University organization presented with official banner

  Thursday, January 5, 2023
  Around Campus

By Karen Villarreal

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – UTRGV’s effort to host athletic activities for special needs students and fill the gap left when they graduate from public school has been officially recognized by the Special Olympics.

UTRGV met the 10 standards required for colleges and universities to host Special Olympics events for students older than high school age and has been designated a Special Olympics Unified Champion School.

Because the designation happened in 2020 at the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, UTRGV officially was presented with a banner from the global organization during a women’s basketball game halftime event on Dec. 15, 2022.

UTRGV joins Texas Christian University and Texas Tech University as one of just three universities in Texas to give college-age athletes with disabilities the opportunity to continue to participate in organized sports.

“Older athletes don’t get the same opportunities to play – maybe just one weekend of the month for them to be on the court, and the families are very grateful for these services,” said Ivan Figueroa Monsivais, a Unified Partner with the Special Olympics Texas RGV and lecturer II in the UTRGV Department of Health and Human Performance.

“It’s a special feeling when you see the students and their families come out and join us,” he said.



Maria Luisa Trinidad, associate chair of the UTRGV Department of Health and Human Performance and lecturer III in the College of Health Professions, has been volunteering with Special Olympics Texas for 15 years. She gives her time to the organization at UTRGV as a Unified Coach, as well as to state- and national-level Special Olympics competitions.

To be nationally recognized by the Special Olympics, UTRGV had to achieve 10 goals in four categories, she said: Special Olympics Unified Sports, Inclusive Youth Leadership, Whole-School Engagement, and Sustainability. These include hosting on-campus events, offering inclusive intramural sports programs, supporting a disability-focused student organization on campus, and being self-sustainable.

“Special Olympics Texas sometimes provides funding, but they rely on grants and donations themselves,” Trinidad said. “So, when we host on-campus events, we join forces with student organizations and other sponsors.”

UTRGV Recreation provides equipment – like volleyballs for October’s intramural competitions – which were “Unified Sports” opportunities.

A Unified Team is made of up 10-12 players, including athletes with disabilities and trained volunteers, called “Unified Partners.”

“Our students on campus become those partners – their advocates,” said Trinidad, who encourages her Adapted Kinesiology students to volunteer.

“UTRGV Athletics has also been very supportive. It’s great to see UTRGV students and athletes cheer them and get involved,” she said. “At the college level, students with disabilities lose a lot of chances for interaction, so they get really excited to be part of the UTRGV sports community, playing on a campus team.”

Other volunteers, including families who form their own delegations outside of school, come together to show support for all the athletes – and help with event setup, scorekeeping and coaching younger children.

“There’s always a lot of good people volunteering. It touches my heart,” Figueroa Monsivais said. “As I’m talking about it, I get goosebumps. This is what happens when you get involved. It’s love.”


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.