Students between classes at UTSA.
Students between classes at UTSA. Courtesy photo.

Editor’s note: The following is UTSA President Ricardo Romo’s State of the University Address as submitted to the Rivard Report Tuesday afternoon. Romo spoke at the H-E-B University Center Ballroom on UTSA’s Main Campus to “discuss a renewed focus on students, share UTSA successes and outline next steps in the university’s journey to Tier One status.”

Dr. Ricardo Romo UTSA President

Thank you, (Zach Dunn, president of the UTSA Student Government Association) for that kind introduction, and thank you for your leadership on behalf of all the students here at UTSA. Thanks, as well, to Provost Frederick, our vice presidents, deans, Faculty Senate members, Staff Council, our other student leaders, and to all of you for being here today and for your commitment to UTSA.

I am especially happy to welcome the nearly 3,500 freshmen and nearly 2,000 transfer students who join us at UTSA this fall. Students from all 50 states and more than 85 countries make up our campuses.

I look forward to this event each year because it gives us the opportunity to pause for a few minutes and reflect on where we have been, and where we are going. It gives us a moment to celebrate our successes and to envision the next steps in our journey to Tier One. Most importantly, it gives us a moment to consider the greater purpose of our work.

Downtown San Antonio as seen from UTSA's downtown campus. Photo courtesy of UTSA.
Downtown San Antonio as seen from UTSA’s downtown campus. Photo courtesy of UTSA.

No matter how many times I give a State of the University address, I always come back to one simple belief: Everything we do must be about our students. This past year was no exception.

Just think about some of our accomplishments.

UTSA President Ricardo Romo speaks to the crowd at the 2013 State of the University address. Courtesy of UTSA.
UTSA President Ricardo Romo speaks to the crowd at the 2013 State of the University address. Courtesy of UTSA.

In this last academic year we graduated one of our largest classes ever – more than 5,800 students. Our May commencement was so large we had to hold it in the Alamodome. Could you ever imagine the day when we would need that kind of space? In the audience were nearly 25,000 parents, family members and friends. It was a great commencement.

I remember one graduate who was the first in her family to go to college. She had 24 family members in the audience. It was like each of them was receiving a degree. They were their own cheering section.

On the other side was a 62-year-old man who was fulfilling his 30-year dream of obtaining a college degree. He wanted to show his children and grandchildren that anything is possible. There he was, receiving his diploma. His wife, children and grandchildren were there, too. They beamed with pride.

It couldn’t have been a better day for those graduates, or for UTSA. Being in the Alamodome gives our graduates the chance to invite as many friends and family as they would like to share in this very special moment. We were so pleased, we now plan to hold commencements at the Alamodome for years to come.

We have had a phenomenal year at UTSA. You can see it all around us.

UTSA commencement ceremony. Courtesy of UTSA.
UTSA Honors College commencement ceremony. Courtesy of UTSA.

On the Main Campus the new North Paseo Building is going up. When it is completed next October, we will be able to bring staff back onto campus, where they will be closer to students. We’ll be bringing other programs, like cyber security, together in one location to foster greater collaboration and research success. And, we will be saving more than $1 million a year by having all these functions in our own buildings.

Just a few weeks ago, we cut the ribbon on San Saba residence hall. It adds more than 600 new beds to our on-campus housing. We have created learning communities in San Saba with college-specific floors, on-site tutoring and study spaces that make it easy for students to work together.

A new faculty center is nearing completion in the John Peace Library. It will give our professors a place to meet and collaborate in support of our students. We will hold a grand opening in the spring.

Across campus, we built new football practice fields that are being shared with the Rec Center, and our band – the Spirit of San Antonio. I was there for the first practice of the football team. I have to tell you, this was an excited group of athletes. They beamed with pride as they were the first to walk onto the field built with the highest quality astro turf. And for the first time, the football team didn’t have to lug their gear off campus to practice, then race back to campus for classes. This practice field is top-tier.

Map of UTSA main campus and Park West athletic complex.
Map of UTSA main campus and Park West athletic complex.

