Connect with:

Prisoners of healthcare

July 17th, 2014

Veterans Affairs Acting Secretary Sloan Gibson testified in front of the VA Senate Committee Wednesday to discuss the progress and future of the ailing VA system. Reports of falsified documents and malpractice have brought negative attention to a department that Gibson called “poorly positioned.”

After former secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki resigned May 30 amidst rumors of malpractice within the healthcare department, the VA has begun its reform process to help bring the department back to working standards.

This was the first time since scandal arose within the department that Gibson met with the VA Senate Committee. During this meeting the committee discussed practices commonly found in the private sector of the medical field that could be helpful to follow when overhauling the VA department.

Another topic discussed at the meeting was the potential power given to the secretary of the department to fire officials that are performing poorly. In addition to these powers, allowing veterans to receive medical care outside of the VA was another topic that was touched on. This rule could mean medical care for veterans if no service can be given by the VA within 30 days.

These new rules for the VA are part of a bipartisan plan announced by Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., in early June, less than one week after the malpractice rumors surfaced.

The Congressional Budget Office released a new analysis July 10 of the reform bill that will regulate the VA department in the 2015 fiscal year. The reformed budget, according to The Hill, reduced the cost of implementing the bill from $50 billion over three years to $30 billion, which the CBO saw as more reasonable, according to the Army Times.

The VA department’s healthcare division has been under fire throughout the year after a number of malpractice suits had been filed against it for charging long patient wait times and rumors of sexual harassment, racism and illegal drug use in facilities, according to Politico. The malpractice suits were costing the U.S. $845 million due to a “delay in treatment.”

A member of the ROTC program, who wished to remain anonymous, said his experience with the VA health department has not been a good one.

“It takes forever to get an appointment. It takes forever to get a letter back that says that they’re working on your claim,” the senior criminal justice major said. “Then you get people that do get a rating but it’s very low and doesn’t make sense with (the illness) they have. (The system) doesn’t make any sense.”

The long wait times for veterans to receive care are seen all over the country. A report by Patch, a community-specific news source, states that Maryland has the fourth longest wait time for veterans with an average of 81 days. The article also sheds light on an isolated incident at a Phoenix VA hospital where 40 veterans died while awaiting treatment. The Memphis VA Medical Center was also investigated and was found to have 50-day wait times for new patients.

The ROTC member said problems can even be seen in the Rio Grande Valley at the Harlingen VA Medical Center.

“You have nurses (in Harlingen) that aren’t even qualified to use the equipment they’re using,” the UTPA senior said.

According to the Washington Post, an internal audit performed by the VA department revealed that 57,000 veterans had waited more than 90 days to receive medical attention earlier this year. In addition, the audit found that VA employees at 24 sites felt “threatened or coerced” to record false information that would make patient wait times seem lower than they really were.

A report was also created by Senator Tom Coburn, R-Okla., last month that highlighted the shortcomings of the VA Department. In his report he included the instances of abuse and racism as well as noting that 1,000 veteran deaths have occurred in the last 10 years under the VA’s watch. He said that the deaths were not only “largely preventable” but cost the department more than $200 million in settlements.

Furthermore, Coburn noted that the problem of long patient wait times could be attributed to the amount of patients seen by doctors. According to Politico, Coburn’s report said private sector doctors see upward of 2,300 patients annually while VA doctors see 1,200. The report states that this is due in part to the lack of staffing requirements and regulation on doctor/patient numbers.

According to Sanders, one of the committee members in charge of drawing up a reform plan for the VA, said staffing is suffering because VA doctors get paid less than private practice doctors. One of Sanders’ ideas to help resolve this issue is to offer student loan forgiveness to young doctors who agree to work for the VA department.

The ROTC member said he feels there is another reason why the VA health system is not running properly.

“The problem is that you’ve got the VA who is supposed to take care of veterans but they hire a bunch of civilians that have no knowledge of the military,” the Army veteran said. “So of course they’re not going to know what they’re doing.”

In addition to the issues highlighted in Coburn’s report, the VA had first gone under the microscope earlier in the year when rumors of falsified wait times surfaced. According to Army Times, these tampered documents would in turn aid in larger performance bonuses for VA employees.

Gibson has been the acting VA secretary since Shinseki’s resignation. As of June, former Procter & Gamble CEO Robert McDonald was nominated by U.S. President Barack Obama to be elected as the new VA secretary. The VA Senate Committee will come to a decision on the position July 22.

There are a dozen individuals working within the House and Senate in a conference that not only created the reform bill but will review it before it passes. Among the people in this conference committee are Sen. Jeff Miller, R-Fla., and Sanders. Both men said they have faith that recent budget adjustments will help move the reform bill forward before the Congressional break in August.

“Our job as a Congress and as a nation is to make the necessary changes so that every veteran in the VA system gets the quality and timely health care they are entitled to,” Sanders said.

According to the VA website, the three main goals of the department over the next year are to improve veteran access to benefits, reduce the number of backlog patients and alleviate veteran homelessness.

The White House has noted improvements within the VA in recent months. This year 182,000 appointments have been made and $400 million has been allotted for accelerated care. Also, the previously noted 57,000 veterans awaiting care has been reduced to 46,000 as of June 15.

The ROTC member said he feels these advances in the system are merely patch work. He said the problems will continue until something more serious is done.

“(The problem) is not going to get worked out. It would get fixed if people were actually held accountable with criminal charges,” the ROTC member said. “As far as fixing the system, I don’t see it.”

Categories: News

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Border crisis

July 17th, 2014

A family of four rests in the corner, draped in donated blankets, on one of the approximately 20 plastic cots lining the sides of an off-white tent behind Sacred Heart Catholic Church in McAllen, where undocumented UTPA student Abraham Diaz has been volunteering for the past three weeks. The church is one of several places in the Rio Grande Valley that has been providing food, shelter and clothing for undocumented immigrants coming into the U.S. from Central and South America. According to The Los Angeles Times, approximately 57,000 unaccompanied youths have illegally crossed the border since October 2013.

Diaz, a junior bilingual education major, has been volunteering between work and other activities to do what he can. He was 9 when he came to the U.S. as an unaccompanied minor from Monterrey, Mexico, and knows all too well what current undocumented immigrants may be experiencing.

