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University of Texas Rio Grande Valley partners with South Texas College to create undergraduate education degrees in early childhood studies - Titans of the Texas Legislature

Featured, from left: Rep. Terry Canales, D-Edinburg; Alyssa Palacios, Staff Member (in the background), Boys and Girls Clubs of Edinburg RGV; Judi Flowers, Member, Board of Directors, Boys and Girls Clubs of Edinburg RGV; and Adriana Rendón, Chief Executive Officer, Boys and Girls Clubs of Edinburg RGV, join clubs members Leovanny, Héctor, Kalysa, Isabella, and Daniela on Tuesday, December 1, 2020. In recognition of Giving Tuesday. Canales, along with Walmart Inc., presented a $5,000 check to the Boys and Girls Clubs of Edinburg RGV to support its ongoing efforts to building a stronger community. Giving Tuesday, often stylized as #GivingTuesday for the purposes of hashtag activism, is the Tuesday after Thanksgiving in the United States. It is touted as a “global generosity movement unleashing the power of people and organizations to transform their communities and the world”. Wikipedia

Photograph By KARLA PONCE


University of Texas Rio Grande Valley partners with South Texas College to create undergraduate education degrees in early childhood studies


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley and South Texas College have partnered to create a competency-based education program that creates a pathway to an undergraduate degree in early childhood studies, UTRGV officials announced on Monday, December 21, 2020.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board in 2019 awarded the project $230,000. Dr. John Lowdermilk, Chair, UTRGV Department of Human Development and School Services and Professor of Human Development and School Servicesin theCollege of Education and P-16 Integration, is the principal investigator on the project. 

Dr. Vejoya Viren, Associate Professor of Human Development and School Services, is a co-principal investigator.

The program awards Bachelor’s Degrees to prospective students via modules administered at a reduced cost.

There are two tracks within the early childhood program – a certified track for those wishing to become teachers in Texas, and a non-certified track for those who want to work in a child development setting, like a daycare, Headstart, or pediatrics center. This competency-based track is only for those wishing to take the non-certified route. 

“The idea of the grant is, you have lots of people in Valley communities who are working in these different settings,” Lowdermilk said. “Some have many years of experience in professional development, and some have many hours of college credit but have not completed their degree. This allows students to come back and complete a degree. It is 100 percent online and it is competency-based.”

With a competency-based structure, the student takes an online pre-test that is content-based. Depending on the score, the student then will proceed to certain modules, which work on the student’s strengths. Once the student attains 80 percent on the competency, they receive credit for that course. 

“We have it set up similar to our accelerated online program where it is seven and a half weeks, but you can potentially finish the program very quickly. Or you may take longer – it just depends on the student,” Lowdermilk said.

The 120-credit hour program will start at STC, where the first 75 core credit hours are attained. Then, the student transfers to UTRGV to take their final 45 credit hours in the College of Education and P-16 Integration. 

Courses include educational psychology, special education, and early childhood development.

“You can take as many or few courses as you want to per semester,” Lowdermilk said. “They are traditional three-hour courses, and you receive the same degree as the traditional students receive. 

“You are receiving the same quality of education, just done more expediently, taking into account people who have families and cannot do the traditional route,” he said.

The program is in the early stages and the first cohort of this grant is expected to enter the UTRGV CEP from STC in Fall 2021.

Dr. Alma Rodriguez, dean of the College of Education and P-16 Integration, said this online pathway is not only affordable but also allows students to progress at an individual’s pace.  

“This partnership with South Texas College is allowing us to offer a pathway for individuals with work experiences in childcare to complete their degree in early care and early childhood education,” she said. “This is a true game-changer for students pursuing early care and early childhood studies.”


The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley College of Health Professionswill offer a new Bachelor of Science hybrid degree program in Integrated Health Sciences starting Spring 2021, university officials announced on Wednesday, December 2, 2020.

The Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board approved the undergraduate program in late October 2020.

This 120-credit hour program is an open admission major in the UTRGV College of Health Professions. Many of the course requirements already are offered in the college, with new courses being developed specifically for this program with topics like healthcare system administration, health disparities, and ethics in healthcare.

Dr. Michael Lehker, Dean of the UTRGV College of Health Professions, said the multifaceted structure of the program is unique to UTRGV.

“The program is designed as an entry point to any student interested in our health affairs programs at UTRGV,” he said.

Lehker said students express an interest in the many programs offered by the College of Health Professions but don’t have a specific idea which program they ultimately want to pursue. This new program will allow students to declare Integrated Health Sciences as a major, and then opt-out to other health profession programs in their third year. 

Or, they can remain in the program and get a Bachelor’s Degree in Integrated Health Sciences.

Other programs the college offers include occupational therapy, physician assistant, health and human performance, health and biomedical sciences, communication sciences and disorders, and rehabilitation services and counseling. 

