The morning after the Houston floods…

For three days, Hurricane Harvey’s fury was unleashed over Houston, dumping 50 inches of rainwater, flooding homes, submerging cars and turning highways into deadly waterways. People all across the world watched in horror as boats rescued people stranded on rooftops and porches calling out for help with children and pets in their arms.

Morning after

…and finally sun came out

The morning after the storm, the sun came out bright and warm as if the last three days were just a bad dream and now everything was just the same. However, nothing was the same. Thousands of people were in shelters, hundreds of cars were water-damaged, countless homes had flooded, and all the businesses had “closed” signs dangling in their windows. Signs of shock and despair were everywhere. I found it hard to shake the feeling off myself.

volunteers in line

“What is this line for? food? shelter? clothes? No, it is to volunteer.”

Then I saw a photo showing a long line of people in front of the George R. Brown Shelter with the caption, “What is this line for? food? shelter? clothes? No…this line is to volunteer!” And I knew right away that we were going to be okay.

Our Emergency Management Team at the University of Houston had been working day and night to assess the storm, alert people and harden the campus infrastructure. No one had time to focus on themselves. Staff members in campus residence halls and dining facilities had gone without rest for days. By now, students were themselves helping out in dining halls by cleaning tables and assisting servers. Our first responders had been fielding phone calls and monitoring the situation without blinking.  They too were exhausted not only physically but also emotionally from the suffering they had witnessed.

As the sun came out, we all took a long, deep breath, knowing in our hearts that the road to recovery would be as daunting and draining, if not more.

It was clear that the storm took no mercy and spared no one. In my own office, every single person was impacted. My chief of staff was forced out of his home with his young family due to mandatory evacuations. My executive assistant was out of her home with her husband and two young children after her home got flooded. Another one escaped the flooding but saw a tree fall on her car. The transportation assistant was out of his own transportation, for flood water reached his garage and totaled his car along with his home.

Devastation

No one was spared!

Many of my cabinet members and members of the Emergency Management Team had the same stories of lost cars and lost homes. And yet, during the storm, no one shared their own pain. They were on duty working for the University from the Emergency Operations Center, or their phones and computers from home, while managing their own families and property losses on the side.

One of the senior team members took my call from the second floor of her home where she and her children had taken refuge as water soaked the floor below. I told her that I would be diverting students’ inquiries to someone else because she needed to take care of her family.” She replied politely yet firmly, “Please keep sending them to me. My computer is working and I would like to help students as much as I can.”

The morning after the storm was the first time we had time to check on one another. We did so but immediately got back to work, this time in the context of recovery and rebuilding.  Overnight, the Emergency Management Team had turned into the Recovery Management Team focusing on three things: (1) accurate, timely, and compassionate communication; (2) taking care of our own—students, staff and faculty; (3) helping rebuild the city. While the Recovery Team was organizing institutional initiatives around these three goals, the SGA (Student Government Association) and Faculty Senate were busy putting up Facebook groups to let people connect with one another and help.

UH students volunteering

Students were volunteering at shelters

Within hours, people were offering their guest bedrooms, spare cars, ride shares, pet care, child care, laundry, storm clean-up and much more. Our students and staff, donning their red shirts, could be seen at many shelters and distribution locations. The mood was upbeat, optimistic, gracious and hopeful.  Indeed, there were tears and sufferings, but for the time being, people had put them aside for the collective good of the community.

Even though the campus infrastructure weathered the storm reasonably well, we knew that our people did not. Classes and all campus activities were cancelled for another week. We had to postpone the first football game of the season even though it was to be played in San Antonio. Our players, having relocated to Austin during the storm, simply needed time to heal by hugging their families and helping their neighbors.

By now, we have seen more sunrises and with each one, there are more stories of suffering but also more stories of resilience. The city is trying to regain the sense of normalcy. There is traffic on roads, cars in parking lots and “open” signs flickering in shop windows. I am resolving to never complain about traffic or lack of parking, for I cannot forget how dreadful these deserted roads and parking lots made me feel.