“I know what they are going through, these children,” said Diaz, the vice president of the Minority Affairs Council at UTPA. “At first you don’t fit in, you are the outsider. People knowing you are not from this country, they push you aside. It feels bad because you are unwanted. They bully you, you are mistreated because of your legal status…because of your language.”

But the state of immigration has changed since Diaz came to this country. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, the population of undocumented immigrants was about 8.7 million in 2000. Today, that number is approximately 20 million, as stated by Zach Taylor, chairman of the National Association of Former Border Patrol Officers. With the increase comes safety, economic and humanitarian concerns from politicians, local residents and UTPA students.


In an article published earlier this month by The New York Times, the surge of immigrants can be attributed to the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, passed by then President George W. Bush.

“Originally pushed by a bipartisan coalition of lawmakers as well as by evangelical groups to combat sex trafficking, the bill gave substantial new protections to children entering the country alone who were not from Mexico or Canada by prohibiting them from being quickly sent back to their country of origin,” the article states.

The piece of legislation stipulates that these unaccompanied minors be turned over to the Department of Health and Human Services and be given a date for a future court hearing regarding their legal status. They are also given short-term shelter while the department works to reunite these children with family. If the child has no family in the U.S. they are turned over to a sponsor.

According to a July article by digital news source Mashable, the unaccompanied children from Central and South American countries began coming to the U.S. as early as 2011, but as poverty and violence increase in these countries, the numbers continue to rise. The number of minors crossing the border from Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador is expected to reach as many as 90,000 by the end of 2014, the article said.

To address the growing crisis and provide additional resources to the border, U.S. President Barack Obama requested $3.7 billion from Congress in a spending bill July 7. However, as of July 16, the bill has not been passed.

Republicans are opposing the bill for being too costly and not enacting tough enough immigration laws, as stated in a July article by USA Today. As part of the bill, Republicans want to enact legislation that would expedite the return of unaccompanied minors.


According to the U.S. Customs and Border Protection website, there was a large increase in illegal migration in the 1980s and 1990s. Numerous actions were taken to address the situation, including the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986. Put into law by President Ronald Reagan, IRCA is still often cited as one of the most effective immigration laws, according to the Migration Policy Institute. The primary goal of the act was to increase border security and establish penalties for employers who hired undocumented immigrants.

But despite past efforts, Texas Gov. Rick Perry said the U.S.-Mexico border still isn’t secure.

“The rapid influx of illegal immigration has strained the Border Patrol, the resources that they have and the resources we have put on ourselves as a state, and frankly they are already insufficient for the task at hand,” Perry said at a field hearing held by the Committee on Homeland Security earlier this month. “Officials who should be guarding the border are dealing with the overflow instead of fulfilling their primary tasks. As a result, the border between the U.S. and Mexico is less secure today than at any time in the recent past.”

At the hearing, titled “Crisis on the Texas Border: Surge of Unaccompanied Minors,” Perry elaborated on safety concerns residents of the RGV face due to immigration, including drug cartels, gangs and terrorism.

“We know that drug cartels and transnational gangs are already seeking to take advantage of the situation, attempting to circumvent security and spread pain and suffering on both sides of the border through their criminal activities,” Perry stated. “We’re also in danger at the hands of those who might be slipping through from countries with known terrorist ties. With a range of potential threats facing us from abroad, this is not the time to be distracted by something else.”

According to The Washington Post, since Border Patrol agents are occupied with controlling the influx of immigrants, Mexican cartels have had an easier time smuggling drugs across the border. When agents are pulled away from their patrol stations, gaps are created along the border that the traffickers can exploit, said Chris Cabrera, the vice president of the National Border Patrol Council Local 3307.

During the field hearing held at the South Texas College Technology Campus July 3 Perry asked federal lawmakers to send the National Guard to the border to assist local law enforcement with this issue. The former lieutenant governor of Texas stated that there is simply not enough manpower and resources to secure this sector of the border.

“When you look at the United States border from El Paso to California, there are 17 border patrol agents per mile dedicated to that region of the United States,” he said. “From El Paso to Brownsville, it is seven border patrol agents per mile.”

Joshua Rojas, the president of the College Republicans at UTPA, agrees that protecting sovereignty should be the government’s primary concern.

“We need to secure the borders,” said the junior finance major. “Until that happens we can’t discuss any type of amnesty for anyone here illegally.”


Another concern for Rojas is the impact immigration will have on the local economy. In 2013, Brownsville and Harlingen were named the poorest cities in the country by the U.S. Census Bureau and economic website 24/7 Wall St.

“We have so many poor people here that if we bring in more, it’s only going to hurt us even more, it’s going to be harder to find jobs,” he said.

As the son of an undocumented immigrant, Rojas is familiar with the struggles these migrants are facing but believes the economic burden should not fall on the shoulders of current legal citizens.

 At the Congressional field hearing, U.S. Representative Lou Barletta, R-Pa., echoed similar concerns. His hometown of Hazelton, Pa. was being considered as a location to house unaccompanied minors.

“As a mayor of Hazleton for 11 years, I saw firsthand what burden illegal immigration has on local government,” Barletta said. “When I saw our population grow by 15 percent but our tax revenue stay the same, realizing we had an illegal immigration problem, quality of services suffered. I helped sound the alarm to stop potential relocation of unaccompanied minors to a property in my hometown in downtown Hazleton, Pennsylvania, which had been identified as a potential housing facility.”

According to a February 2013 article by The New York Times, labor economists found that undocumented workers lowered wages of U.S. adults without high-school diplomas, approximately 25 million people, between 0.4 and 7.4 percent. However, that same article states that undocumented immigrants could be beneficial to skilled laborers.

“From 1990 to 2007, undocumented workers increased legal workers’ pay in complementary jobs by up to 10 percent,” the article said. “In states with more undocumented immigrants…skilled workers made more money and worked more hours; the economy’s productivity grew.”

In addition, chief actuary at the Social Security Administration Stephen Goss states in the article that undocumented immigrants contribute about $15 billion a year to social security through payroll taxes, state and federal taxes that employers are required to withhold and/or pay on behalf of employees. The article goes on to explain that undocumented workers have contributed up to $300 billion, or nearly 10 percent, of the $2.7 trillion Social Security Trust Fund.


