Before University of Texas System officials settled on the name for the future regional medical university in the Rio Grande Valley, UT-Pan American student Alan Padilla had a concern.
He wanted residents from Valley colonias to share their opinions on the proposed names for the new South Texas school, and that desire drove him to contact UT System Chancellor Francisco G. Cigarroa.
“I got to know a lot of kids from colonias, and I guess that’s what motivated me,” said Padilla, who had previously worked with colonia residents during an internship. “I wanted to have their voices heard because I read in an article in the census that a lot of people were not counted here in Texas, so I’m going to make sure their voices were heard this time.”
After email exchanges with UT System officials, Padilla earned approval to work with local organizations to get input from colonia residents. Padilla contacted La Union del Pueblo Entero (LUPE) and A Resource in Serving Equality (ARISE) for help. Between those two organizations, 484 responses were collected, and the majority of them were for the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley — the name that was ultimately chosen.
UTRGV efforts to reach out to colonia residents continue. Now that the school has its name, officials are turning their concern to what the future university can do to improve communities in the Valley, where approximately 1,500 colonias exist, according to Nick Mitchell-Bennett, executive director of the Community Development Corporation of Brownsville.
To that end, the UT System have already been in contact with local organizations and last year held a two-day meeting in Weslaco with colonia residents, Mitchell-Bennett said, explaining that the meeting was funded by a Ford Foundation grant.
“We were very proud of what happened,” Mitchell-Bennett said.
This week, on Wednesday, UT System officials will meet in Austin to discuss what has been learned from colonia residents. Topics include infrastructure improvements, drainage solutions and transportation policies.
“On our agenda on the 12th is to talk about what the next steps are because they are asking, ‘This is great, but what do we do next?’” Mitchell-Bennett said. “We have a couple of ideas on some things we can do that came from the forum.”
The university wants to build a bit of a symbiotic relationship with people in the community, Mitchell-Bennett said.
While university administrators find a way to help sustain the area, community members need to be supportive of the school, he said.
“One very simple way of being supportive of higher education and the needs of higher education is a low-income family in colonia in Cameron Park can verbally say to their kids, ‘I want you to go to college,’” Mitchell-Bennett said. “That’s fine — that’s great, but only 25 percent of graduating seniors in the Rio Grande Valley fill out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid).
“Parents can be more engaged to help their children follow through on that dream to go to college,” he added.
One hope expressed by residents is that university officials decide to build a center in colonia communities, Mitchell-Bennett said.
Esther Herrera, LUPE’s project coordinator, said people in colonias believe the new university has the power to invigorate the region.
“Overall, they see the merger as a great opportunity for their living conditions to better and to empower themselves through education,” Herrera said. “What they really expect of this institution is for the university to better service low-income residences in the colonias. They are not demanding it, but they want to be part of it.”
Four areas of concerns that colonia residents believe can be addressed by the university, Herrera said, are infrastructure, health, education and regional planning.
Herrera said the university is a necessary change for communities in South Texas.
“Education is the greatest power that they have to empower themselves,” she said.