Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales is the Island University’s Spring Commencement Speaker

CORPUS CHRISTI, Texas – Nueces County Judge Barbara Canales remembers the days when she visited the campus of Corpus Christi State University as a young girl alongside her mother, Yolanda, who was working on a degree in education.

Four decades later, Canales is set to serve as the Spring Commencement speaker for Texas A&M University-Corpus Christi. The commencement exercise for over 1,100 Islander graduates takes place at the American Bank Center in downtown Corpus Christi on Saturday, May, 11, and the schedule will feature two ceremonies:

  • 10 a.m.: College of Liberal Arts, College of Science and Engineering, and University College
  • 2 p.m.: College of Business, College of Education and Human Development, and College of Nursing and Health Sciences

“It's an honor to have the opportunity to serve as commencement speaker,” Canales said. “I myself am a mother of five, and I have attended now three of my five children's college graduations. I understand the importance of the significance of the day and I look forward to addressing the students, our future workforce and future citizens of Texas, and hopefully Nueces County.”

For Canales, 2018 proved to be a remarkable one for the longtime Corpus Christi business and civic leader. In the middle of her third term as a Nueces County Commissioner for the Port of Corpus Christi, she won a tight race to become Nueces County Judge, a seat vacated by Loyd Neal. Already the first woman to serve as a commissioner for the Port of Corpus Christi, Canales is the first woman in Nueces County history to hold the county judge seat. The milestone earned her the coveted 2018 Corpus Christi Caller-Times Newsmaker of the Year award.

An engineer and attorney by training, Canales was the W. B. Ray High School Class of 1984 valedictorian and class president before going on to earn a bachelor’s degree in Petroleum Engineering from The University of Texas in 1989 and a Juris Doctorate degree from the University of Houston’s School of Law in 1992.  

As a business owner who has had a hand in several oil and gas exploration companies, she is supportive of the Society of Hispanic Professional Engineers and gave a talk about her career to its members on campus during Women’s History Month in March. Canales said the addition of the engineering program at the Island University in 2009 means Coastal Bend students can study for a lucrative and rewarding career close to home.

Selena Mendoza, a Mechanical Engineering senior from Aransas Pass who is graduating this semester, is inspired by Canales’ devotion to the Corpus Christi community.

“Having Judge Canales as a commencement speaker and knowing her background – she graduated from Ray High School – that inspires me to go back to my community and be a role model,” Mendoza said. “When you leave the community it’s very hard to make the choice to come back, but Judge Canales came back and found those opportunities. That says to me that I can find those opportunities for my career close to home and give back to my community.”

 “To be able to have an engineering program in our backyard allows me to say, ‘You don't have to go far to find a first-class education in these fields.’ It also gives us the critical link that we need for placement of our graduates with our industry here in Nueces County,” Canales said. “The energy Renaissance that has really exploded in the last few years affording the opportunity to attract new manufacturers and new industries to our region allows us to make a nexus between the educational component and the actual workforce component.”

The great-niece of American GI Forum founder Dr. Hector P. Garcia, Canales said the legacy of the iconic Mexican-American civil rights activist will be preserved for generations through the Bell Library digitization project, which has made his papers accessible to scholars all over the world. The fountain plaza, named in his honor, is laid out in a way that encourages engagement whether through intimate conversation or larger community gatherings. Additionally, the family of Dr. Garcia created a scholarship and endowment in his name to help make education a little more accessible.

“The plaza is the heart of the University for the students, and so having Dr. Hector's bronze statue makes you feel like he's always with you. And then I understood over time that students go and rub his feet for luck before a big exam or finals, and I think he would just find that so funny,” Canales reflected. “It's such a great tradition that students go to him the way presidents went to him, the way governors went to him, the way ordinary people went to him. And because he was friend to presidents and to paupers alike, the fact that he's there in the plaza for everyone to go to and to ask for a blessing for good luck on those exams is a great way to honor Dr. Hector.”

Looking ahead to tomorrow is the focus of Canales’s keynote address. She also is inspired by the historical milestone that Dr. Kelly M. Quintanilla has accomplished as the Island University’s first female president.   

“I'm grateful to Dr. Quintanilla for her leadership -- she is a reason that I am excited about our future because the stars have aligned, and she's made history first,” Canales said. “I look to her to establish this amazing reflection in how we're going to advance this society -- I am pleased to be a part of congratulating each and every graduate on that very special day.”