The students wear maroon, say ‘Howdy,’ watch the Aggie football games, and even leave pennies on a campus landmark for good luck.
So, in some ways, the biomedical sciences (BIMS) students at the Texas A&M Higher Education Center in McAllen aren’t all that different from the ones in College Station.
After all, one of the goals, according to Dr. Elizabeth Crouch, CVMBS associate dean of undergraduate education, is to bring the same quality education and experience that the students in College Station get.
“What many people may not realize is that in the same way that Galveston is part of the Texas A&M College Station Campus, the Higher Education Center at McAllen is also,” she said. “What that means is that biomedical sciences, as a major, has two physical locations. They’re not a different major; they’re not even a different campus. They’re Aggies and they’re biomedical sciences students—they are just physically located in McAllen.”
In practice, of course, there are differences. The BIMS program in McAllen is only in its third year of existence and has an enrollment of 73 students for the fall 2020 semester.
There are three full-time CVMBS faculty members in McAllen currently teaching 13 different courses. For this semester though, with many classes at both campuses being taught at least partially virtually, several faculty members from College Station have been able to reach students there to bolster that number.
“One of the things that we didn’t want to do was to make it a telecommuter school, and we never had any intention of classes being taught solely online,” Crouch said. “But having said that, it adds some depth. For example, guest speakers who are from all over the United States and really are top people in their fields can speak one time and reach two campuses. It adds additional course opportunities that we wouldn’t have had previously.”
Right now, the McAllen campus has just one main building, which makes it naturally have an interdisciplinary feel. In March, when faculty got together to talk about COVID-19 and its potential impacts, they were able to come at the problem from a number of angles because they had two faculty members from the CVMBS, as well as faculty from Texas A&M’s School of Public Health, College of Liberal Arts, College of Engineering, and College of Science all take part.
“This interdisciplinary group really talked about the virus and what the possible public health impacts were going to be,” Crouch said. “It was really nice for them to be able to quickly put that group together.”
The students are already forming student organizations and naturally gravitated to things that impact them, so it’s no surprise that one of the earliest student organizations to pop up in McAllen is the Border Pre-Med Society, which is in its first year.
Since their organizations can’t meet in person right now, a couple of them have actually had virtual meetings with their fellow students in College Station, including the Biomedical Sciences Association (BSA).
The BSA, which is the second largest student organization at Texas A&M, has set up “family groups” that allow students get to know their peers. There is also emphasis on peer tutoring and networking to help support each other. That ability to network with their peers and build up a support system are especially valuable in McAllen where over 60 percent of the students are first generation college students.
According to academic adviser Josette Gonzalez, that family atmosphere is a big part of the culture at the growing campus.
“One thing I really like about main campus is that we say we’re an Aggie family, and that’s true,” she said. “However, whenever you are a student or a faculty member at the Higher Education Center at McAllen, your experience is intimate all the way around.”
Many students choose McAllen because they have responsibilities at home, which also adds to that culture of family.
“A lot of the times our students here in the Valley wear multiple hats,” Gonzalez said. “Not only are they first-generation college students attending a top-tier institution, but they’re also caregivers.
“We have students who live in multi-generational homes,” she said. “They may be helping taking care of their elderly family, and then also, now, with the pandemic, we have a lot of our students who are assisting their siblings with their coursework since they’re staying at home due to COVID. I’ve had many students who have siblings online with them when they join for Zoom sessions.”
Among the first students to graduate with a BIMS degree from McAllen in May is senior Roberto Lopez. He’s a year ahead of most of the McAllen BIMS students because he started in 2017 as an engineering student before the Higher Education Center was even completed. That year, the students were being taught at South Texas College.
“When we finally got the new building, it was just like, ‘Oh my goodness. We are actually part of A&M,’” he said. “We started seeing the change. We started with 38 students, and then after that, it’s been growing little by little. It’s been amazing; the transition from that first year to that second year was kind of like, ‘Whoa.’ It was impactful for us.”
More growth is on the way. The CVMBS’ goal is to have around 200 students in McAllen and other colleges are also expected to join and expand their offers in McAllen in the coming years.
“I know that the McAllen campus is meant to grow,” Crouch said. “Right now, it’s one building but it will continue to grow. I think we’re going to see pretty significant growth there over the next 10 years or so.
“I hope that it will be a premiere place to look at One Health in the Rio Grande Valley in a way that is really impactful,” she said. “Having a footprint for biomedical sciences in South Texas is just really dynamite. I’m very, very excited about the future.”
Contact Information: Jennifer Gauntt, Director of CVMBS Communications, Texas A&M College of Veterinary Medicine & Biomedical Sciences; firstname.lastname@example.org; 979-862-4216