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Health Sciences Dean Solicits Ideas from Alumni

Last Updated on December 21, 2017 at 12:00 AM

Originally published December 21, 2017

By Laura L. Acosta

UTEP Communications

For the first time in nearly 40 years, Martin Aceves showed off his diploma from The University of Texas at El Paso, which was tucked away in his closet for safekeeping.

College of Health Sciences Dean Shafik Dharamsi, left, met UTEP alumnus Martin Aceves
College of Health Sciences Dean Shafik Dharamsi, Ph.D., left, met UTEP alumnus Martin Aceves to discuss opportunities for UTEP students to engage with the aging population during the dean's meet-and-greet in November. Photo by J.R. Hernandez / UTEP Communications

Legally blind all his life, Aceves overcame long odds to graduate from UTEP with a bachelor’s degree in social work in 1980.

“My degree provided me a great life and a great retirement,” said Aceves, who retired in 2015 after 28 years as a rehabilitation counselor in San Antonio. “I give UTEP all the credit for my success.”

College of Health Sciences Dean Shafik Dharamsi, Ph.D., invited Aceves to UTEP to share his story and talk about ways the college can better serve the community.

Dharamsi hosts these informal meet-and-greets at the college on an ongoing basis to engage community-based alumni in shaping the future of health sciences education at UTEP.

“We have a discussion about their experiences and how they can help us envision the college 10, 15, 20 years down the road,” Dharamsi explained, “and what we need to do to develop community responsive graduates.”

The college reached out to 1,500 health sciences alumni. Aceves was one of the first to respond to a letter he received from the dean. In the letter, Dharamsi wrote that one of his first tasks since joining UTEP in July 2017 was to listen and get to know the community.

Aceves said he was so impressed with how Dharamsi was soliciting ideas from alumni, rather than funds, he readily accepted the college’s invitation to meet with the dean in November. 

Eager to meet Dharamsi, Aceves rode the bus from his home in El Paso’s lower valley to UTEP, arriving an hour earlier than expected. 

Over coffee with the dean and a few faculty members, Aceves described how his UTEP education changed the trajectory of his life.

Aceves was born with toxoplasmosis, a congenital disorder that causes visual impairment. 

Throughout his schooling, Aceves had a difficult time reading textbooks. He also couldn’t see the chalkboard in class.

“I read like this,” Aceves said, lifting his hands close to his nose.

But instead of giving up, he listened and paid close attention to his teachers.  

“In all my years at UTEP, I never missed a day,” Aceves said. “I couldn’t because I needed to hear the lectures. Otherwise, I would have to spend time trying to read and my eyes could not take it.”

Wanting to fit in, Aceves never told his UTEP professors that his vision was impaired. He kept his secret until his eyesight got progressively worse his final semester at UTEP.

Aceves was about to drop out when the coordinator of the cooperative UTEP/UT Austin social work master's program Don Blashill demanded that he finish his degree.  

“He said, ‘Go back and register again!,’ and I did,” Aceves recalled. “I’m grateful to him. That’s why I brought my diploma to show people. I haven’t shown it to people since I graduated.”

Since retiring two years ago, Aceves spends three days each week with other seniors at the Pavo Real Senior Center. Aceves said the center is a place for social interaction among older adults. Despite the aches and pains that come with age, seniors are looking for activities that challenge their minds and keep them physical active.

Aceves and Dharamsi talked about opportunities at the center for UTEP students to engage with older adults. One suggestion was to have students organize a billiards tournament at the center.

“I would like to see UTEP students and the 60-plus generation cross paths at the center,” Aceves said. “I think that will bring us some excitement.”

Although financial contributions are always appreciated, the dean’s meet-and-greet is another way the College of Health Sciences is encouraging alumni to give back through their time and talent.

By offering their guidance and support, alumni like Aceves will help the college enhance its efforts to better the community in more meaningful and transformational ways.

“The philosophy that we want to develop is whether you give your time or you give $100,000, we appreciate you just the same,” Dharamsi said. “Mr. Aceves has given us an opportunity for our students to spend time at the senior center and hear their stories. To hear (Aceves’) story about how he couldn’t read and his desire to be educated is what UTEP’s mission is all about.”

UTEP alumni interested in a meet-and-greet with Dharamsi can call 915-747-7201 for more information.