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TEDxUTEP Message of Access and Excellence Hits Home with Attendees

Last Updated on February 07, 2019 at 12:00 AM

Originally published February 07, 2019

By Victor R. Martinez

UTEP Communications

The University of Texas at El Paso's inaugural TEDxUTEP event Feb. 2, 2019, featured inspiring speakers, an enthusiastic crowd and the promise of another event next year.

UTEP's inaugural TEDxUTEP event Feb. 2, 2019, featured inspiring speakers, an enthusiastic crowd and the promise of another event next year. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications
UTEP's inaugural TEDxUTEP event Feb. 2, 2019, featured inspiring speakers, an enthusiastic crowd and the promise of another event next year. Photo: Ivan Pierre Aguirre / UTEP Communications

“We carefully selected speakers who represent the UTEP family – students, faculty and alumni – across a wide range of disciplines on the local, national and international stage,” said Ben Gonzalez, vice president for UTEP’s Asset Management and Development office. “Centering their presentations around the theme of ‘access and excellence,’ their stories translated how those two essential opportunities – reflective of UTEP’s mission – have not only positively affected their lives but also the lives of those around them.”

The Union Cinema was brimming with more than 400 students, faculty, staff, alumni and community members during the event who came to listen to 11 speakers.

Zuill Bailey, Grammy Award-winning cellist and artistic director for UTEP’s Center for Arts Entrepreneurship (CAE), shared his life experiences with the audience in between performing selections from Johann Sebastian Bach’s Cello Suites.

“I hope telling my personal stories and showcasing the art of the music itself shows that there is a process to our development,” he said. “It’s about passion, it’s about believing in yourself, all the things that [UTEP President Diana] Natalicio has been saying. It’s amazing that we all have the same drive and the same vision for this University.”

Bailey said he was privileged and humbled to be part of TEDxUTEP.

“To be able to be on this platform and to spread the word on how the tools of being a musician are the same tools as to be an engineer or the same tools to be a business major or the same tools to be an athlete, is an amazing opportunity,” he said. “For the young people, the future is still unknown, but they have to believe in themselves and know they can prevail if they have the confidence and support of the community around them.”

U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, calls her 10 years of teaching at UTEP one of the most rewarding experiences in her life. During her talk, she discussed the importance of cooperation, hard work and respect — values she learned while growing up in El Paso and attending UTEP.

“I love this community, it is such a part of my own identity and a part of my purpose,” she said. “I had access to a higher education at UTEP, which was a tremendous experience. I went off for graduate school and came back. When I started teaching at UTEP, that’s when I really deeply connected with the community in a way that was very profound. I saw myself in many of my students and I felt that they are hard-working, incredibly talented people who just need an opportunity, and UTEP provides that.”

She was particularly proud of UTEP’s R1 designation (top tier doctoral university with very high research activity) from the Carnegie Classification of Institutions of Higher Education.

“There is incredible pride here at UTEP,” she said. “Our region deserves it, our kids deserve it and our community deserves it. It was not an easy task. There were times where Dr. Natalicio was very alone on this journey. I have incredible respect and admiration for what she has done. She has laid the groundwork for one of our greatest assets — UTEP — to continue to transform this region.”

UTEP engineering graduate student Gina Elizabeth Moreno, spoke about empowering Latina women through STEM.

She shared her experience as a Latina woman attempting to break the glass ceiling.

“From my experience, a lot of women are intimidated when they come in and take engineering classes,” she said. “They have to go in with the confidence knowing they can master the work and be like their male counterparts. Yes, there is a gap in STEM, but most people don’t know to what extent and what is being done to change it. Once we bring more women to STEM, it will create things that we haven’t seen before.”

Moreno, who earned her undergraduate degree in industrial engineering in 2017, is working toward her master’s degree while serving as a research assistant in systems engineering. She expects to graduate in May.

She is a first-generation student and a first-generation United States citizen.

“It’s all about having a motive and a reason,” she said. “For me, that motivation was my family. When you have a reason to fulfill your goal, you have to be on the lookout for opportunities and those opportunities are at UTEP. You shouldn’t be discouraged just because something has never been done before. We do things that have never been done before all the time.”

Former NASA astronaut and UTEP alumnus Danny Olivas is director of UTEP’s Center for the Advancement of Space Safety and Mission Assurance Research (CASSMAR). He also spoke of his time at UTEP as an undergraduate.

“The person I am today was largely created by the experience I had at UTEP,” he said. “Because of UTEP, I have an appreciation for the value of diversity and I have taken that experience with me to the broader community and to NASA.” 

Olivas said he was impressed with diversity of speakers and topics at this year’s TEDxUTEP event.

“Access and excellence has been a key thing the university has pursued since Dr. Natalicio has been the leader of this University,” he said. “Her constant mantra of access and excellence and making sure the broader United States audience understands the value this region can provide is well understood, especially since we have now crossed the threshold of being an R1 institution.”

He said events such as TEDxUTEP provide opportunities to share the talent, the skills, the expertise, the energy and everything that makes El Paso great to the rest of the United States.

“The great thing about TEDx is not only does it provide an opportunity to share locally with family and friends but share broadly with people who don’t necessarily know who we are because this is a nationally syndicated organization,” he said. “We have great opportunity to showcase some of our talent here to people who are not familiar with UTEP or the kind of people we have here.”

Alejandra Nevarez, a junior at UTEP majoring in psychology with a minor in marketing, attended TEDxUTEP.

“I was inspired by all of the talks,” said Nevarez, a first-generation college student. “Their words just added to the passion for UTEP that I already had in my heart.”

Nevarez, who was especially excited about Escobar’s appearance, said she is looking forward to future TEDxUTEP events.

“It’s really exciting to see something like this, something we never had, at UTEP,” she said. “Hopefully it will become a tradition.”

Gonzalez, the vice president for Asset Management and Development, said it was inspiring to discover the wide reach of UTEP’s impact.

“What is even more inspiring is to learn that what we do every day on this campus has such a profound effect on people,” he said. “Throughout TEDxUTEP, I listened to energetic and positive feedback on every aspect of the event. Without question, everyone involved with the preparation and execution of TEDxUTEP did an incredible job of elevating the event to be very worthy of broadcast by TED Talks. Given the enthusiasm and enjoyment expressed by our guests and our participants, we look forward to continuing our TEDxUTEP event next year.”