Cultural night moves indoors

November 18th, 2012

The University’s student organizations and community came together Thursday night to celebrate Cultural Night with food, dance and music. Hosted by the Office of Student Involvement together with the Office of International Programs, this event is held every year at the University to celebrate different cultures.

Usually held outside in the Quad, Cultural Night was instead held in the Ballroom to accommodate for the cold weather and slight drizzle, according to OIP Director Sandra Hansmann.

“This year it’s enclosed. The last one was outside. There looks like there is a lot more people, but because of the space,” said Oscar Mendoza, a 27-year-old UTPA graduate studying for his master’s in business administration. For the number of people attending and organizations presenting, the turnout appeared to be the same, according to Mendoza.

About 350 people congregated at the event to enjoy free food from other countries and witness performances by nine different groups, some of which included mariachi music, Indian dance and tai chi fan dance.

“I’m in love with Chinese culture,” said April Lopez, a 35-year-old UTPA graduate studying for her masters in nurse practitioning. “I’m with the Lianhong Chen company and we performed a tai chi fan dance.”

There were 11 student body organizations serving food from their preferred culture, some countries being represented were: Italy, Mexico, Brazil, India, the Philippines, Cuba, Puerto Rico and France. Bucky, UTPA’s mascot, also made a guest appearance.

“Cultural Night gives a chance to try different food and learn about other cultures without traveling,” said 38-year-old President Javier Mireles of the health and kinesiology club representing Japan. “Roca Sushi of Pharr, Texas are good friends with the club. They brought the fridge, food, sushi and the sushi chef.”

Some of the food being served included: tamales with mexican fried rice and beans, sushi, french bread with french butter, pizza, fried plantains, pancit, egg rolls, corn in a cup and many others. The multicultural sorority inc. chose to represent Italy and served cavatini.

“We chose China previously, but we all love italian food so we decided on Italy,” said Ivanna Flores, 21-year-old president of Delta Xi Nu who is studying criminal justice. “Our dish is a layer of pasta, sauce, sliced pepperoni and mozzarella cheese.”

Another sorority, Kappa Delta Chi was also present and decided to ironically represent Greece with the grecian dessert baklava.

“We choose Greece because we are part of the greek society,” said Maggie Leal, a 20-year-old junior doubling majoring in chemistry and pre-pharmacy. “Our baklava went quickly, it tastes like nuts and honey. It’s crisp and super yummy.”

Red ticket stubs were handed out at the door for a chance to win a variety of prizes. 20-year-old sophomore business economics and finance major Michael Kent was one of the many winners.

“I’m surprised that it was an umbrella. Winter is coming, the cold rain is coming so I appreciate the prize,” said Kent. “There was a good turnout this year… it felt crowded. The food ran low with in the first hour.”

Although there were many organizations, the Student Government Association also attended representing the French. Matthew Garcia, 21-year-old SGA president was the MC for the night.

“I volunteered to be MC, they asked me and I was happy to do it,” Garcia said, a major in pre-med biology and political science. “I wish we could have had it outside, but the performances have been excellent and there was a great turnout.”

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New agreements signed to smooth over STC transfers

September 27th, 2012

In an ongoing collaboration, UTPA and South Texas College signed several articulation agreements at the beginning of the semester designed to ease the transfer of students from one institution to the other.

The agreements will allow students seeking to continue their education after acquiring an associate’s degree with STC to easily transfer over and pursue a bachelor’s at UTPA, saving them the trouble of having to retake certain classes.

Last fall, 746 students transferred from STC, accounting for 81.4 percent of all transfer students in total, according to the UTPA factbook.

“The agreements mostly resolve smaller inconsistencies,” said Kristin Croyle, vice provost for undergraduate education. “The impact on the students is that it will save them from taking courses that would have been redundant otherwise.”

On Aug. 30, a ceremony for the agreement was held at the University’s ITT building. There were 12 agreements that were signed involving five arts degrees, one communication degree and six degrees from the science, technology, engineering and mathematic fields.

