Walking through the sea of tables last night at UTSA's Institute of Texan Cultures was every eaves-dropper's dream. Community leaders, philanthropists, politicians, educators, students and their guests sat at their respective tables – most complete strangers to one another – and tackled a wide range of topics.
From education reform to religion to stem cells, they spoke with authority as they dined in a room that honors the cultural influences from around the world. Cultures that have made Texas and Texans what we are today.
But this isn't a think tank or a political gala, it's the 13th annual UTSA's Great Conversations! fundraising event for the Honors College and you don't have to be a big name or an expert to join in – you just had to buy a ticket ($65 - $85) and join the discussion at the Institute of Texan Cultures.
Stem cells and legislative sessions aside, many light-hearted topics came up for discussion: "Great Moments in Mariachi Music," "Let's Talk about Tequilia," and "Top 10 Tips Every Dog Owner Should Know" among them. Each table hosted eight curious participants, though some were more crowded--and louder--than others. A vast majority of attendees were UTSA alumni or staff, but many guests learned of the Honors College for the first time through the event.
"It's money well spent," said Honors College Dean Richard Diem, "These students go on to great things ... they're future leaders."
The event speaks to the spirit of the Honors College, which is aimed at students “who want to go above and beyond what’s required of a (typical) undergraduate degree," Diem said. Some Honors alums will be shaping policy and philosophical conversations in the White House. Others will lead lighter discussions among students in coffee shops and homes around the world.
“And it’s an opportunity to talk with community leaders about different topics in a more casual setting,” Diem said.
As of last night, about 40 of the college's more than 830 honors students hold internships in Washington D.C. Some are studying abroad, others volunteer and work on projects in San Antonio.
"This is where your investment goes," said UTSA President Ricardo Romo to an audience of about 280. "Every dollar goes directly to a scholarship ... straight to the (honors) students."
Both Romo and Diem credited Dr. Harriett Romo, director of the Mexico Center and Child and Adolescent Policy Research Institute and UTSA's "first lady," for making the Great Conversations! series such a successful, signature event. To date, the series has raised more than $1.1 million in scholarships for honors students. Last night, $161,765 was raised, Ricardo said. An 8.2% increase from last year's $148,430.
Meandering through the tables, City Manager Sheryl Sculley led the "The City's Strategy for Center City Redevelopment" table, SA2020 President and CEO Darryl Byrd led the "How Do We Develop 'Citizen' Shareholders?" discussion, and former Rep. Charles A. Gonzalez offered an inside look at his table, "The Start of the New Congressional Session: Progress or Gridlock?"
John Lira, a recent Honors College graduate, U.S military veteran (Marine, Iraq) and recipient of the Great Conversations! Scholarship, was at Rep. Gonzalez' table. Lira said it was an amazing experience to get a congressman's honest perspective.
"Are they voting their conscious or their constituency?" Lira reflected. He learned that sometimes it may be neither, "If you (congress members) don't raise money for or get chummy with leadership, it's hard to ascend" and get the job done, Lira said.
Lira currently works as a statistical analyst at the U.S. Army's Institute of Surgical Research but is waiting to hear back from several graduate programs, including Harvard which announces accepted applicants on Friday. It would be a shame if they didn't accept the future "first latino Secretary of Defense," joked Lira, who earned that "most-likely-to-become" title from fellow students while in D.C. on the Bill Archer Fellowship Program.
He credits the intimate learning environment and faculty advice that the Honors College provided him for his success.
When passing the "Great Moments in Mariachi Music," an eagerly offered seat proved irresistible. Different ages and styles of mariachi were paired with tequilas and sampled by the table, led by Raul Lomeli-Azoubel, executive chairman of the spanish-language media company SABEResPODER.
"The (mariachi) music allows you to taste the tequila much better," he said. "After (this conversation) I hope you can respect and understand the (parallel) traditions of both."
On a more serious note, Dr. Harriett Romo led the conversation at the "Why Should We Invest in Other People's Children?" table. As she found her seat, it became clear that this was not lecture, but a dialogue with a group passionate about education. As the conversation centered on the Pre-K 4 SA initiative, Dr. Romo noted with pleasant surprise that the group agreed that society has a responsibility to provide higher education opportunities to all children. "There are a lot of different ways to invest in children besides just giving money," she said.
As the night came to a close and guests migrated home, it was clear these great conversations would continue long into the night.
"This is the only table with homework," said Lomeli-Azoubel as he explained how to enjoy the complimentary shooter of tequila to the table. Pour into a tumbler over ice, let it sit for a moment, stir then put on your favorite mariachi song. However, continuing these conversations beyond last night is perhaps a "homework" assignment, too.