The University of Texas Rio Grande Valley kicked off the new school year this week at both the Edinburg and Brownsville campuses with several events for students such as the yearly Picnic with the President.

The event took place Tuesday in Brownsville where thousands of students received free food, free face masks and got the opportunity to talk with UTRGV President Guy Bailey and other officials who were serving food to the students.

“I don’t know who is more excited. The students or me. But it is great to have them,” Bailey said.

Since the beginning of the pandemic, the university has been offering economic help for students so that they can focus on school. This semester, UTRGV offered the $1,000 Liftoff for full-time students and will also give a $850 and $750 cash grant this week to every eligible student.

“First of all, we want you to be successful, we want you to be safe. Those two things are everything we do. For example, we want you to make sure that you are in class, that you do all your work, you have a great semester and wear your mask,” he said.

“The pandemic has disrupted the economy. Many people have lost jobs, many parents have lost jobs or they don’t work as long. … We try to use the federal money we got to assist them to be successful. We really want our students not just to come here, but to graduate, get out and get good jobs.”

During the event, COVID-19 vaccines were also available for students, staff and faculty. The university continues its efforts to mitigate the spread of COVID-19 and has implemented safety precautions for the campus community. Last week, the university announced that due to the COVID-19 delta wave, instructors who were offering face-to-face classes had the option to transition to hybrid courses.

“If you are not vaccinated, get vaccinated. I’ve been vaccinated, everybody I know, all my family. There’s no way I wouldn’t let my family be vaccinated. You can get a vaccine right here, we have food and we have vaccines. We got you covered,” Bailey said.

“We want to keep our community safe and our students safe. It’s not just for you, it’s for your family. We keep our whole community safe when we do this. This is us being responsible to each other and to our community. …

“We want this to be as normal a year as possible. We know how to deal with COVID now. We are going to have ups and downs with COVID, but we know how to deal with it. We know how to protect ourselves, our communities through masks, through vaccines. And if we do that, we can deal with COVID and not miss a beat. And that’s what I want us to do. This is as normal as we can do.”

Dr. Linda Nelson, senior director of clinical operations for UTRGV School of Medicine, said they had a large number of students and community members who got vaccinated at the mass vaccination clinics the university held. She said while the numbers are not as high anymore, the events with vaccines available this week such as Picnic with the President had a good response.

University of Texas Rio Grande Valley (UTRGV) President Guy Bailey greets students Tuesday during UTRGV’s traditional beginning of the fall semester Picnic with the President in Brownsville. (Miguel Roberts/The Brownsville Herald)

“Our message is, we want everyone to be vaccinated if they choose to be vaccinated. We want them, most of all, to be safe. Safe from COVID, there’s so much of it around and the only thing we have, the only armor we have is our vaccination,” she said.

Estefani Fuentes, nursing student who will graduate this semester, is administering vaccines to students on campus and said she strongly recommends them to get the vaccine because it is the best protection against getting severely ill with COVID-19.

“Right now we are in a zone where the hospitals are getting a lot of COVID patients and it just so happens that people who don’t have the vaccine are the ones that get sicker,” she said.

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