‘The day you stop learning is the day you stop living’

  Friday, December 11, 2020
  Around Campus, Community

By Amanda Alaniz

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – Graduating from UTRGV became a major family affair for a North Texas mother, daughter and father – they promised each other that if they started the educational journey, they would finish together and walk together.   

They have kept that promise. And because live ceremonies are delayed because of the pandemic, the three hope to walk together in May 2021.  

UTPA alumna Norma Ochoa Urban-Palomarez, her daughter Elvia Palomarez, and Norma’s husband, Mario Palomarez, all enrolled in UTRGV accelerated online programs to earn their master’s degrees.  

Norma and Mario are both from Edinburg and still have family in the Valley, but the family now calls Flower Mound home.   

Norma finished earning a Master of Education in Educational Technology in August 2020 and currently is working on a doctorate at UTRGV in the same field. She also received two certifications in E-learning and technology leadership.   

She was scheduled to “walk” this December for her master’s degree, but now will graduate via UTRGV’s virtual commencement on Saturday, Dec. 12. 

Elvia and Mario both enrolled in the Master of Science in Health Sciences with a concentration in Health Care Administration Online Program. Elvia will graduate on Saturday, while Mario will finish in May 2021.  

‘‘It has been an amazing educational journey that I’m truly grateful for.
— Norma Ochoa Urban-Palomarez, UTRGV Class of 2020’’

The path to earning their degrees all started with Norma in 2019, when she ran into Dr. Rene Corbeil, UTRGV Educational Technology program coordinator, and Dr. Maria Elena Corbeil, UTRGV Teaching and Learning professor, at an education conference.   

“I was presenting at TCEA (Texas Computer Education Association) in San Antonio, and I met Dr. Rene Corbeil and his talented wife, Dr. Maria Elena Corbeil,” she said. “Dr. Rene Corbeil convinced me that, at 60, I was not ‘too old’ to go back to school for a master's degree in Ed Tech. By mid-June 2019, I was enrolled in the program at UTRGV.”   

Her family supported her decision to return to school, and all her husband asked was that if she started, she would finish and she would ‘walk.’ She promised.   

She balanced her schoolwork while teaching eighth-grade English Language Arts and Reading at DeLay Middle School. She couldn’t have predicted how “just in time” the classes would be for her.   


NORMA: ‘This degree opens up a lot of other opportunities’  

Back in March 2020, when the COVID-19 pandemic hit full on, schools were beginning to turn to virtual instruction as a way to continue, and teachers were asked to learn all new resources and programs so they could teach from home.   

Norma said she felt she didn’t miss a beat when it happened, because she already was familiar with most of the programs, like Zoom.   

“It has been an amazing educational journey that I’m truly grateful for,” she said. “It really came just in time, when I needed to stay home and finish the rest of the school year.”   

She said she would help co-workers who needed extra lessons in maneuvering ways to teach online and how to utilize the programs, and she is excited to see what comes next with her new degree.   

“This degree opens up a lot of other opportunities. I am thinking about retiring from teaching and then becoming a consultant or going to work in the educational department of a large corporation as a trainer or a technical educator,” she said.   

Her daughter Elvia, who currently works at a pharmacy and wants to go to medical school, saw what her mother was doing and decided to do her own research into the healthcare programs being offered at UTRGV.   


ELVIA: ‘Show them you’re a lifelong learner’   

Elvia has had the drive to get into medical school for a long time. Her birth mother passed away from cancer when Elvia was 7 years old. She grew up wanting to become an oncologist, but that changed as she started to delve more into the healthcare field.

Now she wants to open her own family practice and do charity work, especially after seeing how the pandemic affected so many people. She knows how critical continuing her education will be to help her achieve those goals. 

“Each year I try to add something that’s going to make me stand out, improve my application. So, for me, it was go to school, go back again, get another degree. Show them you’re not giving up; you’re still trying to improve. Show them you’re a lifelong learner,” she said.  

Elvia said the online program worked for her and could accommodate her busy schedule, because the pharmacy where she works had to ramp up hours because of the pandemic.   

The professors at UTRGV have been understanding and helpful, she said, as most of the people in her online courses are healthcare workers.   

“They understand that sometimes we’re doing 12-, 13-hour days at work, so reading and turning in two papers, plus taking a quiz, might not be attainable in five days. They’ve all been really great and helpful during this time,” she said.   

