Wednesday, May 10, 2023
  Community, Around Campus

By Marisol Villarreal

ALTON, TEXAS – MAY 10, 2023 – UTRGV student Omar Zapata knows well enough that the path to a college degree is full of unexpected twists and turns.

The Alton native navigated challenges over the course of six years, but he remained determined to earn his bachelor’s degree.

On May 12, his determination pays off as he walks the stage to accept his bachelor’s degree in Mass Communication, with a specialty in print journalism and Mexican American Studies, and a minor in Sociology.

“Once every couple of semesters, I would feel burnout or something would be going on with my family,” Zapata said. “I have various grants and scholarships, so I was taking four classes every semester.”

When he began his college career in fall 2017, he was an undeclared major. Eventually, he settled on sociology. But two years into his college career, he began working with the student media newspaper, The Rider, and found his love for print journalism. So, he switched his major.

“I was trying to find a job on campus in 2019,” Zapata said, “And when I applied to be a newspaper distributor for The Rider, they actually wanted to make me a general news reporter , which I had never done before.”


His first position at The Rider was a general news reporter, which he held from 2019 to 2020. Then the pandemic hit, but being a reporter didn’t stop. As the world hunkered down to protect itself, Zapata learned how to work better online, expanding his interview skills to using Zoom or via telephone. And all of that helped him hone his communication skills, his time management skills and overall adaptability to the world and the workplace.

In 2022, he became a sports reporter, and currently serves as the Arts and Entertainment editor for the paper.

“I had never taken a journalism class before joining The Rider, and the transition to writing in AP Style was challenging,” he said.

But Zapata’s interest in journalism was evident from his first story, where he recapped the first graduating class of UTRGV, and interviewed UTRGV President Guy Bailey.

“I was very nervous at first because I wasn’t used to going up to people and talking to them. But once I entered Dr. Bailey’s office, I soon realized I was going to be fine and did the interview,” he said.

Working at The Rider helped him develop his communication skills, he said, and he now has accolades to show for it, like awards for Live Sports Action Photos and Sports Feature Photo at the 2021 Texas Intercollegiate Press Association (TIPA) in Fort Worth, and honorable mention this year at TIPA for Feature Writing.

Zapata also was selected in 2022 by the Texas Managing Editors Board of Directors for the prestigious, statewide Buster Haas internship, working for an entire summer at The Brownsville Herald. There, he learned to adapt to a new city, make new media connections and contacts, and was able to develop local news tailored to the Brownsville readership.


As the youngest in his family and the first to get a college degree, Zapata is pleased and relieved to be graduating.

“My parents always did emphasize that I should go to college and get a degree in what I wanted to do,” he said.

Zapata thanked communications professor Dr. Gregory Selber for his mentorship, and said he hopes to be able to share through his writing all he has learned and experienced during his time at UTRGV.

“I get excited thinking about how I can share with the community the different unique stories that people have to share,” he said.


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.