Hidalgo County Sheriff Eddie Guerra brought to light one aspect to the humanitarian crisis at field hearing – immigrant deaths. According to Guerra, there were 19 immigrant deaths the sheriff’s office responded to in 2012. In 2013, they responded to 25 immigrant deaths. This year they have already responded to 14 immigrant deaths.

“There are dozens of immigrants that have lost their lives trying to fulfill their hope of finding freedom and opportunity here,” Guerra said at the field hearing. “Bodies are found in the river or in the brush, many in deplorable condition. Many of these immigrants die from drowning or heat exposure. The hardest to take, is the death of children. Most recently we responded to the death of an 11-year-old boy from Guatemala. His decomposed body was found in the brush just a quarter mile away from a residential neighborhood where he could have sought help.”

The sheriff also remarked that the immigrants are often victims of crimes themselves but due to their legal status, these crimes go unreported.

“For the most part, the offenders are not the undocumented immigrants coming into the United States, they are the victims,” he said. “At times, human smugglers sexually assault the women, who are victims and often feel they have no voice because of their legal status so the crime goes unreported. There are instances where criminals will hold ransom undocumented persons- once again, some of these crimes will go unreported.”

Another aspect to the humanitarian crisis discussed at the hearing, and the initial reason it was held, centered on undocumented children and the dangers they face crossing the border.

“Here in Texas we are facing an escalating refugee and national security crisis. Since October, more than 50,000 unaccompanied minors have crossed our Southern border into the United States– nearly two-thirds of those crossed here in the Rio Grande Valley,” said Michael McCaul, chairman of the Committee on Homeland Security, at the field hearing. “These children are being exploited by the drug cartels who are turning a profit by smuggling these kids to the U.S. at a cost of $5,000 to $8,000 per child…These children are often subjected to beatings, starvation, sexual assault and are at risk of being trafficked.”

U.S. Representative McCaul, R-Texas, highlighted humanitarian concerns due to the immigration influx, focusing on unaccompanied minors. McCaul and Perry both favored returning the children to their native countries.

“To break this cycle we need to add in some real deterrence – first, mandatory detention and then we should explore ways to promptly return those who come here illegally,” McCaul said. “Not doing so puts more young lives at risk of exploitation.”

However, U.S. Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, disagreed with these proposed actions.

“A massive deportation policy for children and a mandatory detaining for children is not a humane thing to do,” Jackson Lee said at the field hearing. “This is not a national security crisis, this is a humanitarian crisis.”

According to The New York Times, more than three-quarters of unaccompanied minors are from El Salvador, Guatemala and Honduras. According to Jackson Lee, these three central American countries have among the highest per capita homicide rates in the world with Honduras topping the list and the two other nations in the top five.

UTPA alumna Kayleigh Garcia agrees with Jackson Lee. Garcia, who earned her master’s in public administration in 2013, said she can’t imagine sending these immigrants back to the countries they are fleeing.

“They are coming here as refugees, we can’t send them back to their deaths like we did when the Jewish community came to us on a boat from the Nazi regime telling us they needed help back in the ‘40s and we turned around and sent them back…we sent them back to their deaths,” said Garcia, president of the Hidalgo County Texas Young Democrats. “I refuse to be a part of that.”

Diaz, who will continue to volunteer at Sacred Heart Church during this immigration crisis, agrees with Garcia.

“Some of the DREAMERS have gone through these situations…and we know what it feels like, we’ve been in their shoes,” he said. “When we didn’t get help, we know what it felt like to be neglected and now that we have the opportunity to give help to them and change the way they see things, we can make an impact in their lives.”

“DREAMERS” is a term often used by undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. when they were young and are now pushing for immigration reform. The name originates from the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act, a stalled legislative proposal that would have helped undocumented immigrants in college become legal citizens.

Diaz is one of approximately 645 DREAMERS at UTPA and is also a participant in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program. According to the Department of Homeland Security, those who are part of DACA are not conferred legal citizenship, but are allowed to stay in the country while they attend school. DACA recipients are also eligible for work authorization, which allows them to be lawfully employed in the U.S.

While Diaz has been able to make the best of his situation, he acknowledges that not all the minors entering the U.S. will have the same path he has. He hopes to do what he can to help, no matter what the outcome may be for these children.

“You have to think about what is the humane thing to do,” he said. “If one of these people were my family members, what would I do for them? Personally, I would give my life for my child, just like these families are. So as a human, I want to give as much as I can.”

Categories: News

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Nearing equality

July 17th, 2014

When the U.S. first passed the Equal Pay Act in 1963, women throughout the country were earning 59 cents for every dollar a male made. Today, that has increased to 77 cents for every dollar paid to men, according to the U.S. Department of Labor. The “gender wage gap” has narrowed, but it has not vanished. A study released by personal finance information website  NerdWallet in June suggests that wage equality might actually depend on the city.

The “gender pay gap” refers to the difference in average income between men and women. According to the Department of Justice, one of the factors in women earning less than men is that there are a lack of accommodating work arrangements. This can apply to all employees, but affects more women who have dependent children.

NerdWallet analyzed 522 U.S. cities and determined the best places for women to work. Of the 522 cities, Pharr was ranked number one as the best small city for working women and Edinburg was number four.

Other cities on the list include Sandy Springs, Ga., in the second ranking, followed by Hesperia, Calif., in third.

The cities were broken down into three categories: large, medium and small. There were 61 large cities with populations of more than 300,000, 241 medium cities with populations of from 100,000 to 300,000 and 220 small cities with populations under 100,000.

NerdWallet included the median salaries for male and female full-time and year-round workers, “median gross rent,” population growth and other statistics from the Census Bureau American Community Survey. “Median gross rent” is the monthly rent agreed or contracted for in addition to the estimated monthly cost of utilities.

All the cities analyzed for the study were based on census data. UTPA Economics Professor Marie Mora was not surprised that two Valley cities made the grade list, saying that she was excited to have the area on a list of something positive for a change.

“To me what it means is that (the Valley) is a friendly place for women to work and that the same type of barriers that women might be facing in other cities might not be present here,” Mora said. “The numbers also suggest that there may be a lot of opportunities for women.”

