More than 300 undergrads present family-centered STEM and MAS projects

  Wednesday, November 22, 2023
  Community, Science and Technology

By Karen Villarreal

RIO GRANDE VALLEY, TEXAS – On Saturday, Nov. 18, Ramona Velazquez stood proudly among a sea of trifold displays at the UTRGV HPEII fieldhouse, as her granddaughter Victoria presented the science behind palo azul, ­a tea derived from “Texas Kidneywood” bark.

Sipping a cup of the blue remedy, Velazquez said she was taught about palo azul’s healing properties by her mother, who learned it from hers.

utrgv students
Bukola Awotoye, a Computer Science major, spoke with her neighboring presenter, Cadence Calderon, and some guest attendees at FIESTA 2023. (UTRGV photo by Karen Villarreal)

And now I got to share it with my granddaughter,” she said. 

Victoria, a biology major, had invited her grandmother to be part of her presentation at the UTRGV FIESTA (Family Integrated Education Serving and Transforming Academia) Symposium. ­The NSF-funded program aims to enhance the success of primarily first-generation STEM students by bringing their families into a project ­as an opportunity for connection. 

Like other students in Family-Centered Pedagogy (FCP) courses, the Velazquezes had integrated Victoria’s field of study and her family history into a research ­project centered on a tradition, culture, or object of sentimental value. 

The Velazquezes and the families of more than 300 fellow FCP students who had worked on projects over the semester were welcomed to the fourth FIESTA Symposium by UTRGV President Guy Bailey and Dr. Luis Zayas, provost and senior vice president for Academic Affairs. 

“This is an event I love because it links two of the most important things in the Rio Grande Valley – families and education,” Bailey said. “These can transform anything.”

utrgv students at stem event
More than 500 attendees were welcomed to FIESTA 2023 by UTRGV leaders, including Dr. Juan Salinas, co-principal investigator on the grant that makes the program possible; Dr. Guy Bailey, UTRGV president; and Dr. Luis Zayas, provost and senior VP for Academic Affairs. (UTRGV photo by Karen Villarreal)

He paid homage to the families in attendance, and shared that while his own family were not able to offer financial or academic support for his educational journey, they were there for him in every other way. 

“I couldn’t have done it without them,” he said. “My mother completed up to the eighth grade. It was so important to her for me to graduate from college.” 

Zayas, also the first in his family to earn a college degree, said his success encouraged his siblings and younger family members to pursue higher education. 

“It takes one to open that door so that we can all run through,” he said. 

He noted that all the student presenters spoke of their parents’ efforts for their children.

utrgv stem event
UTRGV President Dr. Guy Bailey with some members of the UTRGV Ballet Folkórico, who performed for the FIESTA families. (UTRGV photo by Karen Villarreal)

“Today, we see the fruit of your sacrifice,” Zayas told the audience. “This is your university now, too.”


Yocelin Chavez, a senior in the Vaquero MD program, spoke to the FIESTA 2023 attendees about her project, “Minorities in Medicine.” 

“It was meaningful because it was one of the first times I felt heard about my experiences as a first-generation student,” she told the audience. “And I realized how many of my classmates have similar stories.”

Chavez, who became a student employee with FIESTA after participating in her junior year, said many of the students have emotional support from their family, but have to go elsewhere for academic help. 

“This is the first time they get to have their parents help them with the project at a college level,” she said. “I think the best part is, it gives the students the opportunity to interview their parents and tell their stories. They feel really proud to bring something of theirs to the university, showcasing it to everybody.” 



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.