Graduates represent UHV's first freshman class (w/video)

Carolina Astrain By Carolina Astrain

May 8, 2014 at 12:08 a.m.
Updated May 10, 2014 at 12:10 a.m.

Vanessa Plasencia works with Erica Bancuch on their capstone project for their strategic management class in the Victoria College/University of Houston-Victoria Library  April 18. "It's given me a lot of tools and analysis procedures that I can use later in life," Plasencia said of the class, which required her to analyze and present a project on a company. The group then presented the project at the University of Houston Sugar Land.

Vanessa Plasencia works with Erica Bancuch on their capstone project for their strategic management class in the Victoria College/University of Houston-Victoria Library April 18. "It's given me a lot of tools and analysis procedures that I can use later in life," Plasencia said of the class, which required her to analyze and present a project on a company. The group then presented the project at the University of Houston Sugar Land.   Angeli Wright for The Victoria Advocate

The lights of Texas' second oldest dance hall dimmed as Vanessa Plasencia soaked in the final moments of her last University of Houston-Victoria sports banquet.

Plasencia, dressed in a white lace-patterned dress and nude tone heels, sat toward the edge of a long cafeteria-style table next to her fellow UHV women's soccer team members.

"It feels kind of weird because I haven't seen them all in a while," Plasencia, 22, said. "There's also a bittersweet feeling here since this is going to be my last banquet."

Plasencia spent the second semester of her senior year off the field and focused on her studies. She was one of seven graduates this spring from the university's first freshman class composed of 218 students.

One freshman from the original fall 2010 class graduated last summer, four others graduated in December, and another 49 are still enrolled and working toward their degrees, according to UHV.

Of the 26 students who made up the original women's soccer team, Plasencia was the sole remaining member by her senior year. A third of the members of the original freshman class were student-athletes.

"A lot of them left for personal reasons or ended up transferring to other schools," Plasencia said of her teammates. "I was determined to finish."

Neither of Plasencia's parents graduated high school, which made education a priority for the first-generation Mexican-American student. Her mother is a homemaker, and her father owns a body shop in Stafford.

Both of her parents were born in Mexico, where they also met.

Plasencia and her two older brothers, Pablo and Moises, were born in Houston and moved to Richmond when Plasencia was 2 years old. The family later moved to Rosenberg.

"I'm very proud of her," Mireya Plasencia, her mother, said in Spanish. "I'm glad that she was able to find a school close to where she grew up."

The mother said she anticipated UHV growing as large as Texas A&M University one day. Vanessa's older brother Pablo, 27, graduated from Texas A&M University with a degree in general business.

"They have the potential," Mireya Plasencia, 53, said of UHV. "They have the resources. I expect one day it'll become a big school."

Building a 4-year university

The road to a four-year university began in 2009, when the state Legislature approved expanding UHV to include freshmen and sophomores.

The move came partly in response to the state's "Closing the Gaps" initiative, which identified Texas' need to provide higher education to at least 500,000 more students.

Leadership from Victoria College, the Victoria school district and the University of Houston-Victoria and community members formed the Commission on Expanding Access to Higher Education. The expansion was part of the commission's recommendation to the University of Houston System Board of Regents.

In the past four years, UHV has constructed three dormitories, a dining hall and a soccer field to accommodate its growth.

UHV sophomore Patricia Negrete, 19, of Cedar Park, said she enjoys how small the university is.

"Everything is close by, and since I live in the dorms, I stay busy with all the events they have for students," said Negrete, a UHV women's soccer team player who rode with Plasencia to the end-of-the-year banquet.

The lower cost of tuition also attracted her to UHV, Negrete said.

"It's very affordable," Negrete said.

Cassie Lane, 22, of Victoria, another senior on the soccer team, transferred to UHV her sophomore year from Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio.

"It's been nice going to school here," Lane said at the sports banquet. "It's a very family-oriented place."

Freshman year

Although she grew up about a 90-minute drive away in Rosenberg, Plasencia had never heard of UHV until she learned of the women's soccer club tryouts the spring of her senior year at B.F. Terry High School.

She played soccer in high school but never thought she'd be good enough for a collegiate team.

"I was an awkward kid in high school. I was never the popular girl," Plasencia said. "I've always tried to stay true to myself. Soccer was my big thing."

Tryouts for the UHV women's soccer team were on the same day as her prom, but Plasencia said she made the road trip anyway.

Playing for a college team was an unexpected surprise, she said. "I found a few friends to go with me," Plasencia said. "After it was all over, I got back home, got my hair fixed and went to the dance."

At the start of her freshman year, the soccer team operated without a field of its own until midway through the fall semester.

Because of preseason training and pending renovations to Jaguar Hall, Plasencia and the other freshmen stayed at the Fairfield Inn, 4 miles away from the main campus.