This isn’t the first time the two institutions have worked together to help smooth over the transfer process. There have been several general articulation pacts starting in 1997, but the two other major ones besides the most recent were in 2009 and 2011.

The agreements don’t only apply to students with associate’s degrees. Those simply looking to switch institutions are given a suggested four-year road map that plans out classes they need to take to work toward their degree.

“It’s very important for us in this region,” Croyle said. “There is a dominant educational pathway here where students aren’t transferring out (from STC), but are coming here.”

Some students had experienced little to no problems making the change from STC to UTPA.  However, others, such as Maribel Ramirez, a 23-year-old English major from Elsa, have not had a pleasant experience.

“A lot of the classes I took at STC didn’t even transfer, and I was there for a whole year,”  she said.  “Why did I take them? I could have saved my time.”

Measures have been taken in the past besides the articulation agreements to help make it easier for students to transfer. On ASSIST, there is an online equivalency guide where students can select what institution they are transferring from, which brings up a list of what transfers over. However, some have still had issues with the guide itself.

“They do have the equivalency guide, but it doesn’t distinguish between upper and lower classes,” said Stephanie Segura, a 23-year-old psychology major from Elsa. “They tell you what transfers, but not what they count for.”

Laura Saenz, associate vice provost for curriculum, teaching and assessment, believes the articulation agreements should help solve this issue.

“When the course titles and numbers aren’t the same, it takes cooperation between the faculty members to fix it,” she explained. “It’s good for the students. The document helps them, but it’s better when they know that STC and UTPA are communicating.”

There is also the website, www.stc2utpa.org, which offers information for students on financial aid, advisement and resources the two institutions provide, along with other general information for students looking to transfer over.

Despite issues in the past, Ramirez expressed a positive outlook regarding the efforts made with the recent agreements, and praised the two institutions’ efforts to smooth over the transfer issue.

“I think it’s good. There are a lot of people who don’t get financial aid who take certain classes at STC,” she concluded. “It makes it easier for them to take cheaper classes and then transfer.”

Screen Shot 2012 09 27 at 2.35.49 AM New agreements signed to smooth over STC transfers

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UTPA President says his bonus pay belongs to University

September 20th, 2012

UTPA President Robert Nelsen may have inadvertently caused a stir when he announced last month he would donate his bonus to the University.

Nelsen told The Texas Tribune that he would give any money he earned through the UT System’s incentive plan to a UTPA account.

The incentive plan was proposed at the Board of Regents meeting Aug. 22-23, and would reward presidents of UT academic and health institutions, as well as the seven vice chancellors, up to 10 percent of their salary if they met a set of short-term and long-term goals for their universities.

“Because reaching the goals will be a team effort, I will donate whatever incentive pay that I receive to Pan Am,” Nelsen said in a statement via email.

Nelsen is the lowest paid university president in the UT System with a salary of $300,000 followed by David Watts at the University of Texas of the Permian Basin with a salary of $302,628 and Juliet Garcia at University of Texas at Brownsville, who makes $304,179 a year. And both of those universities have total enrollments below UTPA’s 19,000 number. UTB has 13,019 students while UTPB has about 3,600.

Nelsen told the Tribune that he would donate the possible money into a UTPA account that funds student trips and brings events to campus.

That wish, however, may violate the intent of the incentive plan. The incentive plan document states, “incentive awards … are non-assignable and non-transferable.”

According to Jerry Polinard and James Wenzel of the Political Science Department, the section might be problematic.

“It seems to say that Nelsen wouldn’t be able to just sign the check over to the University,” Polinard said.

However, Nelsen could find a loophole in the incentive pay rule.

“If Nelsen deposits the check into his account and then donates the same amount to the school, there’s no way to claim that (rule),” Wenzel said. “Once the funds have co-mingled, then you can get around it.”

Pedro Reyes, executive vice chancellor for academic affairs for the UT System, had no comment on the matter.

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RGV to get medical school

August 17th, 2012

In a 2008 report to the State Legislature, the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board cited increased enrollments in medical programs and a need for more doctors in its recommendation to create a medical school in South Texas.