Just last month we opened the Park West track and soccer complex. To mark the event, I ran a ceremonial first sprint with a group of children and students. And, I made it a point to warn the children ahead of time – “You can’t run faster than the president!” Lucky for me, they listened, and they let me win the race! It was an exciting day for UTSA.

We’ve been building traditions, too. Has anyone noticed that 11-foot long roadrunner on campus lately? Have you rubbed his foot for good luck?

There are many ways to measure how well we are doing for our students. One of those is how we prepare them to enter the global workforce.

A year ago, there was a big issue weighing on our community. It was the notion that San Antonio was experiencing a “brain drain.” The theory was that we are not able to attract or keep the best brainpower in San Antonio. Graham Weston, the chairman and co-founder of Rackspace, was worried we would not be able to build the workforce of tomorrow if we couldn’t draw educated young people to our city. He was also concerned about providing a great education for those who are already here.

So, he and the 80/20 Foundation funded a study to better understand the issue. What they discovered was not what they expected. Instead of losing brainpower, it turned out that San Antonio is a destination for college-educated young people seeking great jobs. In fact, we’re right up there with Austin – virtually tied for first place – in the growth of college graduate migration to the city.

Graham Weston (left), Rackspace chairman, and James Russell, geographer.
Rackspace Chairman Graham Weston (left) and James Russell, the economic geographer hired to carry out the San Antonio brain gain study. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

To fully live up to our potential, though, Graham Weston challenged higher education to up its game. We have to be on the cutting edge of education if we are to prepare our young people for a world economy. We must be leaders, not followers, if we are to remain a city of brain gain.

[Read more: The Key to Continued Brain Gain: Specialized Higher Education.]

Graham Weston knows this. That is why, this past year, his 80/20 Foundation endowed four professorships in open-cloud computing at UTSA. One million dollars has been dedicated to these professorships because of the foundation and because of the generosity of H-E-B. This past year, H-E-B committed $5 million in matching funds for endowed positions across the university. Today, there are 13 of these new positions. We now have 60 committed endowments for professorships and chairs. This has a significant impact on our ability to attract top faculty to support students.

The 80/20 Foundation and its partners have also contributed more than $600,000 in open-cloud computing hardware. This will allow our researchers to better collaborate and create new knowledge.

This partnership gives our students opportunities for excellence that never existed before, and this is just the beginning. As it evolves, this partnership has the potential to make San Antonio and UTSA the epicenter for open-cloud computing technology and innovation. It makes a degree from UTSA even more valuable.

By the way, Rackspace has already hired so many UTSA alums – for everything from the tech side to the business side – that they have a special name for our graduates: Roadrunner Rackers.

A typical workspace at Rackspace. Sectional walls are lower than traditional cubicals and employees are encouraged to liven up their space with decorations.
A typical workspace at Rackspace. Sectional walls are lower than traditional cubicles and employees are encouraged to liven up their space with decorations. Photo by Iris Dimmick.

Just ask Chris Rosas what he thinks of UTSA graduates. Chris is in charge of Rackspace’s global tax department. He has a staff of 13; nine are from UTSA. Chris is a double UTSA alum. He earned a bachelor’s degree in accounting and his master’s in business administration. He will tell you that his preference is to come to UTSA when he needs top-tier employees.

Great things are happening for UTSA students. Great things will continue to happen if we stay focused on student success.

It is exciting that our efforts are being recognized. This year, the Shanghai University Academic Rankings of World Universities named UTSA among the top 500 universities in the world. We were measured against more than 1,200 universities in 43 countries in academics and in research performance.

For the second year in a row, UTSA has been named by Times Higher Education as one of the top 100 young universities in the world. Only eight U.S universities made the list. The quality of our teaching, citations, international outlook and research weighed heavily in our favor. Now that’s top-tier.

This kind of environment gives our students access to excellence. They deserve it.

Students pose for a photo during a ceramics lab. Courtesy of UTSA.
Students pose for a photo during a ceramics class. Courtesy of UTSA.

This past summer I had the opportunity to speak before the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce. I talked about top-tier (and) why it is important and the impact it has on San Antonio. While official designation as a Tier One university may be some time off, I told the audience that I have another view.

I believe we become a top-tier university when we act it, when we believe it and when we live it.

