BROWNSVILLE, RGV – There was great excitement among colonia group leaders at a meeting in Weslaco last November that their ideas were being listened to by the master planners developing the new university for the Rio Grande Valley.

It seemed as though UT really wanted the input of community leaders on ways in which the new university could fully integrate itself in the Valley’s colonias. Ideas were proposed to have university centers in the largest colonias and for the university to help provide broadband Internet services so colonia residents would not be left on the wrong side of the digital divide.

Judging by the reports issued by the joint UTPA-UTB working groups that were charged with helping develop UTRGV, the optimism on display at the Knapp Conference Center was misplaced. Of the 16 academic working groups, only one has proposed anything specific for the Valley’s colonias. The Nursing Academic Working Group has proposed that UTRGV community clinics be established in the colonias.

The failure of other academic working groups to come up with anything concrete for the colonias is disappointing to some people involved in the development of UTRGV.

“If this university is going to be truly transformational, which is the main goal, this university is going to have to be fully engaged and involved, with a presence in the colonias. That is my opinion, because, unless you help transform the colonias, you are not going to transform the Valley,” said Dr. Julio León, a special advisor to UT System Chancellor Francisco Cigarroa.

“Colonias are such a sizable part of the Rio Grande Valley. There are so many things that can be happening there. Given the environment it is going to operate in, the new university has to be fully connected with the colonias.”

According to the Texas Attorney General’s Office, there are over 1,000 colonias in Hidalgo County alone. Hidalgo County Judge Ramon Garcia believes these colonias are home to more than 300,000 people. With UTRGV also developing a four-year medical school, the opportunity to make a real splash in the Valley’s colonias, León said.

“There are all sorts of opportunities to be involved with colonias thanks to the establishments of the medical school. One would look at nursing, teacher education, and physicians’ assistance programs. There are so many aspects to it. The students could be actively engaged and involved in helping people who live in a colonia. If you can do that then this university will really be doing something special,” León said.

Asked if he was disappointed that only the Nursing Academic Working Group proposed anything specific for the colonias, Leon said: “The nursing group proposed clinics for the colonias. Nobody else had anything specific. Everyone else said, ‘we need to be more engaged.’ It was all generalities, nothing as specific as the nursing proposal. That stood out for me. But, we did not have full participation of the faculty. Obviously the guiding principles encourage involvement in the colonias. To a certain extent it is understandable because academics have a tendency to look only through their discipline or their silo, wherever that might be. Sometimes it is difficult to really project out.”

León said all is not lost, however. He said the new president of UTGV, Dr. Guy Bailey, will have a big say on how the university is developed, no matter what the working group documents say.

“If the new president says the colonias are important then faculty will begin to look at that and come together as a group and say, what can we do to get ourselves and our students involved in this problem. All of these things are going to take shape as we move forward. It is obviously a new day and a very exciting day,” León said.

León added that UTRGV is an experiment, an opportunity and a challenge. “And because nothing like this is happening in the country, everybody in the country is keeping an eye on what we do. We can choose to continue to do what we have always done. But, now that we have the resources and the marching orders to do something different, everyone wants to know what we are going to do. That’s why this is the best place to be today in higher education.”

UT-Brownsville Associate Professor Eloísa Támez is proposing UTRGV community clinics in the Rio Grande Valley's colonias.
UT-Brownsville Associate Professor Eloísa Támez is proposing UTRGV community clinics in the Rio Grande Valley’s colonias.

Dr. Eloísa Támez helped develop the Nursing Academic Working Group position paper. Támez said she got the idea of community clinics run by UT nurses from her time working for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.

“From the time I was at UT-Pan American, I went into academia from service. I was with the VA for 27 years. My first two research projects that I had there were in the colonias in Las Milpas, with the children, with the parents. I was out there shoe-leathering with the parents and seeing the situation that they were in. They are vulnerable populations,” Támez said.

“The second study I did, I actually extended it to three other colonias along Military Highway. I have first-hand experience as to the lack of health care along Military Highway. There are thousands of other colonias, as you know. Hidalgo County has the most, Cameron County not so many. Some of them have done well in organizing themselves, such as Cameron Park here in Brownsville.”

Támez said one of the characteristics common in the disparate, 1,000-plus colonias is a lack of access to healthcare.

“I know the populations in the colonias are the vulnerable populations. I know many of the populations there do not have access to healthcare. I have worked in some of the free clinics, both in Harlingen and in McAllen. I volunteered. I know about the lack of access to healthcare,” Támez said. “My belief is that if we get together, the various healthcare professions, and we set up community-based clinics in the colonias, we can provide that care.”

Támez said her experience in setting up outreach clinics for the VA will also come in useful as UTRGV community clinics are developed in the colonias.

“Before I retired from the VA I started to develop community based outpatient clinics. I was involved quite a bit in setting those up. So, I know what they can do. I do not know what Dr. Fernández has in mind for the medical school, but to me I see it being disbursed into the community,” Támez said.

Támez was referring to Dr. Francisco Fernández, the inaugural dean of the UTRGV Medical School.

“Maybe, there will be one headquarters for the medical school somewhere but the actual care, the actual implementation of care, the work of the providers of that care, that can happen as a result of the academic preparation of the medical students, our nurses, going out there in the community. That is the way I see it,” Támez said.

Támez pointed out that even with the Affordable Care Act many colonia residents cannot afford health insurance. Some are ineligible because they are not U.S. citizens. “For many, Obamacare is too expensive. Therefore we can provide that service through these clinics. At the same time we are getting educated, our student nurses can be there, our pharmacy students, our medical students. It will be a full medical team, with all the medical professions. I thought what better way to do it. We can be that. The medical school, I am sure, is going to get the resources to get out there in the community and build those clinics. I am very excited about this.”