And, of course, Mario presented the same qualifier to his daughter – if she started, she would finish and walk. She held to her word and will earn her degree Dec. 12 in UTRGV’s virtual commencement. 

Back when Elvia started her classes, she noticed most of the courses would be of interest to her father, as he used to work for the pharmacy company where she currently works. She told him about UTRGV’s online courses, and he jumped at the opportunity.   

However, he had to agree to the qualifier he had given his wife and daughter – if he started, he would finish, and walk.   


MARIO: ‘I was pretty nervous about studying again’  

The beginning of 2020 turned the world upside down. Businesses were laying off staff and schools turned to virtual learning. The COVID-19 pandemic affected the Palomarez family, just as it did so many others. Mario lost his job.    

The area unemployment office rolled out some new continuing education programs he had qualified for, and after Elvia told her father about the UTRGV master’s program she was doing, they went to work to get enrolled, too.   

He became a UTRGV student in May 2020.   

Elvia said it was fun getting to make her dad agree to the “qualifier” to finish and walk. Mario had to keep his word, and he has. He is on track to graduate in May 2021.  

But he admits he was hesitant, at first, to start his new higher education journey. For someone who has worked in the technology and healthcare fields, as Mario has, it wasn’t about using the online resources; it was more about “hitting the books” again.  

“I was in the first class to graduate from UT Pan American – it’s been about 40 years or so? I was pretty nervous about studying again, hitting the books. These two, my wife and daughter, pushed me and pushed me,” he said with a smile. “The first semester, I thought, ‘I can’t do this.’ But as time went on, in the group projects, the students didn’t treat me any different. It’s been a great experience, better than I expected.”   

His classes were very informative, and the professors were very helpful. Now he hopes to get into hospital administration or become a director at a pharmaceutical company. He also would like to become familiar enough in the field to help his daughter open her practice.  

‘‘Education is never a waste of time. When you get the chance to go to school, you really should jump in. It opens a new world.
— Mario Palomarez, UTRGV Class of 2021’’

And since he and his daughter were taking the same courses, there was a bit of family competition.   

“At dinner, he’d say, ‘I read your discussion post. I think you were a little off.’ And I’d tell him, ‘It was an opinion, dad, I wasn’t wrong,’” Elvia recalled, laughing.  



Education is something the family holds dear. Mario grew up in a family of migrant farm workers, but his mother, who had earned her degree in Mexico, made sure her children never missed a beat when it came to school.   

“We would go up north for five, six months a year. We only went to school for three months out of the year,” he said. “But she would say, ‘You’re going to study.’ She would sit us down, me and my little brother. We would do our homework and she would check it.

“Sometimes, I don’t think she knew what she was checking because she didn’t speak very good English and didn’t read it. But we were so terrified,” he recalled, laughing. “Because of her, I’m a strong believer in education.”   

As token of tribute, the household has created a display of everyone’s degrees surrounding grandmother’s degree. Mother, daughter and father soon will have new degrees to add to their wall of recognitions.

The family gives very similar advice when it comes to education. They recommend that anyone who is interested in going back to school start doing some research and find out the value in getting that education.   

“Education is never a waste of time. When you get the chance to go to school, you really should jump in. It opens a new world,” Mario said. “I can’t tell you how many people that I have helped or talked into going back to school, and they call me to say thank you.”   

Norma is equally adamant about education.  

“The day you stop learning is the day you stop living,” she said. “There are so many loan forgiveness plans for teachers. There are opportunities out there that people can take advantage of. I think it’s a lot less difficult than people anticipate.”   

Elvia and Norma are scheduled to take part in the December commencement, while Mario will earn his degree in May 2021. However, the family is working with the university to make arrangements to hopefully walk together in May.   

A year ago, they said, they couldn’t imagine all three of them getting their master’s degrees together. Now, education really has become a family affair for them.

“Me and my dad have always been best friends. We do everything together,” Elvia said. “To me, to walk with him is going to be the most amazing thing.”  

Mario is equally moved by the possibility.  

“Being able to walk at the same time with my daughter …” he said, then paused for a moment. “It’s pretty cool.”

The UTRGV Fall 2020 Virtual Commencement will be streaming at 4 p.m. Saturday, Dec. 12.


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.