International graduate ready to make her Valley home more financially savvy

UTRGV student Fabiola Urgel Santa-Ana, shown here outside the Business building on the Edinburg Campus, graduates summa cum laude on Saturday, Dec. 19, with a bachelor’s degree in Economics and a minor in Communication Studies. (UTRGV photo by Paul Chouy)

By Gail Fagan

EDINBURG, TEXAS – DEC. 18, 2015 – Two days after Fabiola Estefania Urgel Santa Ana graduates summa cum laude from The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, the native of Piedras Negras, Coahuila, Mexico will take an important step to help the region that has become her new home.

The 22-year-old, who will earn her Bachelor of Arts in economics, plans to file paperwork to create a nonprofit organization – titled “RGV Saves” – intended to help Valley residents of all ages become more financially literate.

“We are not going to achieve economic development in our area if we don’t educate our community about being financially wise,” she said. “People who don’t know about personal finance are the ones who get trapped in predatory lending, who are underbanked and unbanked.  We need citizens who are financially literate, because if they are not, they make mistakes that impact their lives.”

People in the Valley might not have had the chance to have Urgel as their future financial coach if it hadn’t been for her last-minute decision to attend college in the United States.

“I had accepted a full tuition scholarship at a university in Monterrey, Mexico, but four days prior to the start of the semester I told my parents that it wasn't the university for me,” she said.

After trips to The University of Texas at San Antonio and UT Austin, her godfather in Reynosa suggested a visit to UT Pan American, a UTRGV legacy institution.

“I liked the environment, the campus. I felt at home. And the anxiety and stress of going to college went away. At first I was shocked about the money it costs an international student to attend, but I learned about the PASE Program, which allows a Mexican citizen to pay in-state tuition,” she said.

Urgel entered UTPA with the advantage of a private school education and English skills gained from classes she took in Canada. Both were made possible by parents who always put her education first, she said.

“My parents have sacrificed everything to give me the right tools to succeed in life,” she said.

UTPA presented her with new, life-changing opportunities, like involvement in student organizations, on-campus employment, internships and research. During her four years at the university, Urgel said, she made the most of all of them.

In 2014, as president of the Economics Society, Urgel led a team of fellow students to the championship in a national debt awareness competition, “Up to Us,” defeating teams from UT Austin, Duke and New York University, among others. The win garnered the team $10,000 and a trip to a Clinton Global Initiative University meeting in Arizona, where they met President Bill Clinton and Urgel spoke before a crowd of 3,000, including the former U.S. president.

“I told my team that we are so going to win this, so everyone will know about UTPA and where Edinburg is,” she said. “That win gave me the sense that, if I did this, imagine what I can accomplish. It opens your eyes to more things, widens your potential and gives you strength, a sense that I can conquer the world, or at least to recognize all the possibilities in front of me.”

Working all but her first two semesters at jobs on campus not only helped Urgel financially, but also garnered valuable contacts and mentors, as well as enhanced leadership and time management skills.

As a program coordinator for two years in the College of Business, Department of Economics and Finance, she helped plan and implement the annual Border Economic Development and Entrepreneurship Symposium (BEDES), co-sponsored with the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas, and this year with the McAllen Chamber of Commerce.

"Dr. (Alberto) Davila - I call him my “Yoda” – trusted me with that responsibility after only three semesters at the university,” Urgel said of the UTRGV professor of economics.

With Professor of Economics Dr. Marie Mora, Urgel worked on a research project funded by the National Science Foundation, focused on interventions and the academic career success of Hispanic and black economists and sociologists.

“She truly wants to make a difference in the Hispanic community, particularly for women,” Mora said. “I believe the sky is the limit for her.”

Working under Dr. Terrance Martin, assistant professor of finance, Urgel wrote a research paper based on her work at an internship she had in Chicago in summer 2014 with the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability. The paper, which examined the impact of disability on an individual’s decision to calculate retirement income needs, use tax advantaged accounts and save for retirement, won the Best Paper honor at the 2015 College of Business Research Day.

Urgel said conducting research gave her a deeper and better understanding of financial planning and how important it is.

“You never realize what a negative impact the lack of financial planning can cause, especially on populations at risk like disabled populations,” said Urgel, whose dream is to open a Center for Financial Literacy at UTRGV.

Urgel found her research also supported her desire to go into public policy.

“If you don't have the hard facts or something to support your argument, it is hard to make an impact. It makes you more credible,” she said.

Her work on BEDES and her desire to help her community attracted the attention of The Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas-San Antonio, where she has been a community development intern since June. While there, she collaborated in the planning of the Fed’s conference, “Las Colonias in the 21st Century: Progress along the Texas-Mexico Border,” which highlighted a report of the same name that provides a comprehensive profile of Texas colonias and the concentrated poverty there.

“I met so many wonderful people from the colonias. I love that connection. When you put names and faces to their needs, you feel a responsibility to go back and help them,” Urgel said. “Community development is where I’d like to stay. It is a perfect balance of helping the community, connecting people with resources and putting the right people at the table. Community development impacts and changes peoples’ lives. This is literally what I live for.”

Martin, who touted Urgel's work ethic and commitment to the tasks she takes on, also sees her in a career working with people or communities.

“Behind a desk is not for her,” he said. “The world deserves her in the proverbial trenches, working with those who struggle to help themselves.”

Urgel is considering several job opportunities, and in two years plans to enter Harvard University’s Master of Public Administration program with a concentration in economic community development.

She said she is proud of the new university, of the changes it is bringing to the Valley and of its future. The university is a place that has definitely changed her, she said.

“If it wasn't for UTRGV, I wouldn’t be who I am now,” she said. “Studying here helped me understand so many things that, before, I knew but could never conceptualize the way I do now. I am more empathetic about issues that affect the Valley and the world. You never understand it until you experience it on the individual level.”

Urgel will be one of more than 2,000 prospective graduates who will participate in UTRGV’s first commencement ceremonies on Saturday, Dec. 19. A 9 a.m. ceremony will be held at the Brownsville Campus. Two other ceremonies, at 2 p.m. and 6 p.m., will be held at the State Farm Arena in Hidalgo.

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