According to the website, Pharr was placed at the top due to female employees earning 112 percent of a man’s average income. Rent was below the national average as a result of the 10 percent increase of population from 2009 to 2011. NerdWallet reported the average household median at $631 a month.

“This area is definitely one of the fastest growing cities in the entire country,” Mora said. “It’s not just in the state, so that does bode well in terms of future job opportunities.”

Pharr’s median income for full-time female employees came in at $29,189. Sandy Springs was next in the ranking with $46,432 and Hesperia with $36,880. The median income for Edinburg came in at $50,051. Edinburg was ranked in the top five because of a 12 percent increase in population since 2012, low rental costs and strong income equality between men and women. NerdWallet reported $651 as the city’s median gross rent and women’s earnings as a percentage to men’s is about 94 percent.

NerdWallet reported the numbers of working women in the U.S. has steadily increased in the past 50 years, growing from 29 percent to nearly 50 percent. In 1960, one in 10 mothers in the country were the sole or primary “breadwinner”. In 2011, that number went up to four in every 10. A “breadwinner” is a person who earns money to support a family.

“It surprises me to see how different things were just a short 50 years ago,” said Marilynn Feria, a UTPA junior political science major. “It’s amazing to think that if I had been born at a different time my life would be completely different as a woman in the workforce. Of course, I’m proud and glad that many women having been pushing to see these changes and have been striving for the opportunities and gratification of being self-sufficient.”

According to Feria, the ranking came as a surprise to her but she’s happy to see the number of women in the workforce increasing.

“It did surprise me, but in a good way,” Feria said. “These are the things that I like to see our home cities recognized for. It means that people are taking the initiative to provide equal opportunity to both sexes, especially in an area with very conservative views.”

 NerdWallet reported education, trade, transportation, health services, utilities and the government as being the industries with the biggest presence in Edinburg. The city’s largest employers are UTPA, Edinburg Regional Medical Center, Hidalgo County and Doctors Hospital at Renaissance, according to the Edinburg Economic Development Corp.

Mora stated that she has never sensed negative feelings against Valley women who work at different businesses and believes it is because Edinburg is a family-friendly city.

“I’ve always believed that women are just as capable and responsible and have the same amount of vision and passion as men do for work,” Mora said. “So it never has made sense to me that women would earn less for equal work.”

Categories: News

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

Nursing abroad

July 17th, 2014

Being 8,848 miles away from home while immersed in a foreign culture can be scary, but UTPA foreign exchange students Prattana Aroonrattanateawan and Kanyarat Pratrairach are doing it this summer and getting the chance to study nursing in a new light.

The pair of 23-year-olds graduated in February with bachelor’s degrees in faculty of nursing from Naresuan University located in Muang, Thailand. Upon entering their senior year of college last fall they signed up for the school’s Cooperative Program Nursing Project linked with UTPA.

The four-month project consists of 12 hours of UTPA nursing courses plus weekly trips to the McAllen Medical Hospital for clinical observations. Once Aroonrattanateawan and Pratrairach complete the program, which is equivalent to a graduate program at Naresuan, they will each write a research paper on how the American medical profession differs from the Thailand health system.

According to Naresuan’s website, the university is a leading research institution collaborating with top international colleges around the globe in countries such as Australia, France and the U.S. UTPA and Naresuan have been partners since November 2011 and will renew the agreement in November 2016.

One month after receiving their diplomas, the girls packed their bags and boarded a 22-hour flight from Shanghai, China bound for McAllen.

Throughout their stay, the women experienced life as American college students. They met new friends in class who helped them get accustomed to campus and were invited to shopping sprees and trips to the movies.

Aroonrattanateawan explained that their stay at UTPA’s Bronc Village apartments is coming to an end because they will be heading back to Thailand July 21. Once back home, the pair hopes to become more educated on health care in order to receive work as nurses.


Aroonrattanateawan is completing her nursing project on “transcultural nursing,” an anthropology-based science focused on how professional nurses treat a patient with a background different from their own. She explained how her project will be based on her belief that doctors in the Rio Grande Valley should be more educated about Mexican traditions and beliefs.

According to Baylor University’s BearSpace webpage, a network file storage space for students and faculty, many from the Hispanic background believe problems that are primarily spiritual in nature can be treated with prayer and ritual. However, research suggests most Hispanics use medicine such as antibiotics to a far greater extent than traditional or folk methods.

“It’s all about how you would take care of a patient who comes from a culture that’s not your own,” Aroonrattanateawan said. “I would say the Mexican culture is dominant here, so doctors have to be educated about the Mexican culture.”

On the other hand, Pratrairach is writing her project on maternity nursing, also known as labor and delivery nursing. While at UTPA, she said she has seen how the Thai and American programs differ.

“Here, I would say nursing is taught a little less strictly,” the Udonthani, Thailand, native said. “In Thailand, it’s required for nurses to have their hair pulled back in a hair net, no makeup, no nail polish and no jewelry, but here it’s only required to pull your hair back.”

When first arriving at McAllen Medical Hospital in March, the women said they were amazed to see the amount of technology that is available to patients, such as a “medical vending machine.” These machines hold medicine, personal care products and even first aid supplies that can be bought like snacks from a vending machine. Hospitals can also use them for prescription medications.

In Thailand, much of this equipment goes to leading hospitals instead of rural ones.

“(Hospitals in the U.S.) have a lot of good technology,” Aroonrattanateawan said. “But in Thailand, nurses need to provide the patient with their medicine…we don’t have much, but some hospitals do have it.”


Along with being amazed by American medical technology, the women were astonished by how much American culture differs from their own.

“In the Thai culture, we don’t touch much or kiss, and here everyone does that,” Aroonrattanateawan said. “I like the fajitas and (Pratrairach) likes the tacos, which is different from Thai food like rice. We can have rice every day with every meal. And driving on the opposite side of the road was also a challenge.”

When it came to their schoolwork, speaking and writing in a foreign language was the toughest challenge the pair faced.

“I think talking is the hardest. Every Thai student has to take an English class starting in the first grade,” Aroonrattanateawan explained. “We don’t get to use it much. We only speak Thai, and even in English class we speak Thai. But we learn from watching movies and listening to music. Music helped a lot. My favorite is Taylor Swift.”

