UTEP BUILDing SCHOLARS: Celebrating BUILD Graduates in the Time of COVID-19

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Contact Info: jpgarza@utep.edu


UTEP Scholar Erin Portillo stand outside her home holding signs that say New Scientist On The Block and Thank You BUILDing SCHOLARS
UTEP Scholar Erin Portillo outside her home participating in UTEP's socially distanced graduation celebration caravan.


By John Garza

Taking time to celebrate achievements and milestones is critical for researchers—whether lead investigators or undergraduate students beginning their careers—to appreciate the results of their long hours and hard work. The COVID-19 pandemic created an extraordinary hindrance to celebrate the class of 2020,  as normally planned events and celebrations were cancelled when The University of Texas at El Paso postponed the Spring Commencement to this coming fall, when it will be held virtually. 

Over the course of its first five years, the BUILDing SCHOLARS program at UTEP established an annual tradition of honoring graduating trainees with a stoling ceremony and celebration, in which the honorees would formally receive their BUILD stoles. Although this event had to be cancelled as an in-person gathering, the BUILD staff and leadership adapted like so many others around the world to organize a virtual, online celebration. 

Care packages containing the stoles and other mementos and treats were mailed to each of the graduating seniors with instructions to not open them until the event on Friday, May 8. The graduates and their families logged on to join the rest of the BUILD community in honoring their completion of the program. 

Student Aiyana Ponce wearing a cap and gown stands in her driveway with a sign that says Thank You BUILD
BUILD Scholar Aiyana Ponce wearing a cap and gown to greet 
UTEP BUILD's celebration caravan.

“After months of living under socially distanced isolation, seeing everyone’s faces, gathered online, was a refreshing reminder of the community that ties together this group of burgeoning researchers,” said Lorena Orozco, BUILDing SCHOLAR’s project analyst.

BUILDing SCHOLARS Primary investigator (PI) Lourdes Echegoyen, Ph.D., gave opening remarks and prompted the graduating seniors to open their care packages. The graduates found their stoles and donned them on themselves. For the remainder of the event, the group took turns sharing how they were coping with the pandemic before posing for a virtual group picture.

In those early weeks of social distancing, different communities were creating and sharing novel ways to replace the cancelled events and meetings in a safe way. Oswaldo Morera, Ph.D., one of PIs leading the BUILDing SCHOLARS Training Core, had heard about local high school graduates driving through the city in improvised, celebratory processions and suggested to do something similar for the BUILD graduates. BUILD staff and PIs created their own caravan and took the celebration to each student’s home and family, where they could be honored and recognized from a safe, quarantine-approved distance. 

Fabian Barragan, the recently hired Educational Outreach Coordinator who had thus far spent his entire tenure in his new position working remotely, spearheaded the effort, planning the routes to the homes of the students who wished to participate. On the sunny morning of Saturday, May 15, the caravan gathered with decorated vehicles and signs and set out to congratulate each of the graduating trainees in person. Graduates and family members alike came out to their front yards to greet the caravan as it passed and recognized their achievements.

Countless plans, events, and meetings have been cancelled since the onset of preventative measures against the COVID-19 pandemic. 

Orozco said that amidst the loss and tragedy of the epidemic, recognizing the accomplishments of students is vital for their motivation as they continue their training to become the country’s next generation of biomedical researchers. 

"Though in-person assemblies may not be possible for the foreseeable future, innovative and creative alternatives can allow us to continue to support their journeys," Orozco said.

The Diversity Program Consortium Coordination and Evaluation Center at UCLA is supported by Office of the Director of the National Institutes of Health / National Institutes of General Medical Sciences under award number U54GM119024.
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