McALLEN, Texas (Border Report) — The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley’s School of Medicine is set to graduate its first class of physicians on Saturday morning, albeit virtually because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

Nevertheless, this is a momentous occasion in the history of South Texas, which prior to the establishment in 2013 of the UTRGV and the UTRGV School of Medicine by an act of the Texas Legislature, had never before had a medical school.

The start-up of the UTRGV School of Medicine occurred a couple of years after UTRGV as it took local leaders time to build proper facilities in the various campuses in South Texas — in both Hidalgo and Cameron counties — and hire faculty and staff and receive curriculum accreditation.

Texas Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, is seen in his Edinburg office on July 22, 2019. Hinojosa authored SB 24, which created the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley in 2013. (Sandra Sanchez/Border Report)

State Sen. Juan “Chuy” Hinojosa, a Democrat from McAllen who represents a large part of the South Texas region served by the university, authored Senate Bill 24 in 2013 bill, which created UTRGV by merging the University of Texas at Brownsville and the University of Texas-Pan American.

Hinojosa told Border Report on Friday that he was extremely proud that the medical school was, at last, graduating its first medical class of 39 physicians. And although he had originally been scheduled as a speaker for the commencement ceremonies, he was not at all disappointed to now be cut from the abbreviated program, which the university will broadcast online at 10 a.m. CST on Saturday, because he said he is overjoyed to have this class of graduating physicians living among him.

“It is a very special day and I’m so proud of those students being the first to graduate from the School of Medicine at the University of Texas Rio Grande Valley. It’s an amazing accomplishment for all of us in the Rio Grande Valley, Here we are with the first class of doctors,” Hinojosa said.

“As they take the next step in their medical careers, it is our honor to take part in this historic event. This commencement officially sends off our first class of medical students, and they will proudly carry the UTRGV name across the country as they enter residency training,” Dr. John Krouse, dean of the UTRGV School of Medicine and executive vice president for Health Affairs said in a statement.

Hinojosa said UTRGV and the School of Medicine already have been influential and key in helping the health needs of South Texas, a region previously woefully unrepresented by physicians. This has been especially evident during this COVID-19 pandemic, as UTRGV has been operating a drive-thru mobile testing site behind its medical school’s Edinburg campus, and at its Cameron County facilities on the Gulf Coast.

“They have played a very key role in providing testing on coronavirus,” Hinojosa said, “making it easier for people who were suspected of having COVID-19 to take the test without ever leaving their car.”

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-Texas

“We would clearly be in a much weaker position. I can’t thank the Medical School enough. I can’t thank Dr. Krouse enough for getting out in front of this,” U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, a Democrat from McAllen, said during an April 8 telephone town hall with constituents.

“The medical school has been very proactive in addressing this pandemic,” Gonzalez told Border Report. “It would have made a huge difference if this medical school was not in our community and we were dealing with this (pandemic) alone. This has been a huge benefit for South Texas.”

“It would have made a huge difference if this medical school was not in our community and we were dealing with this alone. This has been a huge benefit for South Texas.”

U.S. Rep. Vicente Gonzalez, D-McAllen

Although Saturday’s celebrations will be muted, compared to what university officials originally had planned, graduates will get to hear their names called out online to receive their virtual degrees, Dr. Leonel Vela, the School of Medicine’s senior associate dean for Educational Resources and senior associate vice president for Education, said in a statement.

“We understand that this year’s graduation celebrations will be different,” Vela said. “But we definitely want to celebrate the achievements of the School of Medicine’s Charter Class of 2020. We want to share the pride and joy of the graduates’ families and friends, the faculty, and the university and Valley communities.”

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