Despite being overwhelmed by a new language, Aroonrattanateawan knows all the hard work will eventually help her to save lives.

“I would say if we walk on the road and we see someone who is need of medical attention, we have the power to help them immediately,” she said.

Pratrairach said after she completes the nursing project, she would like to find work as a perioperative nurse, meaning she would assist doctors during surgeries as well as work with patients who are having invasive procedures.

“When I think about nursing as a career, I think I can help a lot of people who will need my help in the future,” she said.

The girls admit they have enjoyed the countless shopping trips, parties and trips to the movies with their new friends. They hope after turning in their research projects and boarding a 22-hour flight back home, they will be able to return one day to visit the place that became their temporary home.

Categories: Arts & Life

Tags: , , , , , ,

Economic upturn

July 17th, 2014

This June marked five years since the U.S. economy ended its longest recession since World War II and local people have taken note. According to an analysis by personal finance information website NerdWallet, two of the top 10 most improved cities in the country are in the Rio Grande Valley.

The Great Recession officially began in December 2007 and ended in June 2009, according to the National Bureau of Economic Research which determines the beginning and end of U.S. recessions.

Using data from NBER, as well as figures from the labor and housing markets, NerdWallet compared changes in unemployment, household income and home values among 510 U.S. cities. The study determined that the most improved city in the nation was McAllen. Edinburg came in ninth.

The median household income from 2009 to 2012 in McAllen increased by 31.69 percent, the second highest rate of any city in the country. According to NerdWallet, McAllen tops the list because of that growth in income – in addition to a nearly 16 percent increase in median home value.

James Boudreau, an assistant professor of economics at the University, said he thinks the ranking is a reflection of the positive things that are happening in the Valley and credits the rankings to its residents.

“People generate economic activity and the Valley has seen its population grow quite a bit over the last decade,” said Boudreau, who has been at UTPA for five years. “I’m not sure of the exact ranking, but the McAllen metro area ranks quite highly in terms of population growth as compared to other places in the U.S. It also helps that the Valley’s population is on average quite young and young people tend to do more spending than older folks.”

McAllen had an unemployment rate of 4.35 percent along with a 31.69 percent increase in median household income. The national unemployment rate in April was 6.3 percent. There was also a 15.61 percent change in median home value. “Median house household income” refers to the income level earned by a given household. The national unemployment rate is 6.1 as of June, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“Many places in the U.S. are experiencing negative growth, so in comparison this is obviously very good news,” Boudreau said. “The Valley is young, vibrant and growing… People sometimes disparage the Valley unfairly, as if it’s a small town or somehow inconsequential. To the contrary, I believe it’s one of the more up-and-coming places in the U.S.”

Eight of the top 10 cities on the list are in Texas, including Midland, San Angelo, Bryan, College Station, Odessa and Amarillo.

Edinburg’s most important factor was median household income. With a nearly 20 percent increase in the three-year period, median home value also grew by 6.50 percent.

Carlos Ramos, a business finance major, said that having Edinburg and McAllen beside larger cities like Washington, D.C. -which was the most improved largest city among the 50 analyzed – has the potential to spark interest in more individuals.

“As you drive around you can see various business and plazas opening up or being constructed and there is definitely growth,” the 20-year-old said. “I know it will take time but I’m sure Edinburg and McAllen will continue to grow to become big cities.”

According to NerdWallet, since the end of the recession in 2009, Edinburg has seen improvements in its workforce and housing market. The Edinburg Economic Development Corporation reported that since 2008 most local jobs are in education and health services, with the city’s school district and regional medical center as the top employers.

“It does bring a sense of pride seeing your city’s name on that list,” Ramos said. “It feels like the small town I grew up with is starting to become something bigger. 

According to the Texas Workforce Commission, Texas added more than 56,000 jobs in May. In addition, unemployment in Texas dropped to 5.1 percent. In a press release published June 20 Texas Gov. Rick Perry said that Texas continues to be the epicenter of job creation in the U.S. He also said Texas is the best place in the country to find a job.

Boudreau, who received his Ph.D. from the University of Connecticut in spring 2009 stated that continuing positive demographic trends, along with the boost the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley will provide, should mean things will keep improving in the Valley. The new university will have a large impact to the region’s economic growth and job market and is expected to add thousands of jobs to the region, according to a Project South Texas report.

“It may sound cliché, but the Valley has a young, dynamic population and that’s why it’s growing,” Boudreau said. “I would say it’s a very good thing both in terms of what it says about current population and what it means for the population’s future.”

Categories: News

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

45 years after ‘one giant leap’

July 17th, 2014

As 38-year-old astronaut Neil Armstrong emerged from the Apollo 11 spacecraft on the moon and declared the mission a “giant leap for mankind,” 600 million people watched from Earth more than 238,000 miles away. One viewer of the July 20, 1969 event was retired UTPA speech communication professor George McLemore, who was in his mid-20s at the time. He said it was a “welcomed relief” in the midst of the Vietnam War.

After more than 30 years at the University, 71-year-old  McLemore who now lives in Austin, said the moon landing helped Americans temporarily forget about the thousands of overseas casualties printed in the newspapers every week. He painted a picture of what it was like to live in Houston at the time of the event.

“I was so excited about the July landing on the moon that I made my girlfriend wake up in the middle of the night to watch those grainy black and white images of the (Lunar Excursion Module) touchdown,” McLemore explained. “Of course, because I lived in Houston at the time I was exposed daily to the heroic attentions paid to the astronauts in the press, on freeway billboards and on TV specials.”

While McLemore gazed at his screen in awe, a 2-year-old boy named Nicolas Pereyra bounced around his New Rochelle, N.Y. home, unaware of what all the fuss was about. That toddler grew up to be an astronomy and physics professor at UTPA. The 47-year-old said he doesn’t recall watching the event, but believes that having achieved such a feat in the late ‘60s is astounding.

“Walking on the moon in 1969 has been one of humanity’s greatest achievements,” the Venezuela native said. “Having achieved this several decades ago, with less advanced technology than we have today, gives humanity even more merit.”

Astronomy and physics Professor Hector Leal said he was always interested in the stars and sky as a child. Even though he was born nine years after the moon landing, not being alive for the event had not lessened his appreciation for it.

