The University of North Texas at Dallas achieved yet another milestone Friday evening, graduating a record class of more than 500 Trailblazers as the only four-year public university in the city limits stamps it place more than ever as Dallas’ emerging urban university.
The ceremony, which featured legendary radio host and media king Tom Joyner as keynote speaker at the Inspiring Body of Christ Church, was resplendent, filled with pomp and circumstance, hugs, kisses, smiles, tears and laughter. At UNT Dallas, a graduation ceremony is never taken for granted, or ever considered a formality.
Why? Simple: Seventy-one percent of UNT Dallas’ students are first-generation college students – the first in their families to walk across the stage and clutch a hard-earned college diploma. Eighty-five percent are minority, and most come from UNT Dallas’ surrounding, mostly underserved communities, and from challenging family economic backgrounds.
The diploma signals newfound freedom, the start of a future in which socioeconomic mobility is no longer a dream, but reality; the essential tool for UNT Dallas graduates to aim for a life of prosperity for them and their families.
“This commencement is likely to be a memory you and your families will keep with you the rest of your lives,” said President Bob Mong, who has overseen surging enrollment over the last three years that has made UNT Dallas the fastest-growing state university in Texas.
As graduates walked across the stage, Joyner embraced them and handed each one a $5 bill. During his speech, he told students he wants to see how they make it grow.
Student Speaker Hector Robledo is perhaps the perfect embodiment of all that UNT Dallas stands for, and its reason for existence since welcoming its first freshman class in 2010. Robledo is a dreamer, both in the existential sense, and in his everyday life in America.
Robledo, who has lived in the United States since he was a small child, is undocumented. Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) provides protections, and under this plan, Robledo and those like him are referred to as DREAMers.
Being undocumented, however, Robledo said, made him fearful that he would not be able to attend college. Not because he would not gain acceptance, in fact, multiple universities wanted him to attend their schools. But because he was a DACA student, he was ineligible for federal financial aid, and would have to rely on scholarships to afford the high cost of earning a degree.
“I did not receive enough money to fully fund my education for any of them,” Robledo said during his speech to the large crowd assembled in the church’s vast auditorium. “I felt like I let my parents down and their sacrifice of crossing the Mexican border was not worth it because we couldn’t afford a four-year university.”
Robledo recalculated. He attended Eastfield College in the Dallas County Community College District. He earned his associate degree. An academic counselor suggested he apply for the “TheDream.US scholarship,” which would pay for all of his college expenses.
“Weeks passed by and I was still working at Domino’s Pizza and I get an email through my phone: ‘Congratulations, you have been selected as a recipient for the Dream.US scholarship,’” Robledo said. “I stopped topping pizzas during my shift and ran outside the parking lot and began to jump like a lunatic.”
Robledo went on to UNT Dallas, where his ambition and determination are known by just about everybody on campus. His involvement and leadership on campus and in the southern Dallas community, such as restarting the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) chapter at UNT Dallas, led him recently to be named a Newman Civic Fellow, a prestigious national award.
Robledo, however, won’t be leaving UNT Dallas so soon. He will start graduate school in the fall, studying Public Leadership with a concentration on Nonprofit Organization.
“You may be saying, ‘so what?’” Robledo said in his speech. “Well here it is: Do not get discouraged if you did not receive an opportunity that you wished for … Use your flaws to your advantage and acknowledge that you are human, regardless what race, ethnicity or nationality you are. We all belong here in this country and will continue to stay!
“At the end of the dark tunnel comes a light waiting for you to reach it,” said Robledo as he concluded his speech, “New challenges lie ahead for all of us and we are all ready to blaze our trail! I am undocumented, unafraid and unstoppable!”