We are acting it. We are believing it. We are living it, every day. We are doing it not just for ourselves but for San Antonio and for Texas. We are doing it for our community and for our students. We are defining excellence so we can give our students the very best educational opportunities. Let me give you an example of what excellence looks like.

Sarai Lara studied bilingual education at UTSA. When she began going to school as a child, she spoke only Spanish. It was a challenge for her to learn English and excel in her classes. Yet, she did. She dreamt of one day returning to the classroom, as an adult, to teach children in similar situations.

Panoramic view of UTSA's 2013 State of the University Address. Courtesy of UTSA.
Panoramic view of UTSA’s 2013 State of the University Address. Courtesy of UTSA.

After enrolling at UTSA, she had an opportunity to go back into the classroom as a student teacher. She wanted to work with kids who had the same background and challenges she had in school. Sarai found that opportunity at Japhet Elementary School in the San Antonio School District.

So every day, Monday through Friday, for an entire semester, she traveled to Japhet to work with first graders. She said of those kids, “I really enjoy seeing them learn. When the little light bulb goes on, it’s so exciting to know that I connected with them.”

Sarai is like many of our students in the College of Education and Human Development, and all across our university. They have a passion for learning, and they are shaping the future. However, there is one difference with Sarai.

To complete her student teaching, she had to travel 162 miles round trip every day from her home in Uvalde to the elementary school. Yes, 162 miles, every day, five days a week, for an entire semester. That is what commitment to excellence is all about.

A beautiful day at my former office, Texas State Capitol building in Austin. Photo by Jaime Solis.
Texas State Capitol building in Austin. Photo by Jaime Solis.

Valerie Sullivan knows about commitment. She is a master’s student in the College of Public Policy, studying for a career in social work. Valerie and seven other UTSA students spent this past spring in Austin. They were part of our legislative scholars program coordinated by the Honors College. Valerie dedicated more than 1,000 hours of her time to an internship in the office of the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Valerie worked on policy initiatives. She said it was one of the most rewarding experiences of her life. You don’t get opportunities like that without being committed to excellence.

We owe it to people like Sarai and Valerie to give them top-tier educational opportunities. That is why investment in UTSA is so important. Our first-ever capital campaign is all about supporting students through scholarships and fellowships, student activities, the arts, athletics, study abroad programs and support of research.

The response from the community has been overwhelming. We had a goal of raising $120 million by 2015. This past May, we reached that goal two and a half years early. So, it is time to do more. We’ve set a new goal of raising an additional $55 million before the campaign ends.

This will translate into more investment in graduate students who conduct research – investment in undergraduate talent to bring the brightest minds to UTSA. It will mean investing more in faculty so students learn from top-tier scholars and investing in athletics to enhance student life and promote community spirit.

Amanda Nolan knows what happens when you invest in faculty and students. She is a doctoral student in the Department of Chemistry, working on stem cell research. This summer, Amanda was chosen from a pool of 20,000 applicants from around the world to attend the meeting of Nobel Laureates and students in Germany. This is where the world’s top graduate and post-doctoral students come together to exchange ideas. The opportunities Amanda had at UTSA gave her this access to the best and brightest minds.

UTSA students hard at work in one of the university's many laboratories. Courtesy of UTSA.
UTSA students hard at work in one of the university’s many laboratories. Courtesy of UTSA.

Our students deserve the very best, because they are the very best.

UTSA is a university of first choice, and it shows. This fall, nearly 65% of our incoming freshmen come from the top quarter of their class and 87% are ranked in the top half. At the same time, our student diversity numbers are the strongest ever.

We’ve raised our admissions standards, and students like what they see. Top-tier students want to come here because they know they will be surrounded by other top students, by top-tier faculty, and they will get a top-tier education.

Eric Ficke is one of those students. Eric graduated from San Antonio Christian High School with a 4.18 GPA and an SAT score of 1490. He is interested in studying cyber security. Eric considered three schools – Stanford, Johns Hopkins and UTSA. Eric chose UTSA. He is a freshman this fall.

When you have great students like Eric, you attract great faculty, too. This fall, more than 60 new faculty members have joined us from some of the best universities in the world. They come from Italy, Germany, Mexico, Canada, China, Spain and Switzerland. They come from all across the United States.

