Tuesday, May 8, 2018
  Announcements, Alumni

By Amanda Alaniz

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – Winning a national award is an accomplishment. But winning three national awards in one school year is quite the achievement.

Rigel Piñón, a UTRGV Master of Science in Clinical Rehabilitation Counseling graduate student, can scratch that off her bucket list.

The Mission resident has been named the 2018 National Council on Rehabilitation Education Graduate Student of the Year, the 2018 American Rehabilitation Counseling Association Graduate Student of the Year, and the International Association of Rehabilitation Professionals Graduate Paper of the Year for 2017-2018.

She started the graduate program two years ago, earning an undergraduate degree in General Rehabilitation at UTRGV, a goal sparked by a disability in her own family.

“My mom lost her sight when I was 4, so we didn’t know of my mom as a sighted person,” she said. “She’s the president of the National Federation of the Blind RGV Chapter, and since I was young, my brother and I would have to go to everything. From there, we kind of got sensitive to people’s needs.”

Dr. Irmo Marini, a UTRGV School of Rehabilitation Services and Counseling professor who has been Piñón’s mentor since 2016, nominated her for all three awards.

No graduate student in the same field, at any university, has won three national awards in one year, Marini said.

“Rigel is the first graduate student in the history of the graduate program of 21 years to win three awards,” he said

Piñón said she wasn’t even expecting to be nominated.

“When Dr. Marini told me I was nominated, I didn’t think I would get it because it was nationwide. And then when I heard I won, I started crying,” she said. “Words couldn’t describe how I was feeling. It made me want to try harder, put more effort into my career. It was a team effort between my parents, Dr. Marini and myself.”

Marini said he nominated Piñón based on her accomplishments, community service and advocacy.

“The qualities I look for to nominate a student … is someone who excels outside of the classroom, beyond a 4.0 GPA,” he said. “In Piñón’s case, she has two first-authored peer reviewed journal publications, but more importantly, her volunteer work with the National Federation of the Blind, and CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates).”

Piñón fundraised for the NFB, moderated blind artist exhibits, showed consumers how to work the various assistive technology for the blind, and served as a speaker. While working with CASA, she was a special advocate for neglected children.

She admits that she originally had planned to leave the Valley to go to college. But she made the decision to stay and told herself she could succeed.

“When I went to California for NCRE, I was so proud to be from UTRGV,” she said. “Our school is great. It’s growing and has the capacity to produce so many great professionals. That’s something I really want to show people.”

Becoming a professor, doing research, having a private practice, writing textbooks, creating a program for children with disabilities and foster children in the Valley are among Piñón’s goals. And winning the awards only served to push her even harder to excel in her career path.

The next thing she plans to tackle is UTRGV’s doctoral program in Rehabilitation Counseling.


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions.

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.