MCALLEN, RGV – Texas A&M University celebrated the first anniversary of its Higher Education Center in McAllen last week with an event titled Founders Day.

In his remarks, Texas A&M Chancellor John Sharp explained the rationale for A&M’s investment in South Texas.

“Many of realized a long time ago that South Texas and particularly the Rio Grande Valley is really what the future of Texas is about. The reason it is is every business that moves into Texas right now doesn’t ask, how much can we get out of the county, how much can we get out of the state. They still try to do it but what they really base their decision on is how many 18-25 year olds live in that county and what is the education level of those kids,” Sharp explained.

“South Texas, everything from San Antonio south, answers that first question better than almost any place in the nation. The second question, that is the important one. What is the education level of those young men and women.”

Sharp said this second question hit home when his good friend, state Sen. Juan Hinojosa asked if he would meet a student who was about to graduate from Texas A&M, and her mother.

He said the story about the student and her mother “was the real genesis” for the Higher Education Center in McAllen.

“We met, and the mother, who spoke very little English, was crying the second she walked in and she was crying the second she left. I asked the student, what’s the matter with your mother and she said, she is a little bit overwhelmed. Why is that? I told her I wanted to go to A&M, and she asked where is it, and when I showed her and she saw it was at the other end of the world, she said that is not going to happen. You go to Kingsville,” Sharp recalled.

“So, for four years, believe it or not, that young lady convinced her mother that she was graduating from Texas A&M Kingsville. She even took her to parents day and homecoming. She said, mom was always saying, how come you do not know anybody. Well, I study a lot. Only on the day of graduation, when she drove her mother to graduation and drove past the exit for Kingsville, did the mother realize what this was.

“She started explaining to her what had happened. She said her mother started crying then and did not stop until she got back home and she was so happy about that.”

Sharp said he wondered if this was the only incident like this, or whether there were more students in South Texas who warranted a place at Texas A&M in College Station but could not go for family or financial reasons.

“We talked about that and it spurred us to doing surveys. How many kids should be at the flagships? The numbers were overwhelming to us. That is what this place is about,” Sharp said, referring to the Higher Education Center in McAllen.

Sharp pointed out that the McAllen center is not a regional university.

“This is not Texas A&M Kingsville, or Texas A&M San Antonio, or Texas A&M Corpus. This is Texas A&M that happens to be in the Rio Grande Valley. These kids get the same ring I get, they get the same degree. It will say Texas A&M on it. They are taking as rigorous a course as anybody else in College Station is taking. They can go to a football game any time they want. They have all the privileges of everybody in College Station. They are a bunch of kids in the Rio Grande Valley who for whatever reason, need to stay close to home, maybe cannot afford to rent a dorm on campus and go through all those expenses. They can get a degree right here and that is the birth of this.”

Sharp said there is no bigger supporter of Texas A&M being in South Texas than state Sen. Juan ‘Chuy’ Hinojosa. “For the talk we are doing about nursing, the talk we are doing about so many other things… Chuy Hinojosa… is the godfather of my ambitions for the Rio Grande Valley. Chuy, thank you for what you have done.”

Sharp said he was in only his third day as chancellor when Sen. Hinojosa persuaded him to visit the Valley.

“Any time we needed anything, because of his position as vice chairman of Senate Finance, which means the money, he (Sen. Hinojosa) made it happen. The TRB (tuition revenue bonds) to build the second building was in this bill before the lieutenant governor killed it. There are so many things he has done for us, the Texas A&M System, and in particular this neck of the woods, for all of our projects.”

After receiving a special ‘Founder’ award from Sharp, Sen. Hinojosa said: “Chancellor, thank you for your leadership and your commitment to the Rio Grande Valley. I just want you to know, Chancellor, this is just the beginning. The City of McAllen donated over 100 acres. The UT campus in Austin is only 40 acres. So, we expect Texas A&M to build those 100 acres and provide us a good school.”