Four years later, the medical school seems to be coming to fruition. UT System Dr. Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa held a press conference today to announce plans for an independent medical school in the Valley.

Currently, a branch of the San Antonio Regional Academic Health Center (RAHC) operates behind the Health Science and Human Services Building. Rather than building a research center at UTPA, the UT Health Science Center – South Texas will use this building, along with two buildings in Harlingen, and a school of public health in Brownsville for the new medical school, according to a news release.

“The Valley needs a medical school. Period,” said Texas Sen. Eddie Lucio Jr., who authored Senate Bill 98 in 2009, which authorized the creation of The University of Texas Health Science Center – South Texas.

Cigarroa added that the first cohort will study in San Antonio for two years before transferring to the Valley medical school in 2016.

“The year 2018 will be a very special year for all of us,” he insisted. “It will be the year that we graduate our first class of medical school students in South Texas.”

The plans for the medical school draw on more than $79 million from the Texas Legislature and UT System, according to the news release. UTPA President Robert Nelsen added that federal funding also came from the National Institute of Health and Department of Defense, among others.

ADVANTAGES FOR THE VALLEY
Cigarroa outlined the benefits of a Valley medical school, including providing more health care professionals to the area, which has been traditionally underserved.

According to a 2011 report by the Texas Department of State Health Services, the counties in the Valley averaged about 55 primary care physicians per 100,000 people. Meanwhile, the state average is 70. The new school should produce a large number of homegrown physicians in time.

“Nationally, more than 70 percent of physicians typically end up practicing medicine in the same region where they graduated,” said Gene Powell, chairman of the System Board of Regents, in the news release.

Additionally, Cigarroa emphasized that a Valley medical school will benefit the area by training students to deal with South Texas and its specific health issues, like obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

According to 2005 data from the Texas DSHS, heart problems, high blood pressure, and diabetes complications were all among the top 14 preventable hospitalizations for adults. In 2009, heart disease was the number one cause of death in Hidalgo County, and diabetes was tied with lung cancer for seventh place.

“The students will be trained to have a huge sensitivity to these diseases as well as cultural comprehension to be able to best serve the Valley,” said Cigarroa, who was born in Laredo and is a third-generation medical doctor.

During his announcement, Cigarroa mentioned that the San Antonio RAHC has brought in $18 million to the San Antonio economy and the hope is that the Valley medical school will boost the economy here, similarly, through research grants and new technology.

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UTPA events mirror release of deferred action application instructions

August 16th, 2012

Instructions on how to apply for deferred action emerged yesterday from U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services after President Obama announced the program two months ago.

Deferred action is available to undocumented immigrants that came to the U.S. before the age of 16 and were under the age of 31 the date of the announcement, June 15. An approved deferred action application means the Department of Homeland Security will not deport or detain the undocumented immigrant. Additionally, recipients of deferred action can apply for a two-year work permit.

HINOJOSA COMMENTS
Students, parents, and administrators gathered in the Student Union yesterday to hear Congressman Rubén Hinojosa (D-15) share his opinion on the issue of deferred action and DREAM students, or undocumented youth that would be eligible for a Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act.

The failed DREAM Act would grant permanent residency to people that were brought to the country illegally as children who graduated from U.S. high school if they spent time at a higher education institution or in the military.

“In my view, DREAM students must be given the opportunity to contribute their talent to our nation’s economy, workforce, and civil life,” Hinojosa told the audience.

There are currently 599 undocumented students at UTPA that could be affected by this policy, according to UTPA President Robert Nelsen.

Nelsen said that he is still concerned with the fact that students who apply for the deferred action program will not get a response back for another six months.

“That’s a long time and even then, they’ll really only have another one year and six months (to be in the country legally),” he said. “We have got to do more for them.”

Permanent residency or citizenship in the United States gives a student a Social Security number that allows them to apply for federal financial aid. Undocumented students at the University do not have a SSN and as a result, pay for tuition and fees out of pocket.

Very seldom do these students receive merit scholarships or any other kind of aid because most also require a social security number, Nelsen said.