Now, as we reopen the campus, we intend to do so with three core values in mind: support, flexibility and compassion. Yes, we can ensure some of these institutionally, but the ultimate test will be to see if we can execute them locally in every unit and department where it all eventually matters.

My hats off to my team that amazes me with its dedication and to the city of Houston that inspires me with its “can-do” spirit!

A UH alumna

Her house was destroyed by water, but her UH regalia was hanging proudly outside. “It was important to save it”, she said

Clean up

Bonner program students from UH Honors College have been cleaning up homes

 

 

 

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Houston floods and the saga of 200 stranded Indian students…

On August 25, 2017, Hurricane Harvey made a landfall about 160 miles south of Houston. The storm traveled to Houston and stalled over the city for the next three days, pouring 50 inches of water on an anxious community. By August 27, city’s bayous broke their limits, water entered homes and roads turned into deadly waterways. No city could be prepared for such a downpour, and Houston fell victim to this natural calamity.

As Chancellor of the University of Houston, I was faced with decisions that impacted the well-being of more than 71,000 students and 10,000 staff. My Emergency Management Team worked around the clock, sent out alerts, warnings, and information preparing our apprehensive students, faculty and staff. I closed the University in time to allow people to secure supplies, harden homes and find shelter if they so chose. Houston was not evacuated, mandatory or voluntarily. Nearly 2,500 students living in campus dorms chose to stay with us. I joined my communications team in reaching out to students and staff using social media and email.

On August 27 at 10:30pm, I was glancing over my Facebook page when my eye caught a post by the Consul General of India-Houston, Dr. Anupam Ray, reposting an entry from Ravi Shankar and asking for help for stranded Indian students at the University of Houston. Understandably concerned, I immediately entered a comment to the post asking Ravi to call our police. I posted a similar message to Ravi on Twitter, which I use for official communications. I also called the University of Houston Police Chief Moore, who established contact with Ravi within 5 minutes. Ravi also reached out to me – and all of this within 10 minutes!

Ravi serves as president of GISO (Graduate Indian Student Organization) and was not staying with the students at the time. He involved Riken Pandya, an alumnus of the University of Houston, who was with the stranded students. The two of them exhibited extraordinary leadership in organizing students and handling all the logistics. Our Police Chief asked them the names and numbers of all stranded students and contacted them to identify the level of emergency.

I spoke with Ravi and Riken personally. Not all of them were University students. Despite media reports to the contrary, they were not living in university housing. They were tenants at a private apartment complex approximately 3 miles from the University.

Police Chief Moore reported back to me with additional information: (1) students were safe and dry on the second floor of the building. They had food and water but no electricity. (2) Streets were flooded and water was at the doorstep of some apartments on the first floor. And (3) students were scared (which was natural) but were in no imminent danger. With this information in hand, the police and the Coast Guard decided that a night-time water evacuation was not warranted. They put students on the list for morning evacuation and turned toward attending to calls from those who had life-threatening and medical emergencies.

Students remained in direct contact with the Consul General, the UH police chief, and myself for the remainder of their stay at the stranded property. I spoke with students personally at night and again in the morning. They were concerned but calm, worried but comforted.

Meanwhile, a Houston leader, Jiten Agrawal, also heeded Consul General Ray’s call. He established contact with students and arranged food and water delivery. At the time, Jiten was evacuating an American family with a child on a ventilator that was about to shut down because of a low battery.  Jiten’s heart was big enough to handle both types of crises, attending to meeting the immediate needs of the Indian students while also saving an American family.

The morning of August 28 was a different story. Bayou water receded and roads approaching the apartment complex were cleared. Power was back in the apartment complex and a water rescue no longer seemed necessary.

Harvey6

With students

In the morning, the stranded students were visited by Ravi and then by Consul General Ray. I made calls to Ravi, Riken, the Police Chief and then headed to the University of Houston campus to check on 2,500 students in the university housing. From there, I proceeded to the apartment complex where Indian students were stranded. It was 2:30 p.m. by now.