Architecture students at work. Courtesy of UTSA.
Architecture students and faculty. Courtesy of UTSA.

When we attract top talent, it enriches our campus and it enriches our community. We see the proof of that in the work of our student and faculty researchers. We have new intellectual property disclosures nearly every week. In fact, there are so many we have formed our own commercialization office to help students and faculty develop great start- ups.

More than 1,000 students have been through the UTSA Center for Innovation and Technology Entrepreneurship boot camp. Over the past 5 years, the number of UTSA students who are creating companies continues to increase. Today, there are more than 100 student companies participating in the Roadrunner business incubator. There is pioneering work taking place, and it is changing lives.

This includes the invention by a team of eight undergraduates who created a thermo-electric cooling system for amputees who wear artificial limbs. Their company, Leto Solutions, developed a product that prevents heat build-up in the area where the natural and artificial limbs meet. This provides greater comfort and reduces perspiration that can cause irritation and infection. This product has the potential to make a huge difference for the users.

Leto Solutions, first place winner in the UTSA CITE $100,000 Student Technology Venture Competition, produced the Aquilonix Prosthetic Cooling System, which uses thermoelectric technology integrated into a prosthetic socket worn by the patient to regulate the temperature and reduce sweating. Leto Solutions includes undergraduate engineering majors Austin Darius, Jake Montez, David Schultz and Gary Walters, and undergraduate business majors Nam Do, Eric Michael Garza, Enrique Medrano and Justin Stultz.
Leto Solutions, first place winner in the UTSA CITE $100,000 Student Technology Venture Competition, produced the Aquilonix Prosthetic Cooling System. Leto Solutions includes undergraduate engineering majors Austin Darius, Jake Montez, David Schultz and Gary Walters, and undergraduate business majors Nam Do, Eric Michael Garza, Enrique Medrano and Justin Stultz. Courtesy of UTSA.

These students participated in UTSA’s student technology venture competition this year. They received thousands of dollars in cash and business services to help launch their venture. That competition, by the way, is the largest in the country, bringing together business and engineering seniors.

Last year, I mentioned another group of students that had won the venture competition. They had developed an infant head guard that prevents deformities in babies. This year, their company, Invictus Medical, is making huge progress. They have now hired a CEO to help commercialize their invention. Soon, they will launch their initial round of funding. This is the kind of excellence that occurs when students have the opportunity to work alongside top-tier faculty and researchers.

From the time they set foot on campus to the time they walk across the stage to receive their diploma, it is our job to make sure every student has the support they need to be successful.

Students between classes at UTSA.
Students between classes at UTSA.

When a student enters UTSA as a freshman, they think they know what is ahead for them, what discipline to major in, what courses to take and how to study. But, that is not always the case, and we need to help prepare them to succeed. That is why we are re- defining the student experience at UTSA.

This year we are completely transforming academic advising. The advisor-student relationship is so important. It is key to student retention and success. I know we have dedicated advisors at UTSA. We now are focusing on students establishing strong mentoring relationships with their advisors.

Rather than being grouped by college, advisors are being grouped by clusters of primary and secondary majors. They will be trained in the majors that students start out in. And, they will be trained in the programs students are most likely to transfer into if they change their major.

With this model, we estimate that 80% of our students will be able to keep the same advisor all the way through graduation. Our advisors will get to know their students better, and the students will benefit. With an assigned caseload of students, advisors will be able to take a greater role and have greater satisfaction in the success of our students.

UTSA students, faculty and staff enjoy an afternoon on campus. Courtesy of UTSA.
UTSA students, faculty and staff mingle on a sunny patio on campus. Courtesy of UTSA.

Also this year, we are implementing the Degree Works software. It allows students to choose classes and track their progress. This will help them be more self-sufficient. The new advising structure will be in place by this spring in time for summer orientation for next fall’s entering class.

Also this semester, University College is piloting the academic inquiry course. Students will develop solid research skills and learn how different disciplines pursue and create new knowledge. Beginning next fall, all entering students will take the course as part of their first-year experience.

Another key aspect of the freshman year experience is the peer-mentoring program. These peer mentors are trained to help first-year students adjust to all aspects of college life — academic and social.