At the gathering Wednesday, Hinojosa believes the next step for DREAM students is to pass the DREAM Act in Congress. It has continually failed to get past both chambers successfully; the latest defeat came two years ago in the Senate.

“We want to make higher education accessible and affordable for these students,” the senator said. “I will fight on behalf of the DREAM students who qualify and immigrant families who qualify for a path to citizenship through full immigration reform.”

MAC HOSTS INFO SESSION
Four hours after the press conference in the Union, Valleyites poured into the Engineering Building for a deferred action info session hosted by the Minorities Affairs Council. By 7 p.m. most of the seats in the large lecture auditorium were full and people were starting to sit on the stairs or stand in the upper level.

“I came to get any updates they may have,” said Hector Cardoza, who traveled from San Benito with his sister to get their questions about deferred action answered. “There is some vague info out there, and people are saying some stuff, but we still don’t know – “

“Like the filing process,” his sister, Domenica, finished.

“Or the timeline or anything,” he added.

After comments from President Nelsen and MAC President Candido Renteria, MAC founder, Tania Chavez began with a presentation in Spanish explaining the basics of deferred action.
In addition to the age requirements, applicants should be able to prove that they were here June 15, 2007 and have been in the U.S. continually. Graduation from a U.S. high school or honorable discharge from the military, as well as no felonies or less than three significant misdemeanors all must also be proven to be considered for deferred action.

Chavez iterated to those in attendance that they should be wary of scams, especially lawyers that charge a large fee to file a deferred action application. USCIS requires a $465 fee which includes a background check and biometrics appointment.

That $465 plus possible lawyers’ fees is important to Yajaira Marmolejo. The recent UTPA graduate now has a degree in computer science but says she can’t find a job in her field, or even one to pay minimum wage.

“I’m going to continue to gather all the info and start to look at the application and see if there will be any complications,” Marmolejo said. “I’m still thinking if I want to hire an attorney. It’s all expensive, and that’s a lot of  money for me.”
The requirement to have been in the U.S. continually for the last five years is proving problematic for many Valleyites that reside so close to the border and may have journeyed across for family functions. The USCIS website says that brief, casual and innocent absences will be overlooked but many attendees of the info session had more questions about their trips to Mexico.

Attorney Jodi Goodwin traveled from Raymondville to answer specific legal questions. She encouraged those worried about absences to gather proof that their leave was brief, casual and innocent, like wedding or funeral invitations. Marmolejo said she really appreciated the additional info about this aspect of the application.

“The attorney was very informative. The website had a Q and A but it didn’t really answer a lot. It was good that they got someone to give info that really only applies to this area.”

Her brief absence to visit family weighed on Marmolejo’s mind. It wasn’t for an event, just a visit, so she wasn’t sure how to prove it, she said. Additionally she was apprehensive about getting her hopes up for deferred action.

“My worry is that I’ll do everything and pay and not get my permit,” the Reynosa native said. “It’s a lot of time and money and if I don’t get anything, I would have been really excited and then really, really disappointed.”

At the end of the info session, Goodwin reminded attendees to not begin the application without sorting out legal issues and consulting with an attorney if necessary. For her last note, Goodwin reminded them that there are risks associated with deferred action. Denied applications cannot be appealed and applicants who DHS deems to be threats to national security can be reported to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

More information on deferred action can be found at uscis.gov/childhoodarrivals.
 David Alvarado also contributed to this report.

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President Nelsen releases memo detailing faculty merit raises

July 31st, 2012

UTPA President Robert Nelsen released a memo yesterday about the one-time merit raise for some faculty and staff. The memo is reproduced in full below. 

 

July 30, 2012

MEMO TO:      Faculty and Staff
FROM:             Robert S. Nelsen, President

RE:                  One-Time Merit Payment

With this memo, I am authorizing a 3% salary pool for each division which will be used to fund a one-time, lump-sum merit payment to selected faculty and staff in December.  By State law, this merit payment cannot be “across the board” and cannot be a cost of living raise based on (e.g.) inflation.  According to HB1, General Appropriations Act, 82nd Legislature, Regular Session 2011, the one-time merit payment can only be granted to “employees whose job performance and productivity is (sic) consistently above that normally expected or required.”

