BROWNSVILLE — Collaboration must be the keystone to rapidly transform the Rio Grande Valley’s education and economic future, University of Texas System leaders declared at UT-Brownsville to their peers and philanthropists Wednesday.
System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa opened the two-day, first-of-its-kind Vista Summit, aiming to inspire local, state and national leaders to pay more attention and come together to push the region forward.
“No one is here because we have the answers,” he said, but “in the Valley, we’re all in this together.
“Education saves lives … I truly believe that,” Cigarroa added. “This requires all of us” – including abuelitos, mothers, uncles, Cigarroa said — “to really encourage our children to pursue their education.”
Following the chancellor, Weslaco native Gene Powell promised, as chairman of the UT System Board of Regents, to help find the funds and spur the opportunities necessary to raise student success at the region’s higher education institutions.
“All of us have worked all these years to get things done here,” Powell said. “It’s just a beginning. I’m here to commit to you. I’m really your servant.
“The board has totally bought into this and they are sincere,” he added. “We are going to get this done.”
Powell noted more than one-third – 70,000 of the UT System’s total 203,000 students – attend a university in the South Texas region between San Antonio, Brownsville and Laredo.
And UT-Pan American President Robert Nelsen brought his own numbers, suggesting the regents, local stakeholders and national philanthropic groups face an uphill battle.
Nelsen stated only 15 percent of Hidalgo residents have a bachelor’s degree, and 34 percent of Valley residents – double the national average – live in poverty.
But “when you know there is more, you want more,” he said. “That is the story of education. That is the story of the (RGV).
“If we don’t get it right in South Texas, we won’t get it right anywhere,” Nelsen said. “Now is the time to invest in the Valley.
He stressed attention must be paid to a region booming with youth, where one Edinburg hospital delivered 826 babies in August alone and the average resident is just 25.9 years old.
That statistic drew murmurs from an audience filled with local school superintendents, university officials and CEOs and representatives of philanthropic heavyweights like the Michael and Susan Dell, Ford, Greater Texas Foundations and more.
At his close, Cigarroa mentioned those foundations “can’t be the single solution” and emphasized collaboration among those in the room.
That impressed Hilary Penington, director of education, postsecondary success and special initiatives with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
“The vision of that, the depth of commitment from the range of leaders … it’s really exciting,” Penington said.
“The thing that is very important is the regional commitment to lead itself,” she said. “That’s when foundations work best, assisting those leaders from behind.”
Moreover, UTB President Juliet Garcia pointed out many problems remain beyond getting more students to and through college.
“You can’t turn around a century of neglect in 20 years,” said Garcia, who lamented the fact that the Valley has one in five residents living with diabetes and has the largest metropolitan area in Texas with no interstate highway.
But Garcia insisted the Valley should look forward instead of looking back and trying to figure out who to blame.
“(It’s) tempting but not very productive,” she said. “The fate of our children and this region lie not in its past but its future.”
Neal Morton covers education and general assignments for The Monitor. He can be reached at (956) 683-4472.