HARLINGEN, RGV – UT-Rio Grande Valley is going to play a big role in improving life in the Valley’s colonias and may install high speed Internet into colonia homes in order to address the region’s big digital divide.

This is the view of UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia.

“You tell a kid in my home or your home that the Internet is down and you would think the world has ended. Imagine life in a colonia, where they have never had access to the Internet,’ Garcia told the Guardian.

UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia spoke at a Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast event on Tuesday, Jan. 28.
UT-Brownsville President Juliet Garcia spoke at a Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast event on Tuesday, Jan. 28.

Garcia spoke about the “transformational role” UT-RGV will have in an absorbing speech at a Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce breakfast event on Tuesday. During the question and answer segment, Garcia was asked by a reporter about the likely interaction between UT-RGV and the 300,000-plus colonia residents in the Valley. She referenced a one-day conference the UT System held with colonia community groups in Weslaco last November.

“It was a wonderful meeting and it created a tremendous amount of synergy between leaders in the colonias and leaders of the university,” Garcia said of the conference, which was held Nov. 8 at the KMC Conference Center. A master planning team hired by the UT System was present to record the ideas of colonia leaders and residents.

In her speech in Harlingen, Garcia pointed out that students at UTB and UT-Pan American already come from the region’s colonias. “But, are there are other things we can do?” Garcia asked. “Certainly, that meeting helped service that. So, one of the things being talked about is Colonias-To-College. They (the new university planning team) are just beginning to think about what that means. It could mean some off-site access to the Internet and WiFi, and the kinds of things that many of the folks in the colonias don’t have, to off-site classes. I cannot tell you what is going to happen but is it going to be a very important tentacle in the structure of the university? Absolutely. That meeting helped to service that.”

Garcia went on to say that UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa is determined to have UT-RGV in the vanguard for transforming the Valley, which has some of the poorest neighborhoods in the United States and high levels of poverty.

“If all we did was reorganize the deckchairs that is not what the Chancellor wants to do. We are talking about transforming the Valley, which means the people, which means our ability to earn a good salaries; our ability to have a generation that automatically plays chess; that automatically aspires to go to college and does. So, transforming the Valley, it has to be with the colonias or we do not have transformation. This is not reorganization. It is transformation,” Garcia said.

The RGV Equal Voice Network is an umbrella group that comprises non-profits that work in colonias in the Valley. Equal Voice leaders have started discussions on how to bring high speed Internet into the colonias. “High speed broadband connections in our colonias would be truly transformational,” said Martha Sanchez, community organizer for La Unión del Pueblo Entero, one of the group’s in the Equal Voice family.

At a UT System-sponsored dinner at the Villa de Cortez in Weslaco last November, Dr. Julio León, special advisor for Project South Texas, said providing high speed Internet into the Valley’s colonias was an infrastructure issue and could therefore be funded through the Permanent University Fund.

“I think that the UT System, with the new university, is going to be involved in some way, probably a significant way, in the development, in all aspects, social, educational, of the colonias,” León told the Guardian.

“If you do not help colonia residents move up the educational ladder then you are not transforming the Valley. They are such a large percentage of the Valley’s population. And, the most important part of this project is to truly transform the Valley,” León said.

The monthly breakfast event hosted by Harlingen Area Chamber of Commerce is called Buenos Dias. Chamber President Pam Priour told the Guardian that she intends to make UT-RGV the focus of each monthly breakfast meeting throughout 2014. In February, the guest speaker is slated to be state Rep. Eddie Lucio, III.

At Wednesday’s event, Priour said she came up with the idea of focusing on UT-RGV after hearing erroneous comments at a polling location about Harlingen losing out to McAllen over the location of the new medical school, which will be part of UT-RGV.

“We need to stop beating up on each other, the different communities, and let’s start talking about the facts and how this new university and medical school are going to benefit all of us. It is going to be a game changer for all of us. We should be excited about this,” Priour told the Guardian.

“I do not know if the general public really understands the significance of this. That is what we want to impart, that this is a very big deal. I truly believe that no one community will benefit more than another.”

Priour said one idea she wants to explore is having a Buenos Dias event at the Regional Academic Health Center, with a tour of the facility included.