Leading the Pack: President and First Lady Vela Return to Javelina Nation

by Elaine Barnes - Contributing Writer


Dr. Robert Vela ’94, ’98, ’03 & Anna Lisa Vela ’98, ’01
Distinguished Alumni

"It’s just an amazing feeling being gone for so long and coming back and feeling like we never really left.”

Their story together – and journey as Javelinas – began long before becoming the President and First Lady of Texas A&M University-Kingsville that we recognize today. But for Dr. Robert Vela ’94, ’98, ’03 and wife Anna Lisa Vela ’98, ’01, their return to our South Texas community feels not just like a full-circle moment for them personally, but a cherished homecoming.


“We were set up on a blind date through a mutual friend of ours sometime in January,” said Anna Lisa, sharing a smile with Robert before he chimed in, “Our first official date was here in Kingsville, at the local theatre, and the film we watched was Edward Scissorhands. I know Anna thinks this is kind of corny, but I still have that shirt I wore that night – I never got rid of it.”


And the rest was, as they say, history. Only a few months past that special date, the two were engaged; and a year later, married. “I won’t recommend that for my daughters,” Robert jested, “but Anna and I were tough. It was a different time back then.” Looking back at the start of their lives together, the couple recognized their shared determination not just for creating a successful future for themselves, but one their families could be proud of.


“I would say that because we were so young, and me literally just coming out of my household and family, [Texas A&M-Kingsville] taught me independence and finding the confidence and believing that Robert and I were going to be okay,” shared Anna Lisa.


That confidence was fostered by a unique support system uncovered as students at our university, with both Anna Lisa and Robert praising the profound impact that professors and mentors made in their lives. “For me, Dr. Darwin Nelson, who unfortunately passed, and Dr. Gary Low, who was the inaugural dean of the College of Education,” Robert stated, “Those two men … you talk about student-centric and putting students first, that’s what they lived by.”


The inherent community, pack-mentality and loving family experience that defines Javelina Nation thrills both Anna Lisa and Robert to now share with their three daughters. “We have our 14-year-old that we’re raising at home, and I sometimes envision her coming to school here,” Anna Lisa admitted. “My hope is she does, and hopefully Robert is still president at that time, and she would have that leadership to follow in. As for our older daughters, we’re just making them a part of this journey with us – because it’s a journey we’ll carry with us forever – so getting them as involved as much as we can, whenever we’re all together.”


With the couple holding five degrees at Texas A&M University-Kingsville between them, it goes without saying that they are firm believers in the transformative power of a Javelina education and understand firsthand what it means to bleed blue and gold.


“The community has been so kind to us, and there’s a couple that stand out who I will forever hold dear: Mama Hog and Jackie Collins. They’ve really taken us under their wings and made us feel absolutely welcome, along with everyone else at the university,” Anna Lisa explained. “It’s just an amazing feeling being gone for so long and coming back and feeling like we never really left.”


“I echo all of that,” Robert followed. “It’s overwhelming … it’s coming full circle. Coming here as young individuals with a lot of hope and faith, but not really sure how to get all these letters behind my name … I grew up in Alice, Texas – that just doesn’t happen.”


He continued, “It’s not because people don’t have the talent or skills, but it’s just that someone has to break the glass ceiling, someone’s got to pave the way. It’s scary and takes courage. The critical knowledge we learned at Texas A&M-Kingsville helped us. When you can get that formal education but also the wrap-around love from the Javelina Family, it’s something special.”


And even more special to them than wearing the title of President and First Lady of Texas A&M-Kingsville is fully embracing their roles as Javelina Alumni, stewarding the next generation of leaders, community-transformers, and first-generation students who mirror a similar journey to the one Anna Lisa and Robert embarked on together all those years ago.


“I go back to what baseball Coach [Jason] Gonzales said at a fundraiser that’s stuck with me since,” Anna Lisa commented. “Being a Javelina means being part of a pack. Wherever you go, no matter what you need, there’s going to be someone who’s going to pick you up and help you through.”


Looking ahead, the couple promises never to lose sight of the foundation on which Javelina Nation is built: tenacity, grit, perseverance and family. “Robert and I truly know what it is to walk the halls and be a part of what is here,” Anna Lisa stated. “So being a part of a bigger mission and the pride here that is so deep … having the ability to be a part of what is to come is just a blessing overall.”


Nodding in understanding, Robert paused thoughtfully before concluding, “[Being a Javelina means] pride, honor and integrity. We have a tremendous amount of integrity. When you grow up in rural parts of South Texas and come from humble beginnings, you realize at some point that you don’t have a lot… but when we came [to Texas A&M-Kingsville], it was a sense of owning and valuing and understanding the jewel we had here in our backyard. To see this oasis in these parts of Texas – it’s like a portal of excellence to something bigger and greater than yourself.