UTRGV Celebrates Commencement 2020

  Thursday, May 28, 2020
  Student Life, Around Campus

By Amanda Taylor

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – For many students attending college, the balance between work, school and personal life can be overwhelming – making sure to be in class on time, get the bills paid and still make time for friends and family. To all that, we now add the challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

For UTRGV graduate Meghan Kelley, learning to persevere throughout adversity is second nature. 

The UTRGV English major took about 18 hours of classes each semester and worked full time, with an occasional side job to help make ends meet. 

And, she has been a full-time caregiver to her mother, Linda Kelley Buford, who is battling aggressive stage four terminal cancer. 

Despite the difficult road, Kelley’s determination to graduate has paid off – she’s an official Spring 2020 UTRGV graduate. 

“It’s a little overwhelming, going from being in college to, OK, now you’re an adult. Go start your career. It’s a little surreal,” Kelley said. “But I’m super excited to get started.”

Despite working long hours and being fully committed to her schoolwork, Kelley has excelled in her studies and was nominated as a Profiles in Excellence student, on top of her role as president for Kappa Delta Pi-Lambda Psi Edinburg Chapter. 

Her mentors generally describe her as “compassionate,” “kind,” “intelligent” and “strong,” and as she prepares to receive her diploma on Saturday, May 30, she says she hopes to be able to apply those traits to her future students once she becomes an educator. 


Buford actually is Kelley’s biological aunt, but became Kelley’s guardian when Meghan was very young and her immediate family was unable to care for her. Together, they have suffered the loss of many family members, including Kelley’s grandmother, who helped raise her, and her aunts and uncles.

Kelley always considered herself a caregiver, as she regularly would look after her younger cousins and helped her grandmother with her ailments before her sudden passing. 

She endured hurdle after hurdle while living near Houston, but it was the suicide of her best friend in high school that prompted her move to South Texas to live with Buford.

“She’s the only family I really had,” Kelley said. “She’s not just my mom, but she’s my best friend. Even before the cancer, we would joke that we would live with each other forever.”

Buford, a former nurse, recalls how natural the decision was.

“I just called and said, ‘You’re coming home to live with me,’ and that was that,” Buford said.

Living with Buford, Kelley was able to start to build a new life for herself and focus on her future. She readily calls Buford “mom,” as she is the mother figure Kelley needed to ground herself and persevere.

They have helped each other, Kelley said, and are inseparable. 

When Kelley enrolled at legacy institution UTPA, she began her higher education journey as a nurse, following in her mom’s footsteps. 

Eventually, though, she realized her passion was teaching, as she had so many teachers and professors who inspired her along the way. She changed her focus to English to pursue certification as a teacher.


Buford was diagnosed with stage 4 breast cancer in 2017, despite attending regular health scans.

She was told she didn’t have cancer, when actually, she did.

“They had said that maybe it was some scarring or something (from a past surgery), so not to worry about it. So, I didn’t,” said Buford. “When I went back to Houston, that’s when they told me I was already stage four.”

When Kelley got the news, she had to excuse herself from work to process the information. She realized her entire life was about to change.

“You grow up and, you know, your parents, they’re superheroes. They’re the strongest people, and you think, this could never happen to us,” Kelley said. “This is stuff you see on TV. And when you see it happen to you, it becomes real and it’s like OK, what do I do?”

When Buford grew too sick to continue working as a nurse, Kelley immediately knew she had to focus on school and work together, in order to help her mother with looming medical costs.

“She came back from Houston, and I’m like, ‘OK, I need to go back to work.’ So, I tried to find a job again. I went back to school, again, I went back into 18 hours. I’ve somehow made A’s every semester except for one class in 2013 when I got a B.”

Kelley, who suffers from two autoimmune diseases herself, had to pick up the slack to maintain her mother’s treatments. While Buford is receiving Social Security payments and is on disability, the medical costs and bills outweigh the family’s income.

“As a nurse, my mom would pay her own patients’ copays when they were unable to, or she’d go see patients for free,” Kelley said. “But she didn’t want any money from anyone over this cancer. She said she’d just die, and I had to tell her, that’s not an option. When it gets to the point that your quality of life is so low, you want to give up, that’s another thing. But right now, we have to fight.”

While the cancer remains, the family is focused on Buford’s quality of life and the expensive chemotherapy treatments that are keeping her alive. But the former nurse has seen enough to be realistic about her prognosis.

“I will never get better,” Buford said. “Once the cancer has spread like it has spread on me, there is no surgery or anything that could help.”

Without the treatments, death is a much more imminent reality.


Despite her health concerns, Buford said she was determined to be sure Kelley remained in school.

“Education is everything,” she said. 

But for Kelley, focusing on herself has been difficult.

“I would be lying to you if I said this hasn’t been hard,” she said. “It’s a lot to juggle, and there are days where I felt like I couldn’t do anything. I try to make time to recharge each week.” 

One of her mentors, Dr. Veronica Estrada, a professor within the UTRGV Department of Teaching and Learning, says Kelley is a true role model, given her tenacity in the face of adversity.

“Meghan is one of the most inspirational students I have ever had in my years at UTRGV,” she said. “She juggles work, school, marriage, and caring for her mother, who has been very ill for quite some time. I do not know how she does it.”

Another of Kelley’s mentors, Patricia K. Buhidar, a lecturer in the Department of  Bilingual and Literacy Studies, said Kelley never made excuses when turning in her assignments in – even if that meant turning things in early in order to take her mother to her doctor appointments.

She recalled the time Kelley’s compassion shone most brightly, when she helped a fellow classmate.

“I had a student that had a health condition, and the student discussed it with the class, just to let the students know what might happen,” Buhidar said. “Meghan assigned herself and sat next to that student in case anything ever happened. She said, ‘I used to be in nursing, I’m a caregiver, don’t worry about it, I’ll take care of you.’ I could see that the student felt at peace. They sat together all the time. This was Meghan, doing it on her own.”

Kelly credits the UTRGV Counseling Center with helping her cope with stress, especially when she has needed to work through the rough patches.

“Mental health is so important, and I’m so grateful there is this resource on campus for students,” Kelley said. “I want people to know that you can keep going, that you can’t give up, and that it isn’t the end of the world and that you’ll be OK. It might seem bad and there’s going to be horrible, horrible days where you’re going to want to give up, but you can push through it.”


Kelley has set her career goal on teaching middle school. And after a couple years of teaching, she said, she would like to try to become a school counselor to help mentor and guide students, just as her professors and mentors helped guide her.

Buford said her dream has been to live long enough to see her daughter get her diploma – and on Saturday, she will be able to do just that.

“I’m so proud of her,” Buford said through tears. “She’s the shining light in my life. I’ve always known these things about her, but to have other people see them shine so brightly from her – and you do see it because she is a good woman. She’s a strong woman. A smart woman. And she cares.

“I’m so proud of the woman she is and I’m proud that I was able to be such a part of her life. She makes me proud every day of her life … every day.”


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.