I am not going to go into detail about how the process will work—the guidelines are thorough and clear and can be found at http://portal.utpa.edu/utpa_main/dba_home/budget_home/bu_resources—instead, I want to focus on from where the funds for the one-time merit payment are being drawn and why the payment is a one-time payment instead of a permanent raise.  Still, I do need to highlight that these one-time payments (1) are for fulltime employees who have been employed on or before February 29, 2012, (2) require that a 2011-12 annual review (for faculty) or a 2011-2012 SEPAP—Staff Employee Performance Appraisal Program evaluation form—(for staff) be on file by August 31, 2012.  Additionally, faculty will have to submit an up-to-date CV and complete and submit a Tabular Summary of Professional Achievements form for 2011-12.

So why is the merit payment only one-time when other state employees in Texas and even in the Valley are receiving merit raises?  First and foremost, we do not have a taxing district or revenue from local taxes like our community college and school districts.  Second, our draft budget for FY 2013 is $249,651,719 as compared to $254,027,290 for FY 2012.  Third, even though that budget is balanced, there is still uncertainty because the State has asked us to draft two additional budgets, one with a 10% reduction and the other with a 5% reduction. Fourth, our enrollment for this summer dropped 10% and for the fall is trending flat if not just a little down.  Finally, our tuition remains the lowest in the UT System and amongst the very lowest in the State.

The draft budget that we are submitting to UT System and to the Legislative Budget Board contains sufficient funds to maintain the campus and to cover our students’ instructional needs.  However, that budget does not include the funds for the one-time merit payment.  We will pay for the merit payment from our reserves.  Overall, the one-time merit pool will consist of $2,476,329.  The President’s Cabinet decided to spend down the reserves by this amount because we have stabilized our instruction and our safety budgets and because we decided to put our highest priority this coming year on personnel and morale.

We were able to build the reserves to 4.8 months of operating funds over the most recent 2 years because of enrollment growth and because of salary savings generated by our salary sweep policy.  UT System has approved our allocating these funds for the merit payment, and we are confident that we will be able to keep our Composite Financial Index (CFI) at or slightly above 3. A CFI at or above 3 is considered solid.

How can we get to the point where we can grant true merit raises?  (Please forgive the way I am about to write about students —it is not the way that any of us think of them, but it is reality.)  We must grow—every one percent increase in student enrollment earns us over $650,000 after paying for all the costs associated with the growth.  We must also retain those students once they enroll.  Our first year retention rates have been mostly flat for quite some time and our sophomore retention rate has been as low as 53%.  Every student who doesn’t return directly affects our revenue stream and our ability to provide raises.  More importantly, every student whom we lose directly detracts us from our mission to give those students a first-rate education.

The funding can’t just come from student enrollment.  To pay for raises, we also have to increase our fundraising efforts, and we have to increase the number of research grants that we receive.  Just as importantly, we have to continue to reduce costs through initiatives like the paperless and LEAN initiatives.

I am confident that we can recruit more freshmen, more transfer students, and more graduate students.  I also strongly believe that the retention efforts in which Academic Affairs and Student Affairs are engaged will be successful.  University Advancement is newly energized, and the Office of Research and Sponsored Projects will soon have new leadership and is committed to helping our faculty and others involved in research.

As part of our emphasis on improving morale, we will be conducting compensation studies for over 80 job classifications.  In the FY 2013 draft budget, we have allocated over $800,000 to rectify salary compression, and we are doubling the salary supplement that faculty receive when they are promoted.  Still, I know that we have much more to do.  Nonetheless, because of the quality of our faculty and our staff, I remain convinced that we will succeed.  The “proof positive” is that in spite of a 17.76% budget reduction in state funding, we were able to build the reserves and will be able to provide a one-time demerit payment in December.   As always, I am incredibly grateful for everything that all of you do for our students and for Pan Am

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