COMMENTARY: UTRGV is transforming the region

When I authored Senate Bill 24, the legislation that created the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and UTRGV School of Medicine, in 2013, the main goal of the bill was to provide world-class educational opportunities to the people of South Texas and empower a traditionally underserved community. In less than five years of existence, UTRGV has accomplished that and much more.

This weekend, UTRGV graduated over 2,500 students during Fall 2018 Commencement ceremonies. The graduates include members of UTRGV’s first freshman class that began when the school opened in August 2015. These future leaders will undoubtedly contribute to the thriving RGV and Texas economy.

In almost no time at all, UTRGV has risen through the ranks to become the fourth-best university in Texas according to BestColleges.com. This has been accomplished with a student body that closely resembles the region itself. UTRGV has the largest Hispanic enrollment in Texas, is second nationally in undergraduate four-year degrees to Hispanics, and is fourth nationally for graduate degrees awarded to Hispanics.

With campuses from Rio Grande City to South Padre Island, UTRGV provides over 28,000 students throughout the RGV with the opportunity to improve their lives through education. Many of those students are local. In fact, over 90 percent of the latest freshman class are from the RGV. And even better, UTRGV is accessible to all, regardless of income. The school was recently ranked first by Washington Monthly for lowest net price for low-income students, and routinely ranks as having one of the lowest student debt averages.

All of this means that UTRGV is helping to keep the best and brightest home in the Valley. New initiatives like the new Center for Innovation & Commercialization, which includes a business incubator that will provide space for startups and connect entrepreneurs with investors, means that our innovators will no longer have to move to places like Austin and San Francisco to be successful.

In addition to the top-notch education provided by the school, UTRGV is having a substantial economic impact on the region. To date, there have been roughly $174.5 million in capital investments made in the area. UTRGV employs thousands of people throughout the Valley in a wide variety of positions. Meanwhile, UTRGV has supported business growth of both startups and expansions, leading to $37.5 million in sales and hundreds of new private-sector jobs. The school has also assisted thousands in the region with trainings and technical assistance.

As impressive as all of these accomplishments of the university are, we cannot forget the profound impact that the School of Medicine is having on the health and economy of the Valley, where one in five are uninsured.

Firstly, the SOM is increasing access to care by bringing new physicians to the area. The SOM has 169 residents in 10 Graduate Medical Education programs, with 64 percent of those practicing in the Valley. The SOM is also ensuring that a significant portion of these new physicians reflect the community. Of the 155 current medical students, 55 percent are underrepresented minorities and 50 are from the Valley. This will ensure a diverse and local physician workforce that can better understand the region’s culture and health care needs.

Much like UTRGV undergrads, these new doctors will not be weighed down with unmanageable student debt as the UTRGV SOM has been ranked as the third most affordable medical school in the country by The U.S. News & World Report.

In addition to training the next generation of medical professionals, the SOM provides immediate health care to the region. The SOM operates over 20 patient care sites, including Area Health Education Centers AHECs in Cameron County (Bob Clark Center), Hidalgo County (San Carlos) and Starr County (La Victoria). AHECs increase access to primary care in rural and underserved areas, develop and enhance education and training within communities.

The SOM also operates the John Austin Peña Memorial Center, a clinic which provides care for adolescents who are at risk with medical, mental health, and appetite disorders, and a traveling clinic, Unimóvil. Altogether, the SOM has conducted over 57,000 outpatient and 4,000 inpatient visits since 2015.

Additionally, the SOM is making investments to address some of the region’s biggest health care challenges. For example, the South Texas Diabetes and Obesity Institute has a team of researchers focused on reducing obesity and seeking a cure to diabetes, a severe metabolic disorder that disproportionately impacts the RGV. The SOM is also planning to start programs in neuroscience and cancer immunology in the near future.

Education and health care are two of the most important factors in a region’s economic growth. The impact that UTRGV and the SOM have had in such a short period of time on improving both factors is astonishing. With the continued support of the community and the state, there is no ceiling on what the RGV can accomplish. That is why this legislative session our Valley delegation will continue to fight for the funding needed to make the investments that are transforming the Valley into a region that can compete with any in the nation.

Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa represents Texas State Senate District 20, which extends from Hidalgo County to Nueces County. He writes for The Monitor’s Board of Contributors.