Hinojosa added: “It is all teamwork.”

Sharp then gave a shoutout to the McAllen center’s advisory board members. Among those he thanked were businessmen Alonzo Cantu and Mike Hernandez. Both received ‘Founder’ awards.

In his remarks, Cantu said he first met Sharp in the early 1990s. He said the chancellor was “very instrumental in getting us the medical school.” The medical school is operated by the UT-Rio Grande Valley.

Hernandez, another past A&M advisory committee chairman, is now a Texas A&M System regent.

“Almost not a day goes by that Mike doesn’t call and at least ask, what are you doing for the Rio Grande Valley. Mike, thank you for doing all that you do,” Sharp said.

Sharp predicted the Higher Education Center at McAllen will be full by next year.

“The second and third buildings are already in the hands of the architects, drawing them up. This has far exceeded any expectations that we had about where it is going to be. I would love to be alive 20 years from now just to see how huge this particular part of Texas A&M University is.”

Chad Wootton, director of governmental affairs at Texas A&M, emceed the event. He started by running through some of the pertinent numbers.

“It was a year ago this week that we dedicated the center. We are on our third cohort of students. There have been over 250 admitted since 2017. We are still about 75 ahead of where we told the (Texas Higher Education) Coordinating Board we would be at this time,” Wootton said.

“We have hired over 20 faculty and staff, half of which are new to your community. They have moved in, they are setting up a home, they are setting up a family, they are buying their groceries, they are eating at Peppers, they are contributing to your local economic engine.”

Wootton said the construction of the McAllen center cost about $56 million, with $16.5 million coming from the City of McAllen and Hidalgo County in infrastructure investment.

“In addition to that construction we have also committed an additional $5.5 million in one time expenses in setting up the center, in laboratory equipment, computers, and today are running an annual operating budget of faculty, staff and operations of just under $3 million,” Wootton said.

Wootton said that while dollars and cents are not the only way to count the value of the McAllen center he did want to point out to the college’s economic development friends in the room that the project has been a good investment for everyone involved.

“The building has also been acknowledged for its design and construction. Dr. Nelson has a lot to do with that but so do the people that operate it everyday. Just last week we learned that Engineering News has selected this project as their best project award in higher education for Texas and Louisiana. It is a beautiful new building for the community.”

Interviewed after the celebrations had ended, Sharp told the Rio Grande Guardian that Sen. Hinojosa kept telling him there needs to be a bigger A&M presence in the Valley.

“That story (about the student who graduated Texas A&M in College Station while her mother thought she was going to Texas A&M-Kingsville) sort of brought it all home. That started us thinking, how many more are like this, that for financial reasons, cannot travel, halfway across the state, rent a dorm room and have those expenses. What we found out there was a bunch of them,” Sharp said.

Sharp produced a famous report on the state of the Texas-Mexico border back when he was Texas Comptroller. Asked how much that report had influenced his passion for investing in South Texas, Sharp, a native of Victoria, Texas, said:

“The crux of that report has been what I have said in speeches ever since then, for 20 years. Business will go where the workers are and that educated workers have an advantage over everybody else. That is why we are doing all of this. Those first graders you have in your first grade class, they are the new spindle tops of Texas’ future. In the future, education and workforce is going to be bigger than oil and gas, bigger than cattle, bigger than cotton, bigger than all those empires that built Texas ever where. And the epicenter of that is south of San Antonio.”

Editor’s Note: The above news story is the third in a three-part series about Founder Day at Texas A&M University Higher Education Center in McAllen. Click here to read Part One, and here to read Part Two.

Editor’s Note: The above podcast provides the raw audio from Founders Day. Among the VIPs to speak at the event were Chancellor Sharp, state Sen. Juan Hinojosa, former Congressman Rubén Hinojosa, and businessman Alonzo Cantu. And Chad Wootton, associate vice president for external affairs at Texas A&M University, explained some of the new projects underway that will be of particular interest to South Texas.