“It means a great step was achieved towards technological advancement in many fields (such as) medicine, science, technology, communications and engineering,” the 36-year-old explained. “It opened the possibility of exploring other parts of our universe not only with probes, satellites and telescopes, but human travel to other places outside of our planet.”


With the anniversary of man’s first steps on the moon a few days away, the nation’s first commercial rocket launch facility – possibly being built on Boca Chica Beach near Brownsville – has become an increasingly frequent topic. According to The Brownsville Herald, the city is the leading contender for the site of private rocket company SpaceX’s new launch pad. After having the area approved by the Federal Aviation Administration earlier this month, SpaceX can move forward with its plan of applying for a license to begin construction in 2016.

In fall of that same year, the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley will open and students will begin leaving UTPA and the University of Texas at Brownsville in the past. The University of Texas System has not released any statements involving SpaceX, but there is some support from the UTPA community.

Although the University offers astronomy as a minor, Leal said UTPA astronomy faculty members in the Department of Physics and Geology have looked into making astronomy a major as well; he wants SpaceX to select Boca Chica Beach so it will have a domino effect on the Valley.

“I hope that in the future, UTRGV will be able to offer the astronomy major, master’s and even a doctorate program,” the Mexico City native said. “If SpaceX does go forward with its new project in Brownsville, it will increase the demand for these courses through the creation of local jobs in the field of astronomy…and it will hopefully increase the interest of the Valley community in science and engineering in general.”

Pereyra believes if SpaceX selects Boca Chica, an array of new major areas of study would become available at the new university.

“UTRGV should support this effort by developing new programs through its science and engineering departments aimed towards astronomy, astrophysics, aerospace engineering and other space-related fields,” he said. “This would strongly benefit SpaceX, UTRGV and most importantly, the Rio Grande Valley community.”


In honor of Apollo 11’s voyage to the moon 45 years ago, one crew member has taken to Twitter, YouTube and other social media sites to promote the celebration of the landing by using #Apollo45. Buzz Aldrin, now 84, teamed up with several celebrities to expand his campaign’s reach. Academy Award winner Jared Leto, Grammy-winning Producer Pharrell Williams, science educator Bill Nye and Virgin Group Founder Richard Branson are some individuals who make an appearance in Aldrin’s YouTube video promoting the anniversary as well as showing appreciation for space exploration.

According to Pew Research Center, interest in space travel has been declining for decades. Less than one year after the moon landing, a survey showed that 56 percent of Americans thought the mission was not worth the $20 billion spent, which would equal to $150 billion today, according to NASA.

Further research conducted by Pew in 1999 asked Americans what they thought the greatest accomplishment of the 20th century was with 18 percent specifically citing the moon landing. A new survey conducted a decade later asked what the largest accomplishment was in the last 50 years and 12 percent answered space exploration. Success in civil and equal rights garnered the most votes with 17 percent, leaving outer space in second place. In comparison, 10 percent said it was the election of a black president and breakthroughs in computers was last with 2 percent.

In an attempt to raise these numbers, Aldrin’s #Apollo45 campaign has garnered thousands of responses from individuals of all ages around the world. As July 20 nears, memories of Apollo 11’s landing keep pouring in to the former astronaut.

McLemore applauds Aldrin’s efforts and believes interest in space exploration has decreased because of today’s expectations for technology, brought on by movies and television.

“Because the moon landing occurred nearly half a century ago, ‘space travel’ to most people alive today seems to be a rather mundane and ‘not to be taken very seriously’ activity, and this is a good way to change that view,” McLemore said. “Over recent years, so much popular culture, especially 3D video games and movies like Avatar, leave the impression that travel and exploration beyond Earth has now been done. Well, of course it has not.”

Leal believes Aldrin’s campaign is playing a needed role in keeping space exploration alive, which he said would lead to progress in other fields.

“Unfortunately after we reached the moon, interest in space exploration has decreased more and more every year,” he said. “A lot of people don’t realize that thanks to humans trying to reach the moon, we have had so many advancements in technology, science, engineering and medicine since then through research that was done at the time.”

Pereyra said space exploration remains a fundamental endeavor after decades of progress and he believes Aldrin’s efforts are “very well placed.” He also spoke of what he feels the future has in store for human involvement with outer space, including populating the universe beyond our world.

“As new technology and new science discoveries are achieved, space exploration will become safer and less expensive. We will likely return to the moon within the next few decades, but this time with the intention of colonizing and keeping permanent or semi-permanent human populations there,” he said. “We would most likely eventually colonize Mars and other natural targets for exploration, after reaching Mars, are the large moons of the gas giants and beyond.”

McLemore said colonization across the universe would prove difficult because reaching agreements on large decisions has become a huge obstacle. He then referred to a current social issue as an example.

“The moon landing in 1969 does demonstrate what this nation can accomplish when it is committed – both politically and socially – to an endeavor in which we are all invested,” he said. “I fear that we shall not see or experience such national commitments again. The American space program represented a collective willingness to pursue a worthy goal. Now, we cannot even agree whether we should provide food and shelter to young children crossing the Rio Grande to escape violence and oppression in Central America.”

Lara also believes further space endeavors would be tough, citing that it takes more than technology, science and compliance.

“There is so much more to be done and so much to learn about the universe around us. Our probes and satellites have not even left our solar system and humans have not travelled further than the moon,” he said. “The possibilities are only limited by our imagination, our curiosity and our willingness to put the time, effort and resources needed to set our goals and make them a reality. There are many risks and dangers, but if we don’t try we will never succeed.”

Categories: Arts & Life

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Speak your mind

July 17th, 2014

According to an October 2009 study by Daniel Eisenburg, an associate professor at the University of Michigan, students at UTPA are less likely to seek help from their families regarding mental health issues than students from other universities.

This was just one tidbit of information shared at the “Speak Your Mind Texas” event held in the University Ballroom July 14. The event, sponsored by the Texas Department of State Health Services is part of a statewide campaign to bring awareness to mental health and substance abuse issues. UTPA was one of 16 locations in Texas to host the town-hall style event, with more than 100 attendees showing up.

“We’re pleased to be able to host (this event)…which just shows the importance of mental health and substance abuse and what it means to us as individuals, as groups and as a family and a community so that we can respond to something that I think is not spoken about enough in public until it’s a crisis,” said Mari Fuentes-Martin, associate vice president and dean of students at UTPA.