It was heartwarming to see the students sitting in a circle feasting on the hot meal sent by BAPS Swami Narayan Temple under the decoration of blinking Christmas lights. Since

I had not eaten anything, the aroma of vegetable biryani lifted my mood and made me long for India. In the spirit of true Indian hospitality, the students offered me food and one of them even said, “I can make you some fresh coffee.” Of course, I declined, for I was too overwhelmed to eat. Students were together, strong, comforted, cared for and in no panic.

I learned that 15 of the students had cars and could transport 60 students to a safer location immediately. While most wanted to relocate, with hot food in front and power back, they appeared to be in no hurry to do so. I had a police escort and offered to guide the cars using dry roads to the new location, but they needed more time to pack and get ready. Only one car was able to follow me.

I made a call to Dr. Durga Agarwal, a prominent Houston leader and also a regent of the University of Houston System for further assistance. Within 30 minutes, Dr. Agarwal, his son, daughter, neighbors and friends showed up with additional vans to transport students to other locations. They took many students home.

Harvey2

Students being relocated

As I look at this in the rearview mirror, I am inspired by what happened on that one night. Consul General Ray set an example of how a well-functioning government takes care of its citizens by deploying resources from the local community. Ravi and Riken set good examples of how volunteer leadership organizes itself in times of crisis. UH Police and Coast Guard demonstrated how first responders manage multiple calls for help assessing each one in its own context and providing each what is needed. Indian Americans in Houston set a good example of generosity by opening their homes and hearts to strangers.

Harvey5

With Anil Agrawal’s family

And finally, the stranded Indian students set an example of maturity way beyond their age and experience. Some had been in the USA for only two weeks. They took care of one another and, once safe, turned around to help others in shelters. They went door-to-door, called 911, transferred elderly to their apartment on the 2nd floor and helped the rescue of a cancer patient.

I, for one, am humbled beyond words. Hurricane Harvey is leaving us with many memories and this one will be sketched forever in my heart. Thank you everyone for a job well done!

Five gifts my mom left for me…

After a prolonged illness, my mother said her final goodbye to us two weeks ago. I thought I was prepared, but not so. It took me several days to transition from mourning my loss to celebrating her life. Here are the five lessons I learned from her.

  1. Never ever let negativity define you. My mom was born in Rawalpindi, Pakistan, but shared her childhood days between Amritsar and Lahore. She witnessed terror firsthand as tensions between Hindus and Muslims turned violent following India’s independence. Friends became enemies, neighbors turned into looters and moms tearfully tucked poison in their daughters’ lockets to give them an option. During this difficult time, her family was ripped apart; those in Lahore had to resettle in India. She also lost her father, adding to the uncertainty and trauma. She carried the memories of those days and recalled them for us, but did not let them taint her fundamental view of the world, a world where all people had goodness in them and all religions held the same truth. She survived, thrived, made friends with people from all religions and exposed her children to all belief systems.
  2. There is a trail to blaze no matter where you are and what you do. She married into a very traditional
    Mom

    Mom

    family where more than 20 people lived under one roof, each with a separate bedroom but sharing a common kitchen. Interpersonal conflicts were natural, and compromises were always called for. She followed family rituals and traditions to the fullest but always found a way to be who she was—fundamentally a progressive, adventurous, free-spirited woman! She wore a sari, but was the first one in the family to tie it in the then frowned-upon “progressive” style. Needless to say, that same style became the standard fashion of the next generation. She was the first one in the family to get married without a veil, the first one to form a women’s organization and the first one to ask for a home subscription of a newspaper. In fact, she was reading five newspapers a day until her body lost the strength to sit. She was a master knitter and an experimental cook whose skills and interests knew no bounds.

