EDINBURG, RGV – Dr. Cornelio Gonzalez, executive director of Region One Education Service Center, says he is extremely proud that Dr. Tina Atkins has won a top honor from UT-Rio Grande Valley and HESTEC.

Atkins, a longtime educator, recently retired as administrator for the Center for Excellence in College, Career and Life Readiness at Region One.

“Region One ESC could not be prouder of the tremendous accomplishments of Dr. Tina Atkins; we certainly are not surprised that UTRGV and HESTEC selected Dr. Atkins to receive the Champions in Engineering and Science Advancement” (CIENCIA) Award for her outstanding work,” Gonzalez said.

“For so many years through her dedication and passion, Dr. Atkins worked tirelessly so that all students of Region One not only had the opportunity to attend a post-secondary institution, but additionally were given access to a multitude of resources that made their attendance at a post-secondary institution possible. The impact of her work will continue for years to come.”

Atkins was honored with the Rubén Hinojosa “Champions in Engineering and Science Advancement” (CIENCIA) Award at the Legislators Reception and Awards Dinner in Edinburg last Sunday, an event that kicked off the 2017 Hispanic Engineering, Science and Technology (HESTEC) Week at UTRGV.

Former Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, the founder of HESTEC, and his successor, Congressman Vicente Gonzalez, presented the CIENCIA award to Atkins. Hinojosa was the recipient of the first CIENCA award, bestowed in 2016.

HESTEC Week brings thousands of middle and high school students, educators and parents to UTRGV campuses and classrooms to take part in presentations by world-renowned speakers, interactive educational exhibits, dynamic robotics competitions and more.

The weeklong conference is designed to spur interest in the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields for middle and high school students, and has had a total impact on more than one million people.

2016 was a special anniversary for the HESTEC program, and to mark that milestone, a scholarship program was created to help Rio Grande Valley high school seniors entering UTRGV and pursuing a degree in a STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) related field. Atkins was a big champion of students going into STEM-related fields in her role spearheading the Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP) program at Region One. GEAR UP is designed to increase the number of low-income students who are well-prepared for postsecondary education.

Eight students who were recent graduates of the GEAR UP program and who have committed to a STEM field of study at UTRGV have been awarded scholarships. The scholarship recipients are Katelyn Aguilar of Edinburg, Joel Flores of Roma, Sonia Garza of Brownsville, Cecilia Gonzalez of Rio Grande City, Arianna Guerra of Rio Grande City, Ashley Olivarez of Pharr, Mario Saenz of Roma, and Yazmin Salinas of Hidalgo.

Another big development at this year’s HESTEC saw the U.S. Department of Education awarding UTRGV $21.2 million to operate the GEAR UP program. The funds will be made available to UTRGV over a seven-year period.

As part of the grant, UTRGV, Valley school districts and community partners will match the U.S. Department of Education’s funding, thus providing more than $42 million to benefit Valley students.

UTRGV President Guy Bailey said the grant was the second-largest amount awarded to a UT System school. UT Austin received the largest grant within the UT System.

“This is the icing on the cake for the university as it celebrates its success in exposing more students to higher education and careers related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics,” Bailey said. He said the grant would not have been possible without the support of the Valley’s three members of Congress, U.S. Reps. Henry Cuellar, Filemón Vela, and Gonzalez.

Bailey said for this grant, called College in ACTion, UTRGV is forming a partnership with the Brownsville Independent School District, La Joya Independent School District and Edinburg Consolidated Independent School District to provide support services to about 3,900 seventh-grade students and their teachers.

Support services for students include tutoring, mentoring, offering dual enrollment classes and college tours. Services for teachers include professional development opportunities and other resources. Bailey said the grant will follow these students through their first year of college.

Dr. Sylvia Leal, associate vice president for Student Educational Outreach at UTRGV and the grant’s principal investigator, said the selected schools include some of the most at-risk, high-need students in the Valley. She said parents and students understand the benefits of college, but they and the schools that serve them sometimes lack the resources to help students achieve that goal.

“We believe that the GEAR UP College in ACTion grant will provide a comprehensive, systemic approach to assist these 3,900 students to prepare, enter and succeed in postsecondary education,” Leal said.

HESTEC 2017, with events in Edinburg, Brownsville and Harlingen, ends Saturday with Community Day.

Editor’s Note: The main image accompanying the above story shows Congressman Vicente Gonzalez and former Congressman Rubén Hinojosa presenting Dr. Tina Atkins with the Rubén Hinojosa “Champions in Engineering and Science Advancement” (CIENCIA) Award at UTRGV’s HESTEC 2017.