"During preseason we used the St. Joseph High School field, and we'd have to find rides in between places," said Plasencia, who would pick up and drive other teammates to practice. "There was a local lady who catered food to us during preseason."

Before coming to UHV, Plasencia said, she knew her time as an undergraduate student at UHV would be unlike the typical college experience.

"I knew it was going to be different - not like it is in the movies," Plasencia said.

Sophomore year

The start of her sophomore year was a struggle because she tore her anterior cruciate ligament, or ACL, during preseason training.

"We were just scrimmaging when my knee moved out of place," Plasencia said. "I heard the initial pop, and then, it popped again."

Getting to class became a challenge.

"At first, it brought down my determination and motivation," Plasencia said. "It kept me from going to school, and my grades went down."

But her academic performance improved after she recovered from her injury.

"I decided I wasn't going to let my injury define me," Plasencia said.

For the rest of the soccer season, she focused on gym training and shot video footage of her teammates.

"We were able to play more games on our home field," Plasencia said. "It got more exciting, more real."

That same year, she selected her major - accounting - through the UHV School of Business Administration.

Plasencia took her first accounting course through Victoria College because it wasn't offered at UHV at the time, she said.

By second semester, her grades picked up, and Plasencia was working at Sam's Club.

Junior year

A rush of blood went to Plasencia's head after scoring her first goal on the field during her junior year.

"It was exciting," Plasencia said. "I didn't even start the game, but within a couple of minutes of getting onto the field, there was an opportunity, so I shot, and it went in."

She had stopped working at Sam's Club by that point and was focused on her studies and soccer.

During her second semester that year, Plasencia experienced an academic high when she made a 100 on an operations and supply chain management exam.

"I was the only one that made 100 in my class," Plasencia said. "It was exciting."

As her studies improved, she began to help students as an after-school counselor at the YMCA of the Golden Crescent, Plasencia said.

"It was pretty chill," Plasencia said. "I got to help students with their homework when they needed it."

During the summer, she took two online classes, which took up most of her time, Plasencia said.

"It was a challenge because with online courses you basically have to teach yourself," Plasencia said. "I took two classes, which I earned an A and B for."

Senior year

Her final undergraduate year at UHV was spent studying and shifting into a mentor role for the freshmen soccer players.

"I spent the first semester getting to know all the girls on and off the field," Plasencia said. "I had to remember that they were really nervous and didn't know what to expect."

As one of two seniors on the team, Plasencia said, she did her best to show the other athletes the ins and outs of UHV athletics.

"She's like our role model honestly," Stephanie Valdes, 19, a freshman on the soccer team said as they waited in buffet line at the sports banquet. "School and soccer-wise."

In order to save travel costs to UHV's extension services in Cinco Ranch, Plasencia said she set up a remote classroom in Victoria with help from one of her professors and UHV Internet technology staff.

"I noticed that we had classroom space available here," Plasencia said. "Signing up for the course, I knew I had to travel to Cinco Ranch, but I also had soccer to think about."

Toward the end of the first semester of her senior year, Plasencia began working for Victoria certified public accountant Catherine L. Ozment.

"It was really exciting being able to learn more about what I was learning in school," Plasencia said.

A couple weeks ago, Plasencia and her capstone course partners traveled to Sugar Land, where many UHV courses have been taught. There, they presented a business analysis on an oil and gas equipment and services company.

"It went well," Plasencia said. "It was really nerve-wracking at first, but once it was over, we all felt like a huge relief had been lifted from our shoulders."

After graduation, Plasencia said, she doesn't have any concrete plans, but she knows eventually she wants to be a CPA.

She plans to work full time before deciding on going after a master's degree to become a CPA.

After getting her bachelor's, Plascencia expects to be about $8,000 in debt. She credits that relatively low figure to the affordability of UHV.

"I was able to get Pell grants and scholarships because I had good grades coming out of high school," Plasencia said.

In 2012, the average debt load for college students was $29,400, according to a report released by the Institute for College Access and Success as part of The Project on Student Debt.

Adrian Rigby, who coaches the men's and women's soccer teams, said he hopes Plasencia decides to stay in Victoria after graduation.

"I'm real proud of her," Rigby said. "She's seen a lot of people come and go."

Despite the university's growing pains, Plasencia said, she would recommend UHV to prospective students look for an affordable and smaller campus experience.

She said she has enjoyed the close-knit nature of the community during her four years. Between bites of South Texas barbecue, Plasencia smiled for a selfie with her fellow teammates at the sports banquet.

"My freshmen experience was completely different than what freshman now are experiencing," Plasencia said. "To someone potentially coming here as a full-time student looking for good experiences, small class sizes and good professors, I would recommend UHV."



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