  3. You can be intensely spiritual and passionately pragmatic at the same time. My mom was a deeply spiritual person. From going to temples to celebrating festivals to helping the poor to holding her morning chants, she did everything to build her inner strength. At the same time, she was ready to adapt, reform, and modify practices to adjust to the ever-changing life style. “My God is very flexible,” she would say and shorten the prayers in order to get to her social causes, like constructing water wells for travelers or distributing blankets to the poor. The concept of untouchability was completely eradicated from our house as soon as she assumed the mantle of matriarchy. There was not a poor girl in town who came in her contact and was not grilled about her education. She would scold her parents if they did not believe in sending their daughter to school and would often pay tuition if finances turned out to be the reason.
  4. Love life and be adventurous. In a society where women could not go to gyms or join sports clubs, she took on table tennis. In our town, there were only two tables for playing table tennis, one at the Officer’s Club and the other at our home and each year, there were two champions—the official champion of the city and the other, my mom, the self-declared unofficial champion, having defeated every guest and visitor to the house. She would invent word puzzles and brain games for club parties and test them on us. On my short visits to India from the United States, she would present her quizzes on American politics, capitals and monuments. I would protest by saying, “But I live in America.” To which she would calmly say, “Yes, but let’s see how much you know about America.” For her, everything had to be more than ordinary and every experience had to be more than special. My father loved to travel, and mom took full advantage of every experience. She even traveled through snow-clad Himalayas in her sari and slipper socks, riding a pony for three days to reach the holy temple of Amarnath.
  5. Family comes first! My mom had a deeply fulfilling relationship with my father. During their first year of marriage, my dad drafted a 75-page, handwritten letter to my mom. My mom’s devotion to my father was also legendary on good days and bad. We—her husband and children–were her joy, pride and life. In a time and age when male children were preferred over female, my mom was gender- blind. She raised my sister and me with the same care and attention as she did my brother. She expected nothing but the best from all of us. I never ever heard her raise her voice or say one bad word about anyone irrespective of what harm anyone may have caused her. She swallowed hurts with grace and always handed out serenity in return.
  6. Today, my heart aches from the void that I know will never be filled. But I find solace in her words, “If you count your blessings, you will never have time to complain about anything.” Thank you, mom, for teaching me how to count my blessings and today I know that you have been the most precious of them all.

Leaders are tested before being accepted

“Seriously? Two hours before commencement?? Again this year???” I posted on Twitter last Saturday, airing my frustration with the sudden turn of the weather. It was thundering hard with constant bolts of lightning striking even harder.

A similar downpour had dampened the first university-wide commencement ceremony last year featuring the actor Matthew McConaughey as our graduation speaker.

Hoping for the best, I took my fancy academic regalia and headed to the campus. I stood at the balcony of the football stadium admiring the pristine lines of white chairs ready for the graduates. But all were empty. I could see that some guests had already started to assemble under the covered areas of the stadium. Nearly 20,000 tickets had been claimed for the event!

It was 40 minutes to starting time when the UH Emergency Team called me to recommend that the ceremony be cancelled. “It was too dangerous for people to be on the road,” the team had concluded based on the countless weather briefings.

“But what about the hundreds of people who are already here?” I challenged the recommendation. I mulled it over for a few minutes and then decided to over-rule it.

“UH commencement moved from TDECU to basketball arena to respect those who are already here or in transit. Scott Kelly will speak.” I sent out another tweet.

The basketball arena was not ready. There was no PA system, no flowers and no music. With utmost urgency, the staff heroically relocated the event to its new venue. In the end, the event turned out beautifully with more than 5,000 in attendance. Our commencement speaker, the former astronaut Captain Scott Kelly, was genuine and inspiring. No one could tell that we pulled it off without a backup plan. After all, until that morning the weather was predicted to be “beautiful with light afternoon showers.”

I’m thankful my decision turned out to be the right one. I recalled a time eight years ago when a similar decision was not so accurate. I was in my first year of the presidency, in 2008, and we were facing the harrowing arrival of Hurricane Ike. The UH Emergency Team recommended campus closure, and I accepted that decision without hesitation.

Wortham House after Hurricane Ike

Wortham House after Hurricane Ike

Even though Houston was spared the worst of the hurricane, the impact of high winds and rains crippled the city for weeks. A few days later, upon the recommendation of the UH Emergency Team, I reopened the campus but only partially. While campus buildings were open, the decision to hold classes was left to the discretion of individual faculty members. It seemed like the right decision at the time.

