Editor’s note: The following is part of a weekly series commemorating the University of Texas at El Paso’s Centennial Celebration in 2014.
In a quiet ceremony on May 30, 1916, Judge Beauregard Bryan handed out the first diplomas from the Texas State School of Mines and Metallurgy to three mining engineering graduates — Vere Leasure, Lloyd Nelson and Clyde Ney.
The ceremony took place in the assembly hall of the school’s original campus near Fort Bliss. Rabbi Martin Zielonka — a strong supporter of education in the community — gave a commencement address on “The Power of Personality.”
Since that first ceremony, UTEP has held its commencements at such community sites as the El Paso Woman’s Club and the Scottish Rite Temple and campus locations including Holliday Hall, Magoffin Auditorium, the Don Haskins Center, Sun Bowl Stadium and even the former tennis courts.
In the decade following the 1916 ceremony, graduations stayed small: 15 students or fewer received degrees each year, and during several years only one student earned a degree.
When the university began awarding bachelor of arts degrees in 1932, the number of graduates began to increase exponentially. It took 75 years for the university to award its first 50,000 degrees, but only 20 years to award its second 50,000.
One particularly memorable ceremony took place at Sun Bowl in May 1998 when UTEP celebrated its 100th graduation. George W. Bush was the invited speaker.
Jorge Villalobos, Ph.D., general manager of wind operations for Shell WindEnergy Inc. in Houston, was a Top Ten Senior and University Banner Bearer for the 1998 ceremony. He remembers leading the procession of graduates through the stadium tunnel and being conscious of keeping the heavy banner upright in the breeze as thousands of eyes watched him.
Villalobos represented the third generation of UTEP Miners in his family as he accepted his bachelors in mechanical engineering. He appreciated UTEP’s tradition of having all graduates walk across the stage to shake the president’s hand.
“I think that’s what makes the graduation ceremonies at UTEP very special,” Villalobos said. “Every individual gets the opportunity to be recognized.”
For UTEP vice president for student affairs Gary Edens, Ed.D., shaking hands with UTEP President Diana Natalicio was a highlight of his first of three UTEP commencements. Edens, who earned a bachelor of business administration in marketing in May 1990 during the university’s 75th anniversay was honored as a Top Ten Senior and the Diamond Jubilee banner bearer.
“The thing that made me the most nervous and the most excited was to cross the stage and get that diploma from Dr. Natalicio,” he recalled. “It was a huge goal of mine to get that degree handed to me by her.”
Another highlight for Edens was the speaker that year: UTEP alumnus and ABC News journalist Sam Donaldson. Edens had grown up watching Donaldson on TV with his dad.
In May 1992, faculty member Abraham Chavez Jr., former conductor of the El Paso Symphony Orchestra, gave a commencement performance in lieu of a speech.
“That was probably the best commencement I’ve ever been through,” recalled Dr. Christine Brandl, an El Paso physician who was a Top Ten Senior in 1992. “He played a song on the violin. I think everyone paid attention.”
In recent years, rather than inviting a guest speaker, Natalicio has told the stories of outstanding students to keep the focus of the ceremony on the students and on UTEP’s story.
At the University’s Centennial Commencement May 17, 2014, more than 2,800 spring and summer graduates had the opportunity to walk across the stage at Sun Bowl Stadium to shake hands with President Natalicio. The evening ceremony ended with a fireworks display.
“The tremendous milestone that this day represents for each of you is made all the more significant because you have the unique honor of graduating as we commemorate UTEP’s 100 years of service to this region,” President Natalicio told the graduates. “We are enabling the young people of this Paso del Norte region, whatever their backgrounds, to achieve the American dream of fulfilled aspirations, prosperity and enhanced quality of life. And those outstanding graduates – now more than 110,000 of them – have elevated the prosperity and quality of life of our entire region.”
Jenn Crawford is the director of editorial services in UTEP’s University Communications office.
Published 5/18/14 at http://www.elpasotimes.com/News/ci_25785549/UTEP-centennial:-First-commencement-ceremony-took
Jenn Crawford is the director of editorial services for UTEP's University Communications Office.