October 12, 2020

Kassie Juarez '21 is pursuing her undergraduate degree at Texas A&M University’s Higher Education Center at McAllen. She hopes to have a career building sustainable homes for individuals who live in Texas Colonias and other low socioeconomic areas.

As a high school sophomore, Kassie Juarez ’21 participated in a summer enrichment program where she discovered a Columbian entrepreneur who uses recycled plastic to create building blocks similar to Legos. These pieces are then used to create sturdy, efficient and affordable residences for low-income and homeless individuals.

Inspired, Juarez wants to pursue a career creating these types of sustainably built homes for individuals who live in Texas Colonias and other low socioeconomic areas. “Not many people are thinking about recycling and the future in this way,” said the Mission, Texas, resident. “Many people are suffering in our world; I would love to help them and leave an imprint on the world so it is a better place for future generations.”

Today, Juarez is paving a path to her future by earning a multidisciplinary engineering degree at Texas A&M University’s Higher Education Center (HEC) at McAllen. She is part of the first cohort of Aggies who will graduate from the center, which opened in 2017 to serve the rapidly expanding Rio Grande Valley region.

To ensure that these students receive a quality education, longtime community leaders Marty ’88 and Rubén Hinojosa established the first endowment for the HEC. Their $250,000 gift, funded through the sale of real estate, creates the Martha L. ’88 and Rubén E. Hinojosa Endowed Professorship through the Texas A&M Foundation, which will support a professor in science, technology, engineering, math, medicine or energy (STEM&ME) who is pursuing cutting-edge teaching, research, service and professional development activities.

This gift underscores the couple’s continued support for the region’s educational systems. “Congressman Hinojosa has long been a champion of education and the Rio Grande Valley, so it is only fitting that their generous gift creates the first endowed professorship for the McAllen Higher Education Center,” said Texas A&M University System Chancellor John Sharp ’72. “The McAllen Center has been a huge success and will be a vital component of Texas A&M University forever.”

The impact of the Hinojosas’ gift doubled, thanks to a $250,000 matching gift from Texas A&M University. “Texas A&M has a large, vibrant and strong network of Aggies in the Rio Grande Valley,” Provost Carol Fierke said. “The establishment and continual expansion of the McAllen Center illustrates the university’s commitment to serving this thriving part of Texas by increasing opportunities for more area students to become Aggies and receive a world-class education.”

Marty '88 and Rubén Hinojosa established the first endowment in perpetuity for the Texas A&M Higher Education Center at McAllen. 

Expanding the Aggie Network in South Texas

The Hinojosas, both of whom have been tireless advocates for increased opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, made this gift because they are committed to elevating the HEC. The McAllen couple is convinced the HEC will play a vital part in the region’s efforts to educate its rapidly growing population and to expand and diversify its economic base. “It’s a dream come true to have two outstanding flagships—Texas A&M and The University of Texas—create campuses in our area,” former Congressman Hinojosa said. “These institutions are providing a highly recognized education that is readily accessible to the region’s students.”

The HEC’s first cohort initially met in classrooms at South Texas Community College in 2017 before moving operations to its 100-acre campus in 2018. Classes now meet in a new 65,000-square-foot building, which houses nine classrooms, nine labs and an auditorium.

Currently enrolling 240 students, the HEC offers four undergraduate degrees—interdisciplinary engineering, multidisciplinary engineering technology, biomedical sciences and public health—as well as a Master of Public Health degree. University officials plan to expand the number of majors offered to 11 by fall 2021 and foresee that the center’s enrollment will quickly climb.

This rapid growth is important in serving the burgeoning educational needs of the Rio Grande Valley. “The four counties that make up the Rio Grande Valley comprise almost 2 million people,” said Dr. Adolfo Santos, assistant provost of the HEC. “These four counties also produce approximately 26,000 high school graduates annually, which is more than the number of graduates in one-third of U.S. states. We are working to create educational opportunities for this huge young population. We’re giving students a chance to be Texas A&M Aggies in a much smaller environment with smaller class sizes and a lower student-faculty ratio.”

Students appreciate the opportunity to remain near home while earning their Aggie ring. “Having Texas A&M’s Higher Education Center at McAllen so close to home gives me the best of both worlds by allowing me to pursue my Aggie diploma while living with my parents,” said Roberto Lopez ’21, a biomedical sciences major from Edinburg, Texas. “This center has that family environment and friendship that I sought. It helps students create bonds that will help us in our careers while also allowing us to elevate each other in pursuing our goals.”

Roberto Lopez '21 from Edinburg, Texas, appreciates the opportunity to remain near home while earning his Aggie ring and diploma. He credits the HEC's family environment with helping students succeed.

Continuing Two Far-Reaching Legacies

The Martha L. ’88 and Rubén E. Hinojosa Endowed Professorship is the latest addition to Congressman Hinojosa’s long legacy of supporting and expanding educational opportunities at the local, regional, state and national levels. During his 20-year tenure serving in Washington, D.C., in the U.S. House of Representatives, the native of Mercedes, Texas, devoted much of his time to increasing access and affordability for higher education students, especially Latinos. Prior to that, he was elected to the Mercedes ISD school board, the South Texas Community College board (including serving as founding chairman), and the Texas State Board of Education for 10 years. The congressman has also played an active role in the creation of South Texas ISD, a magnet high school system, and The University of Texas-Rio Grande Valley.

The endowed professorship in perpetuity also extends the legacy of Marty and her family. Her father, Romeo Lopez ’60, was honored during Texas A&M’s 2018 Muster Ceremony for his work as a noted chemist, high school teacher, school administrator and banker, as well as for his community advocacy in Starr County. Marty has followed in her father’s footsteps by becoming a highly respected and successful lead architect for Doctors Hospital at Renaissance in Edinburg. She also serves as president of FiRM Consultants. She is active in the Rio Grande Valley community, including serving on the Driscoll Children’s Hospital Board and the Driscoll Foundation Board for 16 years.

The Hinojosas’ leadership and commitment to higher education and community is setting an example for students like Juarez and Lopez, and the couple wants to continue creating more educational opportunities that every Valley resident can tap. “Our community has demonstrated again and again that given equitable educational resources, we can transform the region,” Marty said. “Our families will welcome the access to a Texas A&M education."

To learn how you can support Texas A&M’s Higher Education Center at McAllen and create more opportunities for students in the Rio Grande Valley, contact Patrick Williams ’92, assistant vice president for development, at (979) 458-0267 or by filling out the form below.