|EDINBURG, June 17 - The Valley Alliance of Mentors for Opportunities and Scholarships (VAMOS) held its 17th annual scholarship banquet at the UTPA Community Engagement and Student Success building in Edinburg last week.
At the event, 50 students were awarded scholarships worth $500,000. The keynote speaker was Dr. Daniel P. King, superintendent of PSJA ISD. He said the scholarships meant more than just paying for the tuition of students. He said the scholarships were an investment by the Rio Grande Valley in its future.
One of the students receiving a scholarship could not be at the banquet. Elizabeth Sigala, from Weslaco, was at Texas A&M University planning her educational future. Sigala ranked 6th in high school graduation rates and has been a participant in the prestigious International Science Fair. Weslaco High School Principal Isidoro Nieto accepted the scholarship award on her behalf.
Sonia Falcon is president of VAMOS. She said in selecting the 50 students to receive the scholarships, VAMOS had chosen the “best of the best.” She said over 2,000 students had made applications. Falcon told the students that if they have enjoyed high school their next journey would be even better. “At college you will have most fun,” Falcon predicted.
VAMOS was founded in 1996. Its founders say it was started in response to “an urgent need to improve educational opportunities for Hispanics.” Its mission is to assist “commendable” Hispanic students of Hidalgo, Starr, and Cameron Counties in completing a post-secondary education. The inspiration for VAMOS, according to its vice president, Johnny Oliva, came from concerned civic leaders who realized that more needed to be done to help Valley students obtain an education and empower them to make a difference in their families and community. Since 1996, it has raised over $3.5 million to help 300 Valley students.
“We need these students to succeed, for the sake of the Valley. We are going to do everything we can to help them succeed, to get their degree and to get as far as they want and as far as they can academically and then come back to the Valley and give back. To come back and help the many who can use that help,” Oliva told the Guardian, at the conclusion of the banquet.
Oliva said the students do not have to give back necessarily through VAMOS, even though the organization would love for them to stay with it as long as they can and, possibly, eventually “become future board members, future fundraisers, who perpetuate what we are doing for generations to come.”
Oliva said VAMOS is really a one-of-a-kind in South Texas. “The uniqueness of VAMOS is that it is a renewable scholarship. In order to be as inclusive as possible our criteria is 2.75 GPA, which is very achievable for a lot of people. We know that lots of times the smartest people in school, maybe the top five percent, are given a whole bunch of scholarships. A lot of the kids with the low As, Bs and Cs really do not have much of an opportunity. So, we have tried to make it accessible to as many students as possible,” he said.
A strong component of VAMOS, Oliva said, is the mentorship aspect of the program. “If ever there is a hardship, economically or some other hardship, as they are in their college life, they know they have a mentor there that can help them through that hardship, whatever the case may be, whether it is personal or financial. We can help solve their issues. And then have a partner for them when they come back to get started in the workplace,” Oliva explained.
Asked what impact VAMOS is having and will increasingly have in the future, Oliva said: “The impact should be phenomenal. We are creating a vehicle for a lot of the careers and jobs that the Valley is currently lacking, as far as skills and training. We feel we have to develop it ourselves if we really want to tap into the potential the Valley has.”
In his remarks to the VAMOS students, Dr. King told of his upbringing in the Valley as the son of a missionary. As a child King worked in the fields with farmworkers from Mexico who were part of the Bracero program. He said there was nothing better at the long hot day in the fields than jumping into the canal to cool off. King said he got used to not having much and working hard during his formative years and this helped him appreciate the good things later in life.
King said the Valley needs new leaders and problem-solvers and he hoped the VAMOS students would in time fulfill that role. He also quoted George Bernard Shaw: “Some look at things that are, and ask why. I dream of things that never were and ask why not?” King told the students to think of challenges as opportunities. He said this is what happened to him when he became assistant principal at Hidalgo ISD.
King concluded his remarks at the banquet by quoting President Theodore Roosevelt’s Man in the Arena. He referenced it to encourage students to take chances. He said this is what he encourages his staff at PSJA to do. Quoting Roosevelt, King said: “It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.”