However, the coming days would prove otherwise. I had come from Florida having weathered four hurricanes and had assumed that the stormy situation would be the same in Houston. But two cultural contexts are never the same. Our routine emergency systems in place for automatic calls and texts did not work, for less than one-third of the people had subscribed to it. Even if they had, there was no electricity for them to charge their phones or laptops to receive texts or emails anyway. Roads had been cleared, but people were unable to travel because stations could not pump gas without electricity.

Wortham House after Hurricane Ike

Wortham House after Hurricane Ike

My communications team was scattered and mostly immobilized. Many team members had suffered serious damage to their homes and cars. I moved my operations into the garage, the only room in the house with a small generator. It was also a challenging time at the personal level. Several members of my family were traveling from India to attend my investiture, unfortunately scheduled during the same week, and were now stranded in several cities across America.

During the day, I was on the campus checking up on residential students and helping faculty/staff organize the delivery of food to people in need. During the night, I was up feverishly answering emails from frustrated faculty and students.

It was a tough week. The only silver lining was that our campus was relatively functional with electricity and running water and therefore, we, the University of Houston, could serve as the largest point of food distribution for the city, helping thousands of people every day.

The following week proved to be as difficult albeit in a different way. Classes resumed and staff returned, but by now the “premature opening of the campus” had become the magnet drawing all the negative attention. Amid all this, the Faculty Senate called for an open meeting to discuss the decision. An agenda had been carefully crafted with the help of the provost to lay out the questions and expected answers.

I recall the hall being packed for the meeting. My cabinet members were seated in front, directly facing the audience. The agenda required each one of them to explain his or her role in the emergency management process in general, but also in the decision to reopen the campus in particular.

When called to speak, I took the microphone and, on the spur of the moment, decided to abandon my prepared remarks and open the meeting instead by saying, “I am the president and as president, I take full responsibility for the decision to reopen the campus irrespective of who advised me what, how and why.” Instead of following the agenda and asking my vice presidents to explain their respective roles, I turned to the audience and invited them to share their feelings and frustrations. To me, honoring their presence by listening to them seemed more important than defending our position and reliving a decision of the past.

After one or two angry speeches, the meeting turned reflective and introspective. Many people spoke about the wonderful ways in which people had helped the community, their neighbors and each other. Some even expressed their gratitude for opening the campus early, for they were able to get hot meals and cool off in air-conditioned rooms. The meeting turned out to be a good healing point.

Even though my investiture was postponed until six weeks later, I feel that I was tested and accepted as a leader during that one week. It was the turning point where “Khator, the president appointed by the Board of Regents” became “Khator, the colleague we could share with and have respect for.”

Very often, newly appointed university presidents ask me how long does it take to become one of “them.” And in return I always ask, “Have you passed your leadership test yet?” Because I know that such a test, even though unpredictable, is inevitable.

It is one thing to be appointed as a leader; it is quite another to be accepted as one after going through a shared experience, exposing your flaws, accepting your failures, coming out holding hands, and ultimately earning your colleagues’ trust.

 

As if someone had just opened a window…

Earlier this month while going through the daily ritual of reading my mail, I found a brown campus envelope. Inside was a book titled Before We Visit the Goddess, by Chitra Bannerjee Divakaruni. As I held the book in my hands, I felt the sudden gush of cool air, as if someone had just opened a window. The feeling was familiar, for I have known it since my childhood.

Growing up in a small town in India without television or the Internet, I had limited opportunities for exposure to the outside world. Books and magazines, carefully selected and mail-ordered by my parents, were the only introduction to the magical world that lay outside 3-mile radius of our town. Each month, I waited eagerly for the arrival of the postman who brought these books neatly wrapped in brown envelopes. The time between these deliveries was filled in by magazines, unceremoniously slipped through the crack in the door by the newspaper delivery man.

As much as I loved magazines, the books brought me the most joy. Stories, poems, novels—I read them all and then reread them until the characters became a part of my world. I remember tearing open the envelopes, holding the books in my hands, staring at the covers and feeling lost in anticipation of what lay inside. The sensation was … exhilarating. Every time, it was like the gush of cool air as if someone had just opened a window.

