Dr. Patricia Blanco was there at the beginning.
It was fall 2013 and Our Lady Of The Lake University was making its big move in the Rio Grande Valley. The San Antonio-based university was establishing a bricks-and-mortar location in La Feria. It was a sure sign the Catholic school was intent on a permanent presence.
“It was a leap for OLLU,” said Blanco, the director of the university’s RGV campus. “We had our own building and a sign out front that said OLLU.”
The 2013 start was a modest one. The university worked with La Feria city and school leaders to retrofit an old elementary school. The first two academic programs were then established at the new location, and Blanco and OLLU were off on a new path. From there, as she puts it, Blanco went about “building a university from the ground up.”
A doctoral degree in leadership studies was a flagship program, which Blanco herself had earned when OLLU was operating out of the Harlingen campus of Texas State Technical College. The early successes impressed La Feria city leaders. They came to Blanco with an idea and a proposal. The city was applying for a federal grant to build new facilities just south of town on Main Street.
The city leaders believed the grant could be leveraged to help OLLU build a new facility. It all came to fruition – and quickly. A gleaming new OLLU building with a blue hue to match the university’s colors opened in 2016. Blanco and her staff then went about establishing a new campus with on location doctoral, master’s and undergraduate degree programs to go with online courses.
“I feel like we’re creating a community as the Valley’s Catholic university,” said Blanco, a Los Fresnos High School graduate. “It’s exciting to be part of something that is contributing to the improvement of higher education in the Valley.”
Creating New Opportunities
The growth of OLLU adds to the strides also made by other universities and college systems in the region. The University of Texas System has further bolstered its presence with the establishment of UTRGV. Texas A&M University now has a McAllen campus on the far northern outskirts of the city. South Texas College also continues to grow and prosper.
Lamar University of Beaumont then added to the mix with the opening of a student service center in McAllen. From there, Lamar offers Valley residents a bevy of both online undergraduate and graduate programs in criminal justice, education, nursing and business. Lamar’s recruiters also use the McAllen center as a headquarters to promote Lamar in South Texas.
Lamar, OLLU and the other university systems based outside of the Valley see a high growth region with a youthful population looking for opportunities. Blanco was once among them as a local high school graduate who attended the University of Texas at Austin, earning undergraduate and master’s degrees there.
She spent 10 years at the University of Texas-Brownsville. When that university and Texas Southmost College split in 2013, it brought major upheavals. This included the elimination of many jobs, including the one she once held at UTB. She wasn’t unemployed for long. The opportunity to lead the establishment of OLLU in La Feria emerged at the same time and Blanco embraced the opportunity.
“I feel like when all of that happened in 2013 with my job ending at UTB and this (OLLU) opportunity coming along, I really believe God called me to this job,” Blanco said.
She beams with pride in describing the master’s and undergraduate degrees offered at the La Feria campus in social work, criminal justice and psychology to go with the doctoral program in leadership and numerous online programs. Blanco’s staff includes four full-time professors and 17 adjunct professors. The OLLU campus in La Feria has six classrooms, two computer labs and a large multipurpose room.
“We’re providing access to opportunities in helping people get to the next step in their lives,” she said. “We’re here and we’re going to weather the storms.”