I could say many things about my two days last week at UTEP, the University of Texas at El Paso. About the music department, about the new Center for Arts Entrepreneurship. About Zuill Bailey, the cellist and UTEP faculty member, who’ll run the center. And whose entrepreneurial success in running four concert series makes him an ideal choice. Plus giving anyone else giving classical concerts a lesson in how to do it.
And about Trio Jinx, a flute/bass/violin-viola group from Peabody, who were in residence, and whose playing — of much more than classical music — I loved.
Or about how my wife Anne Midgette was invited there also, how this was the first business trip she and I have taken together in quite a while, how we brought Rafa, our five year-old son, and how much fun we all had.
And of course I could write about the talk I gave, for which I’m humbled to say I got a standing ovation.
But later for all that.
What I most took away…
…was what I learned about the university itself. Certainly one of the most inspiring stories in higher education. Impressive enough to get the long-serving UTEP president, Diana Natalicio, named by Time magazine as one of the 100 most influential people in the world.
Though she’s so down to earth I doubt she’d ever mention that she got such an honor. She seems about as straightforward as anyone I’ve ever met.
What’s amazing here is what Natalicio set as the university’s mission. And how successful that mission has been.
It’s so very simple. El Paso — which lies right on the border with Mexico — has a large Latino population, mostly working class, not wealthy.
In past generations, these people mostly didn’t go to college. The prevailing thought at the university was that they were destined for humbler lives, that they should learn trades, or get civil service jobs. That they weren’t college material.
The university’s mission was to change all that. To make it known that brains and ability are found everywhere. That a not wealthy Latino kid from El Paso can do just as well as anyone else, given the chance.
So these students were admitted, and given remedial classes if needed. And then got the same high-quality education as everyone else. With spectacular results, as measured by graduation rates and later achievement.
Which is especially impressive, because during this time the university also shot up academically, becoming a top-rank research institution. So the new students from El Paso were getting a really top-rank education.
When I learned all this I was thrilled. And inspired. Purely on human terms. Look what can be done, if you simply decide you’ll do it! I can only imagine how much work it took, how many minds had to be changed, both in the university and in the community.
Natalicio’s current goal is to develop El Paso economically. Not that it’s economically depressed. But the El Paso students who graduate have to go elsewhere for the jobs their education can get them. Why, Natalcio asks, shouldn’t there be jobs like that for them in their home town?
Of course this blog is supposed to be about music. But some things are more important.