Those books were my window to the world, a world that was outside of my reach, a world that was more a mystery than reality to me, but a world I very much wanted to be a part of.

Now, standing in my office and holding the proof copy of Chitra’s latest novel, I was feeling the same exhilaration. As an avid reader of fiction written by Indian-American authors, I have followed Chitra’s writings since 1995 when her first collection of short stories, Arranged Marriages, was published. I knew Chitra before she ever knew me.

Almost nine years ago, I received my first correspondence from Chitra. I had just been appointed president of the University of Houston and was taking a few weeks off before formally undertaking the new position. In preparation for the impending leisure travel, I stopped by at the neighborhood bookstore and picked up two of Chitra’s novels. What better time to indulge in some good literature.

The next morning when I turned on my computer, the name “Divakaruni” flashed in my email inbox. I stared in disbelief. I knew no other Divakaruni and Chitra had no reason to know me. So who is this email from? I eagerly opened it.  

It was indeed from the one and only Chitra Divakaruni, congratulating me on my new position. She introduced herself as one of the professors in the famous Creative Writing program at the University of Houston. I remember calling my husband and telling him that it looks like the job has come with more perks than I had negotiated for.

For the past eight years, I have enjoyed Chitra’s writings with additional familiarity. Chitra’s characters either live in India or have migrated from India and have the power to take me on journeys that are familiar and unpredictable at the same time. Her characters are easy to like—they are Indians…they are women…and they are strong!  

Before We Visit the Goddess is a multigenerational story of women in an Indian family. Sabitri, the grandmother, lives in India keenly aware of the many miles that separate her from her family in America. Bela, the mother, migrates to America under dubious circumstances and experiences the hardships most Indians coming to America to study or work are unfamiliar with. Tara, the daughter, is born and brought up in America and faces all the confusion that can surround the first generation of Indian-Americans. All three experience the complex emotions of “falling in love” and “falling out of love” with equal intensity and pain. All three lean on someone – someone outside the family – during tough times, but in the end each one discovers her own unique identity, an identity that is hers and hers alone.

What a powerful piece of literature from a wonderfully humble author! And she is part of our family, a member of the University of Houston faculty! Our Creative Writing Program is one of the best in the nation, and we know why.

Chitra has won multiple awards for her work and each one is a tribute to her extraordinary talent. But for me, she is a friend and an author whose books continue to open a window to the world, except now the world I see is the world that I have left behind, a world that remains as real as my own identity. And that sense of exhilaration remains as strong as ever.

The best diamond necklace I ever had…

…was the one I never saw.

Last month, my husband, Suresh, and I found ourselves at a fundraising charity gala. As the keynote speaker, I was particularly busy exchanging greetings, shaking hands and returning smiles – so I never made it to the auction table. I do so many of these galas that they often become just one more night to support a good cause.

But not this one!

As the announcer pleaded for people to purchase raffle tickets, I nudged Suresh to buy one. He made some small talk to the woman selling the tickets, took a look at the diamond necklace up for raffle, and handed her money for five tickets (obviously, he became enamored either with the seller or the necklace).

When the raffle time came, I saw Suresh in somewhat of a panic.

“Oh, where did I put those tickets?” he said, mumbling and searching frantically in his pockets. He pulled out my lipstick from one pocket and my cellphone from the other but no sign of tickets. Finally, he gave up, “I think I lost them. Well, I have never won anything anyway.” But at the last minute as the winning ticket was being drawn out of the jar, Suresh found his tickets neatly tucked inside his program.

2…1…8…7…6…9…9”…came the announcement followed by the loudest gasp I ever heard.

Suresh was instantly up on his feet, “It is me…my number…I never win anything.” Amid all the applause, he walked proudly to the stage to receive his sparkling prize. With the winning grin, he held the box containing the diamond necklace in his hands, admired it for a few seconds and then turned his head and looked at me. I was shaking my head in disbelief.

The next thing the audience heard on the microphone was Suresh’s voice, “My wife does not need diamonds so I would like to auction it off to raise more funds for the gala.” (While his statement about my not needing diamonds was certainly true, it would have been a lie had he declared, “My wife does not LIKE diamonds!”)

