toward population-based care and UTRGV and its partners are on the frontier of providing that sort of care with the vision to be a leader in how healthcare is administered across the country.
Hand-in-hand with the School of Medicine are other allied health programs. In its first year, through numerous clinics and healthcare partnerships, UTRGV continues to make a difference for the Valley community. “We recently opened two new primary care clinics through our School of Nursing,” President Bailey, said.
The UTRGV School of Nursing, which has been providing quality healthcare for at least 50 years through its legacy programs, received high marks in its first year as UTRGV. It was ranked 27th of 50 top nursing schools in the Southwest by Nursing Schools Almanac, and 30th of 50 top residential Registered Nurse (RN) to Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) programs in the country by Top RN to BSN.com.
IMPACT WELL BEYOND SOUTH TEXAS
Research is the foundation of top tier universities and UTRGV is no different. The initial focus for UTRGV scholars is to engage in research that serves the Rio Grande Valley, but that also has a substantial impact well beyond regional borders. With this in mind, research dollars grew by more than 60 percent in UTRGV’s inaugural year.
• Ten million of those new dollars were contributed from the research being conducted at the South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute (STDOI). Led by renowned genetics and infectious diseases expert Sarah Williams-Blangero, Ph.D., the STDOI moved from San Antonio to UTRGV shortly before the new university opened its doors with 22 researchers and about $12 million in federal research funds. Since joining UTRGV, the group has more than doubled in size to 55 researchers.
The focus of the STDOI is to advance diabetes and obesity research, develop better treatments and ultimately improve the health of residents in South Texas and beyond. One of its major project areas is genome sequencing to identify the genes that influence diabetes-related risks.
• Research at UTRGV extends well beyond the Rio Grande Valley, even into the cosmos. Ten UTRGV physics professors were among a group of international researchers who contributed to the decades-long quest to confirm a major component of Albert Einstein’s 1915 general theory of relativity — the existence of gravitational waves. The National Science Foundation called the discovery “an unprecedented new window to the cosmos.” The Center for Gravitational Wave Astronomy (CGWA) at UTRGV served as an excellent platform to bring the UTRGV team of researchers together and to contribute to the discovery.
• The warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico helped the UTRGV School of Earth, Environmental, and Marine Sciences research team reel in a $2.27 million dollar grant from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Center for Coastal and Marine Ecosystems this year. The grant will support 50 student research positions over the next five years.
• Research with compassion is the rallying cry for UTRGV’s Engineering and Computer Science. These scholars continue a two-decade mission to create sustainable and innovative solutions in the areas of water, energy, transportation, nanotechnology and biomedical research. The University Transportation Center for Railway Safety, which is headquartered at UTRGV’s College of Engineering and Computer Science, operates as a consortium with the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI) and the University of Nebraska Transportation Center (NTC) and is the only rail-focused national center funded by the USDOT UTC Program led by a Hispanic Serving Institution (HSI).
Engineering will continue to expand at UTRGV both in programs and in space. The UT System Board of Regents recently approved $35.6 million for the construction of a new Interdisciplinary Engineering and Academic Studies Building in Edinburg to support the increase in engineering enrollment.
TOGETHER, WE WILL
At its heart, UTRGV is about community. It is about improving the lives of its students, contributing to the growth of the Rio Grande Valley and sustaining a long-term flow of qualified and capable graduates into the market place.
Through its numerous community engagement programs, such as signature events like the literacy and the arts program FESTIBA (Festival of Books and Art) and HESTEC (Hispanic Engineering Science and Technology) week — which engages nearly 50,000 students, teachers and community members each year — UTRGV continues to engage, enrich and empower the Valley.
This impact, however, is realized far beyond the Rio Grande Valley. The White House Initiative on Educational Excellence for Hispanics recognized HESTEC, which celebrated its 14th anniversary during Hispanic Heritage Month this year, as a “Bright Spot in Hispanic Education.”
WHAT’S AHEAD FOR THE NEW UTRGV?
“We are an economic engine in the Rio Grande Valley – both socially and economically. The ramifications will be felt throughout the state and the country,” promises Provost Rodríguez.
UTRGV is considered a comprehensive university. Their goal is to move to emerging research status, joining long-established institutions like UT Dallas, UT San Antonio and Texas Tech University. UTRGV is making tremendous progress toward that goal and is targeted to reach it in the next five years.
Congratulations, UTRGV, on your first anniversary. We’ll be watching.