Speakers at the event included Mauro Ruiz, the DSHS program manager for Health Services Region 11, Assistant Dean of Students for Support Services Eugenia Curet and Dr. Francisco Fernandez, the founding dean of the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley medical school.

“One in four Americans in the United States suffer from a mental illness,” said Fernandez via Skype. “That’s 64 million individuals in our society that suffer from a mental illness.”

In addition, a panel of seven individuals that each deal with mental health issues in his or her given field was present to provide feedback and answers to attendees of the event.

Community members at the event were divided into tables and allowed time to discuss mental health issues among themselves before a “facilitator” from each table posed questions to the panel on behalf of their group. One topic discussed was the need for mental health outreach efforts targeted at lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals.

“When we look at depression and suicide rates in the LGBT community, it’s higher than in the non-LGBT community,” said panelist Christopher Albert, a clinical psychologist with UTPA Counseling and Psychological Services. “There are some special issues there, additional stressors such as discrimination. I think also within the mental health community there’s not maybe a full understanding of how to help those who identify as LGBT. And I think that’s coming around, I think we’re getting better at that.”

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, most research suggests that LGBT individuals are at higher risk for depression, anxiety and substance use disorders.

Curet added that being LGBT also raises the risk of suicide due to bullying from peers.

“Those children who kill themselves while in school, many of them had been bullied (for) being gay,” said Curet, who received the Leadership on University Campuses and in the Community Award from the Texas Suicide Prevention Council in 2013. “It has prompted children as young as 8 years of age to kill themselves.”

Another topic discussed was the stigma and stereotypes associated with mental illnesses.

“The thing about mental health issues is they are not so easily seen,” Albert said. “It’s definitely not as easily understood by many and it’s harder to have that as a conversation piece.”

In an August 2013 article by Psychology Today, studies show that stigmatising attitudes toward people with mental health problems are widespread and commonly held. The most commonly held belief is that people with mental illnesses are dangerous, the article said.

“The overwhelming majority of people with mental illness are much more likely to be victimized than they are to be the perpetrator of crimes,” said panelist Terry Crocker, the chief executive officer at Texas Tropical Behavioral Health.

The article in Psychology Today goes on to state that these stigmatizing attitudes can result in feelings of shame for the mentally ill individual and lead to poorer treatment outcomes- an issue that attendee Javier Segovia takes seriously.

“(The event) was very informative,” said Segovia, a senior majoring in social work. “Lots of great brochures, experts…it brought together many individuals who are passionate about mental health. It’s a very small step to breaking stigma and helping the people of the RGV.”

Albert echoed Segovia’s sentiments and said continued conversation is paramount to bringing change.

“Hopefully with conversations like these we can continue the momentum and (attitudes about mental health) will change,” Albert said.

The next “Speak Your Mind Texas” event will take place July 21 at Medical Center Health System in Odessa, Texas.

Categories: News

Tags: , , , , , , , ,

News briefs: Week of July 14

July 14th, 2014

Texas Bar Foundation awards grant to UTPA

The Texas Bar Foundation awarded $16,000 to UTPA’s Law School Preparation Institute in late June.

The $16,000 grant will help 10 LSPI students with the cost of books, Law School Admission Test preparation courses and will also provide a stipend to students while enrolled in the five-week summer course. LSPI, which began in 2001, has increased the acceptance rate into law school for its graduates to 90 percent. The national acceptance rate is 60 percent.

Through LSPI, students are prepared for the LSAT and introduced to legal research and writing. They also review selected law cases to help develop their analytical, argumentative and critical reading and writing skills, according to a UTPA press release. The admissions process into law school is also discussed in the course and students receive assistance selecting and applying to law schools.

LSPI’s team of instructors includes UTPA faculty members Jerry Polinard, a political science professor, and philosophy lecturer Erik Anderson..

The Texas Bar Foundation is the nation’s largest charitably funded bar foundation and has awarded more than $15 million in grants to law-related programs since it first began in 1965, according to the press release.


Regents approve UTRGV medical degree program

The University of Texas System Board of Regents unanimously approved the creation of a doctor of medicine degree at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley July 10.

UTRGV, which will merge UTPA and the University of Texas at Brownsville, will open its doors in August 2015. The university’s medical school will accept the charter class of 50 first-year medical students the following year in July 2016.

The Board of Regents have approved $54 million from the Permanent University Fund for the creation of a medical school building in Edinburg. Medical education programs will take place at several locations throughout Hidalgo and Cameron counties, including the UT Rio Grande Valley Smart Hospital in Harlingen.

The Smart Hospital is a 15,000 square-foot, simulation teaching hospital built with $10 million dispensed by the Board of Regents.

“The South Texas region is different and unique geographically, culturally and medically, from the rest of Texas,” said Dr. Francisco Fernandez, the medical school’s founding dean in a UTS news release. “Our medical students will have the opportunity to be part of community-based projects aimed at addressing specific health needs, including incidences of obesity and diabetes that are significantly higher than the rest of the state and nation.”


Regents approve UTRGV admissions standards

The University of Texas System Board of Regents approved admissions criteria for first-time students, transfer students and graduate students at the University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley July 10.

According to a UTS news release, “Per state law, the top 10 percent of each high school graduating class in Texas will be automatically admitted. All other entering freshmen will undergo a holistic review, which means a combination of factors will be considered, including but not limited to class rank, rigor of high school course work, prior college credit, leadership experience, community involvement and ACT and SAT scores.”

While UTPA currently holds these admission standards, UTB guarantees admission to students in the top 25 percent of their high school class with no minimum score required of the SAT or ACT .

The standards were recommended by the UTS Task Force on the UTRGV Inaugural Admissions Process, which included representatives from UTPA, the University of Texas at Brownsville and the UT System.

Students already enrolled at UTPA or UTB before fall 2015 are entitled to automatic admission to UTRGV. Transfer students need to either have an associate’s degree or earned at least 24 semester credit hours with a minimum GPA of 2.0, according to the news release. The admissions criteria for graduate programs at UTRGV will vary by degree. A complete list of graduate admissions criteria is posted on the UT System website.