Lehker said the new program incorporates the concept of a meta major – career clusters or communities of interest – which groups individual majors under a larger academic umbrella.

“In their second year, many students can apply to our other programs, such as nursing or social work, for example, and will already have started required coursework through this major,” he said.

This non-direct patient healthcare program can prepare the graduate to pursue a career in healthcare administration or government health agencies, among others. 

Or the graduate can continue on to any of the five MS in Health Sciences concentrations offered at UTRGV, or other programs offered by the UTRGV School of Medicine.

The program faculty and staff will guide the students along the way to make the best choice for their individual career goals.

“If a student thinks they want to be in health care but don’t know where during their first year we will be providing career guidance for all students and advising on what it takes to enter into other health programs,” Lehker said. “So, they really have a whole year, maybe two years, to really decide which direction they want to go. We will help them to make that decision.”


Childhood obesity is a major public health concern, one that disproportionately affects populations living in poverty and the minority groups prevalent in the Rio Grande Valley. 

To help understand the impact on the area, UTRGV’s South Texas Early Prevention Study-PreK (STEPS-PreK) collected social, economic, and health measures of more than 1,200 preschool children and their families living along the Texas-Mexico border. 

The findings were released on Friday, December 11, 2020.

The study, “Social and Health Risk Factor Levels of Preschool Children Living Along the Texas-Mexico Border,” was funded by the U.S. Health & Human Services and provided feedback to design and evaluate health interventions. 

The study was a randomized trial designed to assess the effect of the Bienestar Coordinated School Heath Program on preschool children’s health outcomes. 

Presenters during the virtual press conference on Wednesday, December 9, 2020, included UTRGV’s Dr. Zasha Romero, Associate Professor of Health & Human Performance in theUTRGV College of Health Professions; Giesela Sáenz, Superintendent, La Joya Independent School District; Jorge L. Arredondo, Superintendent, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo School Independent School District, and Dr. Robert P. Treviño, MD, Social & Health Research Center, San Antonio. 

“It is no secret that the Rio Grande Valley has extremely high rates of poverty. Poverty is a medium that fosters adverse health outcomes in children,” Romero said. “Children from poor families have near twice the risk of obesity compared to their affluent counterparts. 

“Compared to the state, Hidalgo County has higher rates of people living in poverty – 17.5 percent versus 34 percent of the entire state,” Romero added. “In the U.S., childhood obesity is a public concern that disproportionately affects populations from low economic status.”

The data presented consisted of social, economic, and health measures in which nearly half of the participants reported food insecurity before the end of each month. 

The data were collected before the COVID-19 pandemic, so participants expect this nutritional deficiency to be even worse now. 

Early-age health education programs aimed at children, families, and school staff are needed. One such program, the Bienestar/Neema Coordinated School Health Program, a Texas Education Agency-approved health program, consists of parent, food service, health and PE curriculums that have been shown to improve the nutrition, fitness, and health of children, according to the National Cancer Institute,Agency for Healthcare Research and Quality, and Centersfor Disease Control and Prevention.

During the conference, participants agreed that, while school districts do their share in educating children on the importance of healthy foods, parents and the community need to take part in these growing endeavors. 

Because parents are role models for their children, they themselves should practice healthy behaviors, and community endeavors should include making food of high nutrient value more readily available. 

“In recent years, schools have employed nutritionists and dietitians to ensure healthy diets and healthier meals for their students,” Romero said. “Before commencing our research, we conducted pilot studies and found that, though students were served healthy options, fruits and vegetables mostly ended up in the trash bin after every meal, period. Those foods contain nutrients that children need for learning and growing up strong.”

Familiarizing school-age children with a wider variety of fruits and vegetables, and participating in cooking with them, will help get children more enthusiastic about eating a healthier diet, Romero said. 

The overall study will be published in the Journal of School Health. 

About UTRGV 

The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) was created by the Texas Legislature in 2013 as the first major public university of the 21st century in Texas. This transformative initiative provided the opportunity to expand educational opportunities in the Rio Grande Valley, including a new School of Medicine, and made it possible for residents of the region to benefit from the Permanent University Fund – a public endowment contributing support to the University of Texas System and other institutions. 

UTRGV has campuses and off-campus research and teaching sites throughout the Rio Grande Valley including in Boca Chica Beach, Brownsville (formerly The University of Texas at Brownsville campus), Edinburg (formerly The University of Texas-Pan American campus), Harlingen, McAllen, Port Isabel, Rio Grande City, and South Padre Island. UTRGV, a comprehensive academic institution, enrolled its first class in the fall of 2015, and the School of Medicine welcomed its first class in the summer of 2016.


(Amanda A. Taylor contributed to this article. For more on this and other Texas legislative news stories that affect the Rio Grande Valley metropolitan region, please log on to Titans of the Texas Legislature (

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