BROWNSVILLE — At the end of this semester, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s graduating students will have to commute to Harlingen or Edinburg for the commencement ceremony — because there will not be a ceremony in Brownsville.
Patrick Gonzales, associate vice president for University Marketing & Communications and university spokesman, said there will not be a commencement ceremony in Brownsville this semester because the Texas Southmost College’s Jacob Brown Auditorium is “unavailable” and the only other indoor facility in Cameron County that is comparable in size is the new Harlingen Convention Center.
“In the future, we will consider all locations that have facilities large enough to house our ceremonies, including Brownsville,” Gonzales said in an email. “Since the university doesn’t own a facility large enough to house commencement ceremonies, we are dependent on external facilities and working around the dates they have already booked. That’s a difficult situation that forces us to be flexible every semester. Every semester, the goal is to choose the venue that will provide the best experience for our graduates and their guests.”
When asked why the ceremonies are not held at the Student Union Lawn as done in previous years, Gonzales said that last semester the university decided to stop conducting outdoor commencements based on several considerations, such as a survey sent to students, safety, weather and cost.
“In a survey conducted with students that were eligible to graduate in Spring 2019, 60 percent of the respondents said they preferred an indoor ceremony to an outdoor ceremony,” Gonzales said. “The UTRGV police department strongly advised against an outdoor ceremony because it had become difficult to ensure the safety of the large crowd. In addition, health officials strongly advised against an outdoor ceremony due to the potential exposure to mosquitoes carrying the Zika virus.”
Gonzales said the weather has proven to be too unpredictable for an event of this magnitude and that the rental costs for indoor facilities are “significantly less” than the cost to convert the Student Union Lawn into a commencement setting.
Leslie Medrano, a UTRGV Brownsville senior, wrote a column for the student newspaper about her discontent with not having a ceremony in Brownsville.
“A lot of my classmates and friends don’t even know this is happening,” Medrano told the Herald. “The other day, I mentioned it to a group of my friends, and they said, ‘Wait, what? In Harlingen? Why?’ Because this issue doesn’t affect them right now, they don’t think they can do anything about it. Other than that, I have seen people express their displeasure with the arrangements. However, it doesn’t go any further than that. A lot of people kind of just settle for what they are told. As students, we have way more power than we actually realize. We can do something about these displeasures.”
Medrano added that the column expressed her own opinion as a student and not an employee for UTRGV’s Student Media. She will be graduating next semester with a major in rehabilitation services.
“If I could sit down with university officials, I would tell them how much this event means to those that graduate,” she said. “It really isn’t fair to have a graduating class travel to a whole new city, that of which most of them have no attachment to, to graduate. People might say, ‘Things are different now. We are a much bigger school.’ That’s not the case. The Brownsville campus still graduates about the same number of students every semester. And yes, we all fit on the lawn. For almost 20 years, people have always fit.”
Esmeralda Mejia, a UTRGV senior, will graduate this semester with a degree in psychology. She said the decision to host the commencement ceremony outside of Brownsville is unfair because not all Brownsville students have transportation to commute.
“I was born and raised here,” she said. “I think it would be amazing if I get to graduate with my bachelor’s in my hometown. I think it’s kind of unfair. Some of these students don’t have the transportation to go farther than Brownsville, especially the ones who have to cross the bridge every day walking. As far as I know, graduation has always been held here in Brownsville.”
Brownsville Mayor Trey Mendez said the commute creates a burden for the students and their families and that he hopes it is something UTRGV will reconsider in the future.
“Unfortunately it creates a burden for the students and their families. I hope it is something that UTRGV will reconsider in the future,” Mendez said. “The institution has always had the support of the community that wants the best for future generations.”