UTRGV President Guy Bailey said in the news release that leaders will work closely with community colleges around the Valley to provide a smooth transition for transfer students and to help students who may not initially meet the admission standards. In addition, UT System staff members are meeting with high school counselors from the area so that they can help students be better prepared to meet admissions criteria.

Categories: News

Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

UT-Austin president to resign

July 9th, 2014

University of Texas at Austin President Bill Powers submitted a letter of resignation today to University of Texas System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa. The letter of resignation, which Cigarroa accepted, will be effective June 2, 2015.

According to a UTS statement, Powers said he hopes to guide UT-Austin through their legislative session, which begins January and aims to carry out a smooth transition to the university’s new leadership before his departure. In the statement, Cigarroa said his decision to ask Powers to resign was due to “long history of issues with communication, responsiveness and a willingness to collaborate.”

Powers is the 28th president of UT-Austin. Before taking office February 1, 2006, he served as dean of the university’s School of Law. Powers joined the law school faculty in 1997 and was named to the university’s Academy of Distinguished Teachers in 1997, according to his UT-Austin biography.

Board of Regents Chairman Paul Foster plans to begin a national search next month for the selection of UT-Austin’s next president. The press release also stated that a search advisory committee will assist in the search and will incorporate representation of deans, faculty, students and community representatives of the university. The committee will also have at least two current presidents from UT institutions and at least one member of the Board of Regents. The press release did not reveal if the presidents or Board of Regents member had been chosen.

“I truly believe that it is time for a fresh start and a chance to build a strong relationship,” Cigarroa said in the statement. “We will all be successful if we keep the future of UT in our hearts and minds. I sincerely thank the UT Austin faculty, students, staff and the UT System’s Faculty Advisory Council for their important input over the past week.”

Categories: News

Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

Culture meets art

July 2nd, 2014

Life can sometimes be controlled by responsibilities individuals face, but for two local artists they share a talent that helps them have freedom where they most want it: art.

Cultures collide at the Beyond Arts Gallery in Harlingen with an exhibit by Charles Wissinger and his wife Fulden Sara called North to South, East to West, the 2 of Us.

Wissinger and Sara revealed their gallery June 12, which will be open to the public until July 31, and holds more than 50 pieces of the pair’s art. Sara said she and her husband of 12 years have held shows together before, once at Coastal Bend College in Beeville and at Texas State Technical College in Harlingen.

Wissinger is a professor and director of Texas A&M University-Kingsville’s art program while Sara is a lecturer in TAMUK’s art department.

Wissinger, a former UTPA art professor, explained how featured mediums such as graphite drawings, sculptures and clay molds are used to portray the couple’s cultural background and reflect inspiration gained from traveling to Canada, Turkey and the Middle East.

“The extraordinary difference between my wife and I, is she’s from Istanbul (Turkey), which is one of the most magical, cosmopolitan cities of the world, and she’s Muslim,” the 67-year-old explained. “I’m from Pennsylvania Hills, Pennsylvania, so I come from a very rural, Christian background. That’s about as different from Istanbul as you can get.”

Sara, born and raised in Istanbul, said her art was inspired by her own European heritage mixed with the ancient Byzantine and Seljuk-Ottoman cultures.

The Byzantine Empire capital was Constantinople, now modern day Istanbul and the city was captured by the Palaiologos in 1261 CE until the Ottoman Empire conquered Constantinople in 1453 CE, marking the end of the Byzantine Empire. The Ottoman Empire was one of the longest standing empires until its demise in 1922.

In addition to her deeply historical roots, Sara has a Hispanic background as well.

“The color of my pieces definitely come from the Latino and Hispanic culture,” the 2003 UTPA alumna said. “I’ve never been that much into color, but now I am because I’ve been here in this culture 17 years. I’ve learned a lot, I blended. I never feel like I am one thing. I am many things.”


The 44-year-old’s clay series, or what she calls Turkish Tortillas, is scattered throughout the gallery. At seven inches in diameter, about 40 clay molds hang at eye level for viewers to enjoy, each decorated with different vibrant colors, flowers, and mosaic surfaces.

The Kingsville resident said the meaning behind her Turkish Tortillas series is rather simple. She explained that tortillas are not only common in Latino history but in Indian, Turkish and Italian cultures as well.

“I find the tortilla subject in many cultures so that’s what I try to show…like we’re not really different from each other,” Sara said. “I think it’s very important to learn about each other’s culture; not just to focus on our own ethnicity, but learn other cultures because once you start learning, all your prejudices disappear and you realize that we all are very similar.”

Sara believes society is not only alike through food, but in the technological sense as well.

“(The world) is more connected and we’re more aware of what other people do and I think we’re living in a more global environment,” she said. “We can’t just focus on our own culture or our own ethnicity, because with all the technical changes in the world we know more about each other and I want to reflect all those things.”


Wissinger’s graphite drawing of Hangen with the Fishes is fixed across from Sara’s Turkish Tortillas. His piece depicts a profile of a man surrounded by crabs, fish, stingrays and skulls. He said he was influenced by his passion for fishing as well as his Christian upbringing.

“(The fish) represent abundance on one hand, on the other hand they represent the wild. People might think the wild is wonderful, but everything that’s in the wild is pretty much there to be eaten by something else,” he said. “If you look at it from that point of view, it’s kind of scary.”

Wissinger also highlighted that what he liked most about being both a professor and an artist is feeling much freer to create what he wants.

“If I was making work where I had to make a living off of it, I would have to pay more attention to audience responses and I really dislike doing that because every other aspect of my life is manipulated and controlled by something; eating, responsibilities and school,” he explained. “But with art it’s totally up to me. If I make it, fine. If I don’t make it, fine. If I don’t sell it, it’s fine. I like that freedom. It’s kind of the only place in my life where I have it.”

Wissinger and Sara create individually, but with the North to South, East to West, the 2 of Us exhibit, they found a way to show both of their cultural backgrounds along with other ways of life.

The couple is preparing for Corpus Christi’s 2015 Festival of the Arts, where Wissinger’s and Sara’s pieces will be on display along with that of many other artists. The event will be held the last weekend of March at the Corpus Christi Art Center.

Categories: Arts & Life

Tags: , , , , , , , ,