THE BLOG

#UTADNA Grad Student of the Year

04/29/2015 02:41 pm ET | Updated Jun 28, 2015

As the University of Texas at Arlington's "Outstanding Graduate Student of the Year" award winner for 2014-2015, I would like to honor the campus and community (the community I was born in) that changed my life these past 4 years, and conclude with a message to my fellow Mavericks. I have kept this relatively short given that iPhones, cat videos, and social media have reduced Millennials' attention span down to whether we purchased a grande or a venti this morning (I personally prefer a cold, no whip, quad, vanilla macchiato, but I'm getting off topic).

In Honor of UT-Arlington
Millennials will be the most diverse generation in history and many of my fellow graduates will agree that being the 5th most diverse school in the country is one of the greatest treasures of UT-Arlington. We've enjoyed a campus community full of religious pluralism, cultural diversity, intersectionality, and every shade on the political spectrum. As our country grows more diverse and our world becomes increasingly interconnected, an education embedded in multicultural interactions and relationships will become invaluable. I'm sure our MBAs and Business undergrads can attest to that as 95% of the world's consumers live outside our borders. The global middle class will double to about 5 billion people in the next 20 years. UTA's China Immersion Executive MBA program is a testament to the university's investment in transborder partnerships and developing the cross-cultural competencies that will be required of tomorrow's leaders. The enrichment that students of all majors experience as a result of UTA's inclusive excellence will be a profitable career asset for all students who embrace the Maverick Spirit. Thanks to UTA, it's in your DNA.

Millennials will confront climate change more aggressively and creatively than any other generation. America already leads the world in wind power and we're producing more solar power than ever before. The Strategic Plan of UT-Arlington's President, Dr. Vistasp Karbhari, embodies UTA's commitment to confronting this challenge as well. In less than 10 years, UT-Arlington will reach nationwide prominence as a national research institution; in part, by adding new doctoral programs in sustainability, globalism and development economics. UTA is developing more sustainable urban communities, an initiative that will preserve clean water, clean air, and a leave behind a smaller carbon footprint for a growing Dallas-Fort Worth community. Thanks to UTA, tackling climate change is in our DNA.

Millennials in higher education have been at the forefront of interdisciplinary research. Collaborations across disciplines rest at the core of our Maverick Spirit. It was the path I took to becoming a Political Psychologist, as there was no path there when I started in 2011, but hopefully I left a trail for the next Jarryd Willis. In addition, many of us have devoted our time to co-curricular activities, whether it's the work our UTA Volunteers do, those doing climate initiatives in our community, volunteering at shelters, bringing awareness to human trafficking, the amazing volunteers I joined to help Central American refugees in summer 2014, or my work with undocumented Americans. Interdisciplinary research and co-curricular activities help develop the whole person, and you'll graduate feeling more self-actualized than you ever could from classroom instruction alone. Innovation is the unavoidable outcome of successful interdisciplinary and co-curricular endeavors - so don't be afraid to be innovative. Don't be afraid to be creative - the worst that could happen is that someone doesn't Like it on Facebook.

To the Trail Blazers
If you're the first in your family to attend college, nothing anyone else says should matter except for your teachers, advisors, and mentors. Your degree will increase your capacity to write your own future and change the fortunes of your family. The pride felt by your parents will only be matched by the potential borne from your stewardship for your children to climb even higher on the socio-economic ladder. Your success encapsulates the beauty of the American Dream.

If you're a DREAMer, know that you're part of a Hispanic Serving Institution that embraces the promise of our 600+ undocumented students. I created DREAM Factory in 2014 to serve as a resource and a symbol of our investment in your education, because we know that the success of our DREAMers is interwoven in Texas' success, and America's success. In fact, nothing could be more economically irresponsible for Texas' future than to erect barriers to your education, like making you pay out-of-state or international tuition.

