UTEP Leader, Family Share Notable Commencements
Last Updated on May 13, 2019 at 12:00 AM
Originally published May 13, 2019
By Daniel Perez
Wallace Hardgrove recalled being excited to graduate from The University of Texas at El Paso with a bachelor's degree in accounting in December 1988. One of the things he looked forward to was shaking the hand of the University's new leader, Diana Natalicio, who took office the previous February.
Hardgrove, executive director of the Budget and Fiscal Policy Office for the County of El Paso, said he did not know much about President Natalicio at the time. He was busy with academics, a full-time job as a payroll clerk for a large clothing manufacturer, volunteer work as an income tax preparer, and a player in as many pick-up basketball games as possible at Memorial Gym. Still, he was excited to walk the Commencement stage and greet her.
The native of Maine whose Army family retired in El Paso was among the first of thousands of graduation candidates to participate in UTEP Commencement ceremonies presided over by President Natalicio. Approximately 2,300 more graduation candidates will walk the stage during the four spring Commencement ceremonies on May 18-19, 2019, in the Don Haskins Center. One of them will be Hardgrove’s daughter, Nichole.
The realization that he celebrated his graduation during the President’s first year in office and that his daughter would walk the stage during the President’s last Commencement made Hardgrove nostalgic and grateful. Coincidently, his son, Joshua, earned his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry during the Centennial Commencement in 2014 in Sun Bowl Stadium.
“Sharing in these three ceremonies brings us great pride,” said Hardgrove, whose wife, Nohemi, is a pediatric oncology nurse at El Paso Children’s Hospital. “We’ve all benefitted from (President Natalicio’s) leadership. We know what she and the University mean to the community and we appreciate her three decades of service.”
Since her appointment as President 31 years ago, UTEP has awarded almost 93,000 degrees, according to the University’s Center for Institutional Evaluation, Research and Planning. The institution expects to confer an additional 3,000 degrees this spring.
Among the notable degrees awarded will be some firsts in the colleges of Science and Health Sciences and some lasts tied to the School of Pharmacy.
The University will award the first three Master of Science in Professional Science degrees. The College of Science launched this program in spring 2017 for its students who wanted to blend their science knowledge with another discipline such as health or business. The program is composed of two graduate certificates that take 15 to 18 credit hours each. One must come from the College of Science and the other can come from another UTEP college or other accredited institution.
UTEP’s Bachelor of Science in Rehabilitation Sciences program will graduate its first class of seven students this spring. In total, 23 rehabilitation sciences students, to include 16 summer graduates, will participate in Saturday’s evening ceremony.
Approved by the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in February 2017, the degree prepares students for a career in the rehabilitation professions. Graduates can pursue graduate studies in physical therapy, rehabilitation counseling, occupational therapy or speech language pathology.
This Commencement also marks the last class to graduate from the UTEP/UT Austin Cooperative Pharmacy Program. Six graduates will receive a Doctor of Pharmacy degree from The University of Texas at Austin’s College of Pharmacy.
Under the six-year cooperative program, students would spend the first two years at UTEP, the next two years at UT Austin, and finish at UTEP. The program has awarded 164 Pharm.D. degrees since it began in 1995. Seventy percent of the program’s graduates have remained in the region to practice professionally. The UTEP School of Pharmacy will graduate its first cohort in 2021.
President Natalicio said she was delighted to learn how the Hardgrove family’s academic lineage tracked her tenure as UTEP’s President. She called it “such a remarkable coincidence.”
The UTEP leader said these Commencement ceremonies will be bittersweet for her, knowing that she will surely miss the joy that comes with celebrating UTEP’s success in achieving both the graduates’ and UTEP’s high aspirations, but she also stressed that this graduation message, like all others, will be focused on the students and the major milestone this occasion represents in their lives.
“Commencement is all about the graduates,” the President said. “It’s not about me, and I don’t want my professional transition to affect that focus in any way.”
President Natalicio said that when she stepped into her position in 1988, she did not expect her tenure to be so long. She knew that the mission UTEP was developing was ambitious, and that successfully achieving it would take time. She said, “UTEP’s two bold goals then were to align our student demographics with those of the surrounding community, and to ensure that the degrees earned by these students would be of the highest quality. Both goals have been attained: our students now mirror El Paso, and UTEP has earned the top-tier R1 research recognition granted to less than 5% of all U.S. universities. And, it took only 30 years to reach them!
“For me this graduation will be both celebratory and somewhat sad. I look back over those 30 years and I think ‘Wow, we did it! Thanks to the deep commitment and extraordinary efforts of the entire UTEP team – students, faculty and staff – this has been an amazing success story in which we should all take pride. My only regret is not being able to actively participate in what I know will be UTEP’s very bright future.”
Nichole Hardgrove, Wallace Hardgrove’s daughter, said she was grateful to share the Haskins stage with the President, however briefly. She will graduate summa cum laude during the morning ceremony on May 18 with a bachelor’s degree in theatre arts. The candidate, who specialized in musical theater, was a regular at the UTEP Dinner Theatre, performing in nine productions as an undergraduate. She will conclude her role as Sophie in “Mamma Mia!” on Commencement weekend.
“(The President) is a strong, powerful woman,” said the younger Hardgrove, who worked in the Department of Theatre and Dance’s costume shop. After Commencement, she will move to Orlando, Florida, in the fall to take a job in Walt Disney World’s costuming department and continue to look for opportunities to perform in musical theater. “I appreciate all she’s done. I aspire to be like her.”
The El Paso native said that she credits President Natalicio for where the University is academically with an R1 designation, and aesthetically because of the campus’ unique architecture and pedestrian friendly grounds. She also admires the UTEP leader because of her support for the fine arts.
Joshua Hardgrove, Nichole’s older brother, praised the President for creating a conducive learning environment that included the major advisers that helped him to be successful. After his graduation in 2014, Marathon Petroleum Corp., formerly Western Refining, hired him as a chemist.“President Natalicio makes decisions that benefit students,” Joshua Hardgrove said. “It’s nice to have that kind of leadership.”