A year in, Texas A&M’s McAllen outpost celebrates growth that exceeded expectations

Matt Wilson | mwilson@themonitor.com Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp speaks at the university's Higher Education Center in McAllen on Monday.

McALLEN — Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp told a story to businesspeople and community leaders gathered here at the Texas A&M University Higher Education Center for a ceremony on Monday recognizing the one-year anniversary of the institution’s founding and the individuals behind its creation.

Sharp told the crowd that several years back state Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa introduced him to a Rio Grande Valley native who was preparing to graduate from Texas A&M University at College Station. Sharp met the woman and her mother in his office.

“The mother, who spoke very little English, was crying the second she walked in and she was crying the second she left,” Sharp said.

Sharp asked the graduate what was wrong, and she said that her mother was a little overwhelmed: She’d only just learned that her daughter was going to graduate from sdf. Four years earlier, the graduate had told her mother she was going to the school, and her mother had refused to let her go because of the distance between College Station and the Valley. The scholar chose to go anyway.

“The woman’s mother refused to let her go,” Sharp said. “For four years, believe it or not, that young lady convinced her mother that she was graduating from Texas A&M Kingsville. She even took her mother to Parents Day and Homecoming in Kingsville.”

Sharp says the woman kept up the ruse until she was driving her mother up from the Valley for her graduation.

“Only on the day of graduation, it’s an incredible story, she drove her mother to graduation, drove past Kingsville,” he said. “She started explaining to her what had happened, that she had been at Texas A&M University, College Station. She said her mother started crying then and did not stop until she got back home, she was so happy about it. It occurred to me, ‘I wonder if this is the only one.’”

After conducting surveys and research on the Valley, A&M partnered with local officials, businessmen and educators to bring the Higher Education System into existence, opening the 65,000-square-foot building on Oct. 25 last year.

The $56 million facility began its inaugural year with 202 students and 18 faculty members. The center is currently on its third cohort of students, with 250 admitted since 2017, which is 75 students ahead of where the university believed it would be.

Sharp noted the growth in enrollment far exceeded his expectations for the center.

“This place is already full, and that’s a little early, that’s three or four years earlier than we thought it would happen,” he said. “What that tells you is there is a heck of a lot of really qualified, smart young men and women in the Rio Grande Valley that, in their first year or two, or three or four, can’t or for whatever reason don’t want to go across the state in order to get an education when they can get the same one here in the Rio Grande Valley.

“The same values, the same courses and all of that, so it just bore out what our initial thought was — that there’s a heck of a lot of kids that should be at UT or A&M, one of those flagships, but are not because of some limiting reason in the Rio Grande Valley that doesn’t allow them to travel or pay for a dorm and that kind of stuff, so it’s really proven out what we thought.”

The enrollment has prompted the university to consider expanding facilities on the campus.

“We thought it would be seven or eight years before we’d have to do a second building,” Sharp said.

Administrators at the center expect growth to continue for a couple of factors, including transfer students.

“Next year transfers are allowed to come in, so right now we don’t have the junior and senior classes. In next September, we’ll be bringing juniors in. They may want to transfer from community college or another regional university, so then it’ll start growing even faster,” Texas A&M Associate Vice President for External Affairs Chad Wooton said at the event.

Wooton said he also expects the center to grow as a result of international ties.

“Beginning next spring we will also be eligible to accept international students for studies here at the Higher Education Center at McAllen,” he said. “Not only do we think that’s beneficial with our friends to the south, and we have many educational partnerships underway in Mexico, but also if you think about the triangulation that’s happening in our industries along the border. There are countless countries that have operations within 10 miles of this center where their family members and those that their industries hire will have the opportunity to join us here in the Higher Education Center.”

As a result of the evident interest and continued growth, Sharp says he expects to be able to report on 100 to 200 additional students by the center’s second anniversary next year.