Honestly, I feel that my greatest failure was failing to implement an institutional training program so that faculty, staff, and students could be trained to serve as allies for undocumented students. Diversity on campus is beautiful, but as my fellow social psychologists can attest, mere contact isn't enough to provide the sense of an inclusive campus climate to everyone. Avoiding plural monoculturalism (particularly in regards to our DREAMers) means that universities should develop programs that promote a dialogue of understanding with underrepresented groups (that's part of what the "DREAMers Go Places Too" event was about). We already have such a program in the LGBT Safe Zone Training, and I hope future Mavericks (and student leaders across this great country) implement similar training programs for DREAMers. It will ensure that every student feels safe, valued, respected, and confident that administrators are just as invested in their retention and graduation as anyone else. I'm proud to say that one of the most brilliant students I've ever taught, a 19 year old DREAMer, will be receiving his Bachelor's degree the day I receive my PhD.

If you're a woman in STEM, if you're coding, if you're helping your peers understand Python and SQL, don't stop until you're in the Fortune 500 suites and executive board rooms. Don't stop until there are more women running corporate board rooms than men named John. Don't stop until that glass ceiling is shattered beyond recognition. According to the United Nations, there are 200 million fewer women online than men, and No Ceilings reports that there are 300 million fewer women with cell phone access than men. It is imperative that these broadband-and-gender disparities are closed, not widened. As more women are involved in tech, coding, and contributing to the increasing interoperability of our virtual global community, the global middle class I mentioned earlier will continue to thrive. One of the smartest students I've taught told me of her plan to go to medical school. In 10 years I may hear her name as one of the leaders behind advances in genomic sequencing, allowing healthcare practitioners all over the world to provide better care. Another woman I met while at the ACES conference hopes to bring digital broadband access to education to child shelters in Mexico. Given her visionary spirit and leadership (plus natural charisma), I imagine she will provide massive online educational content to many more impoverished and refugee youth in the years to come. Thanks to UTA, digital citizenship is in their DNA.

To My Fellow Mavericks
To continuing students, know that in 10 years (or 10 months) you'll regret the chances you didn't take more than the critics you failed to appease. It's far better to be bullied for overachievement than to be greeted with endearment because you stayed in your place. Trust me - I've been there. I've been you. In fact, the latent message of my 2014 TEDx talk is that the scars you gather along the way will ultimately pale in comparison to the stars you're going to reach. So lean in, as Sheryl Sandberg would say - lean in, know your value, and make your educational experience at UTA just as rewarding outside the classroom and (for grad students) outside your department as it is inside. Be creative, take responsible chances, and understand that profoundly valuable content can be discerned even from your failures. College is your garden patch, and you have 4 (or 6, or 10) years to plant and nurture the seeds that will allow your future to blossom.

To graduates, I'm sure many of you are uncertain about what the future holds. You're standing in your garden patch and have no idea what kind of flowers you grew (a Botany degree would help right now) or what kind of job you could get with it. It's perfectly fine if you move back home for a minute until you get on your feet (plus rent is free, your dog misses you, you don't have to fight for a parking spot, and someone keeps making free food for you). It's perfectly fine if you want to focus on building your career and put familial things aside for a year or five (or ten). That applies to both men and women - there's no reason that our female graduates should feel disproportionate pressure to have kids and settle down right after graduation. You have just as much right to excel in your career as any man. At the same time, if you want to have kids and a family then definitely do so. That's personally what I plan to do. I plan to get established in these initial years of my career and prepare to handle my responsibilities as a father and enjoy a long, happy life with my future wife. Starting a family is a key value for me, and when families are strong, America is strong.

I will leave you with this, my fellow graduates. Whenever you feel you're drifting, lost, or that your life isn't leaving a ripple in the universe, don't lose faith. Don't lose hope. Reflect on your Maverick Spirit and all that you've already accomplished. Know that even the little things matter, that you give meaning to your life each time you do something to help someone else breathe easier, and that whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding exactly as it should.