Suresh’s offer brought long, loud applause then the announcer turned into an impromptu auctioneer. Hands went up quickly, for there were a number of really generous people in the audience. At the end, the necklace raised more funds than its stated value. Suresh graciously handed over the necklace to the highest bidder and returned to his seat so incredibly happy.

He bent over and said softly in my ear, “You like to wear that UH championship pendant anyway, and I like you in that.” We both smiled.

This was another example why I believe that “Behind every successful woman is a SECURE man!” It may be her father, brother, husband, son or friend…but whoever he is, he has the inner strength to believe in her, to support her dreams with rock-solid confidence and to lift her spirits with just the right words. Here is to those men in our lives!!

Behind the Scene: The Republican Primary Debate

On Thursday, the Republican presidential candidates’ debate will air from the beautiful campus of the University of Houston. And yes, we are excited. The campus is already buzzing with excitement and activity. As I walked around the campus Monday, visiting the debate hall, the media center and the operations room, it reminded me of Indian weddings. With trucks pulling in, boxes lined up the walls, people rushing from one room to another and temporary tents getting secured on lawns, it felt festive and chaotic at the same time.

I kept checking nervously with my staff as well as those from CNN and RNC, “Is everything under control?” And yet, I knew that like all Indian weddings, everything will pull in at the last minute making it a perfect production.

It was less than three weeks ago that we got the final go ahead from our partners—RNC, CNN and Telemundo. Yes, just three weeks ago! But kudos to our UH team who took the challenge and are now driving it to a new level. Our faculty and staff are busy coordinating the logistics and supporting the event, but most importantly, they are busy ensuring that this event and everything surrounding it turns out to be a rich learning experience for our students.

We knew that tickets will be limited, but “25” was a much lower number than I was ready to hear. Even though we gave a portion to the tickets to students/faculty/staff for random drawing, it barely made a dent in the demand. So we had to think of every possible way to get people engaged and involved.

Yesterday, our faculty participated in multiple academic panels and debated a wide variety of topics from political philosophies to the United States Justice System to civic engagement. On Thursday, there will be a forum with CNN’s Anderson Cooper and a watch party for students. Another watch party is planned by the Faculty Senate. I know that many professors have integrated the debate into their classrooms as part of their research or learning assignment.

More than 400 media outlets have set up their desks in the media center, which looks as impressive as central command offices you see in movies. More than 70 students are working as volunteers hoping to rub shoulders with journalists or get selfies with the candidates. One told me he can’t wait to put the debate volunteerism on his resume.

Dr. Temple Northrup, Chair of Valenti School of Communication, made my day on Monday as he summed up the opportunity the debate has offered to his students in an email on Monday:

First, journalism students will be live tweeting the debate, providing student insights into the event. Second, our students will be creating a live poll that will be shown to the students at the watch party. The students at the Student Center will get to text votes in throughout the evening as our students question them about what they’re seeing. Lastly, all of this will be done with a live streamed broadcast using our talented broadcast journalism students. During commercial breaks at the Student Center, they will hear from our students, who will be broadcasting live from our building.”

It is not to say that bringing the debate to campus has been without challenges or controversies. Many faculty members had to adjust their classes, many staff members had to give up their offices, many administrators had to divert their time from other pressing projects, and many students have had to search even longer for parking. I also wonder if I have personally made more enemies than friends by denying them tickets and instead letting those tickets go to random drawing for students.

In the end, however, we hope that the opportunity for our students to learn, for our community to engage and for our university to be showcased to one of the largest national audiences ever will outweigh whatever challenges and controversies we faced. All things considered, I must say that our faculty, staff and students have been awesome!

So, even if you are not politically inclined, you may want to tune in for the debate because it is coming from one of America’s most beautiful urban campuses! At UH, we place a premium on community engagement. Often, that means our own neighborhood or city. But Thursday night, the community we are engaging is the entire country, and UH is especially proud and excited to play an important role in our national political conversation.

