Tallant: Texas A&M-Kingsville’s engineering program offers choices to RGV students

When Texas A&M University-Kingsville first began discussing the idea of expanding our engineering programs in the Rio Grande Valley, we knew it could draw some resistance. We also knew it was the right thing to do.

We held an announcement of our plans at our Citrus Center in Weslaco on Friday, October 31 to a standing-room-only crowd.

Citizens of the Rio Grande Valley have been historically underserved in terms of higher education choices. The population continues to grow, and it is everyone’s responsibility to ensure that educational opportunities grow with it. Some may argue that other institutions — and engineering programs — exist in the Rio Grande Valley, and that’s true. It’s also true that the region continues to lag behind in terms of citizens with college degrees, particularly with respect to degrees in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. In fact, these are not just Rio Grande Valley trends; these are national trends. Isn’t it time we did something about it?

As Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp said in his remarks at Friday’s event, this is not about the interests of any particular institution: it is about meeting the needs of students in the Rio Grande Valley and offering them a first-class engineering education. That is what this initiative will do.

Texas A&M-Kingsville has several engineering programs not currently available in the Rio Grande Valley. We have well established partnerships with South Texas College and Texas State Technical College, and this initiative furthers those relationships for the benefit of the region’s students. Our expertise goes beyond teaching and into important research that impacts the lives of Rio Grande Valley citizens.

Our researchers at the Citrus Center in Weslaco have been solving citrus industry problems and working with industry leaders since 1948. In addition, our engineering researchers have developed strong relationships with nearly every municipality in the Rio Grande Valley. Together, they are addressing water issues and other environmental problems faced by local communities.

So, when we looked at this situation and examined the political issues it might create, we still came to the same conclusion: it is time to do what is right for the Rio Grande Valley.

We believe we can do it better than anyone else, and we can do it now. Our programs are well respected and nationally accredited. By working with our community college partners, we can offer some courses in January and quickly expand in Fall 2015 without compromising the quality of our programs.

The Texas Workforce Commission estimates the need for qualified engineers will increase nearly 20 percent in the next 12 years accounting for more than 43,000 jobs. Hispanics – particularly females – lag behind in enrollment in engineering programs. We are making strides in the area in Kingsville; about 63 percent of undergraduate engineering students are Hispanic, and approximately 12 percent of those are Latinas. We can continue to improve these statistics in the Rio Grande Valley as well as Kingsville.

We have already received feedback from students who want to take classes. We started getting inquiries as soon as the announcement was made. We also received enthusiastic support from area legislators; the community of Weslaco, including the Economic Development Corporation of Weslaco and city leaders; business and industry leaders; and our community college partners. Rio Grande Valley citizens have been waiting for this type of initiative. We owe it to them to move forward.

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