So, by this time next fall, all of our new students will have assigned advisors and assigned peer mentors. It is not just about helping students pass courses. It is about building a support network for students when they enter UTSA and about having a support network when they leave UTSA as one of our nearly 100,000 alumni.

We are here for our students. Remember how hard they work and how much they persevere. I know this firsthand from my days as a college student.

Ricardo Romo, Ph.D., University President and Photographer.
UTSA President Ricardo Romo, Ph.D., and photographer. Photo by Al Rendon.

When I was at the University of Texas at Austin, I needed to take a language course. Since I spoke Spanish, there was the assumption – not a very good one – that learning Portuguese would be easy for me. So, I signed up for a class.

Was I surprised! It was one of the toughest courses I had ever taken. But, I gave it my all. I went to every class. I sat in the front row. I asked questions. I studied and I practiced. I wouldn’t let it defeat me.

My final grade wasn’t as good as I would have liked, but I made it through the course and put it behind me. No more Portuguese. But as we all know, the past has a way of catching up to us.

In 1998, I went on the most important job interview of my life, to be the next president of the University of Texas at San Antonio. When I went into the committee interview, I was not entirely sure who I would be meeting with. So, you can imagine my surprise when the person sitting next to me was my college Portuguese teacher!

Can you imagine? You’re in the most important interview of your life and you’re being interviewed by the college professor whose class you did poorly in. The only thing that could have made it worse was if she started interviewing me in Portuguese. But, this was not a deliberate ploy to bring in my college professor to rattle me. No, it was nothing like that. The fact is my Portuguese teacher had left the classroom and gone on to a very distinguished career in university administration.

Diana Natalicio, president, The University of Texas at El Paso.=
Diana Natalicio,
president of the University of Texas at El Paso.

At the time of my interview to become the president of UTSA, my Portuguese teacher had already been a university president for 10 years. She still is the president of the University of Texas at El Paso. It was Diana Natalicio. To me, she always will be Professora Natalicio.

The truth is, our paths had crossed before I became a finalist for this job, so we had already had a chance to talk about the old days in Portuguese class. The funny thing is, when I told her how difficult the course had been for me, she was surprised. She didn’t remember my final grade, and she didn’t remember me struggling in the course. In fact, she remembered me as the student who sat in the front row, worked hard and stayed focused. She remembered me as the student who was engaged.

Years later, she didn’t remember the grade. She didn’t remember the outcome, but she remembered my effort. And, in the years since then, the thought has crossed my mind that I just might be the president of UTSA because I sat in the front row of my Portuguese class.

You see, our efforts matter.

The efforts our students make in the classroom matter, as do the efforts of our staff and faculty to support them in every way possible. Students must be our highest priority. Don’t Sarai, Valerie, Amanda and Eric deserve our very best, every day? Don’t all of our students deserve the very best, every day?

Everything we do must be about engaging our students. Our commitment – our work – this is what makes their dreams possible.

Whether you work directly with students or are in a support function. Whether you are a professor in the classroom or a researcher in the lab. Whether you are at the Downtown Campus or at the ITC, at one of our satellite locations or here on the Main Campus, you make a difference.

You help create opportunities for excellence for our students. That is what being top-tier is all about. So, let’s act it, believe it, live it every day for our students. They deserve the best.

Thank you for all you do for UTSA! Go ‘Runners.

President Ricardo Romo stands in as a cymbalist with UTSA's Spirit of San Antonio Marching Band. Photo by Robert Rivard.
President Ricardo Romo stands in as a cymbalist with UTSA’s Spirit of San Antonio Marching Band during a tailgate party for A UTSA Roadrunner game near the Alamodome. Photo by Robert Rivard.

Ricardo Romo became UTSA’s fifth president in 1999. During his tenure, UTSA’s enrollment has grown to nearly 31,000 students, and it has become an institution of first choice for students seeking a college degree. Dr. Romo is a San Antonio native who grew up on the city’s West Side and attended UT Austin on a track scholarship. While at UT Austin, he was the first Texan to run the mile in less than four minutes, a record that lasted 41 years. He earned a Ph.D. in American History from UCLA.

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