Think, act and play like a winner

If there is one lesson that Year 2015 taught me, it was to “think, act and play like a winner.” Don’t wait to be declared a winner … just be one!

Winning is an attitude. Have it!

Last year, I witnessed this attitude in three very different areas of the university. I saw it among a group of faculty who found 50 industry partners to establish a consortium in order to compete for a national research center. Those of us in the field know that it is hard to find even one industry partner, let alone 50! But these faculty did not care.

I also experienced the same winning attitude played out among a group of dedicated administrators and faculty as they coordinated efforts to bring a chapter of the Phi Beta Kappa (PBK) honor society to campus. The 30-month evaluation process is as rigorous as one can imagine. I was told that the first attempt to bring PBK by the University of Houston was made 30 years ago! But these people did not care.

Finally, I saw this attitude among our football players as they toppled the higher-ranked former national champion Florida State University team to win the Peach Bowl in front of a national audience who were scratching their heads and asking, “Who are these Cougars again?” I was told that the last time our team played in a major bowl game was 31 years ago! But our players did not care.

In each case, we, as an institution, dreamed bigger than ourselves. People undertook challenges with all the odds stacked against them.  They were shooting for the stars despite being told repeatedly that the stars were made for others.  Facing historical odds, they chose to become their own stars, make their own tracks and write their own history.

In each case, people—faculty, administrators, students—knew that they were winners long time before they actually won anything. They held no doubts and asked no questions. They never whined, they never complained, and they never paused.

How befitting it was that such a special year ended with the Peach Bowl win on December 31, when the Cougars, led by a first-year head coach, won by 14 points while they were projected to lose by 7! From the first play, they dominated the game as if they did this kind of thing every day.

I followed the national media throughout the season as they put one team after another on the pedestal and as they predicted “anyone but Houston” to win it all. Every single time, I said to myself, “They just don’t know Houston Cougars.”

I had the honor and the pleasure to be in Atlanta the day Houston won the 2015 Peach Bowl Championship. I will never forget the colorful rain of confetti, the deafening sound of the band, the joyous screams of players, but most of all, the sight of an elderly couple in embrace with tears streaming down their faces at the end of the game. I nearly cried as I heard the husband say softly to his wife, “I never thought I would see this day again.”

As memorable as the day was, it was the day of rewards, not the day of winning. The day our players became winners was the day when Coach Tom Herman first made them believe that they could be champions. Since that day, they thought like winners, acted like winners and played like winners.

I have noticed that very often we are too focused on what we don’t have rather than focusing on what we do have. If we cannot even see, feel and touch what we have, how can we build on it?

I am inspired by people around me who think, act and play like winners. It may seem fearlessness, foolishness or naïveté, but I believe anything is possible in the “Land of the Red.”  We have done it before, and we will do it again.  Happy Winning Year to You!

 

Blessed are those who give…

Like every other university president, I spend countless hours raising funds for my university. People often ask me if I like doing so. I smile and reply, “I love it!” Born and brought up in a privileged family, I found asking for anything, let alone money, was difficult at first, but it became easy once I figured out that I was helping two individuals – one who has the means and wishes to make a difference and one who has the dream but needs someone to believe in her.

Daisy

Daisy

The connections that we, as fundraisers, make have transformational impact. No, it is not about transforming an organization. It is about transforming a life, a family and even a generation. Here is an account from Daisy, one of our students, who stood up to thank a group of donors recently.

“Hello, my name is Daisy and I am currently a sophomore at the University of Houston where I am working on a dual degree in psychology and nursing. I think we are all aware about the allegations a presidential candidate made about illegal immigrants, specifically those who come across the Mexican border. He said they brought drugs and crime. He also said, ‘I assume some are good people.’ I promise I am not going to get into politics. I just want to say that he is right… kind of!

My parents, both immigrants, represent both sides of his spectrum. My dad was the drug- dealing criminal one. My mom was the most hard-working and caring person I know. When I was in Pre-K, my dad decided to buy some property. Soon after the contract was made, he got arrested and eventually deported. So my mom was the one who had to carry that huge responsibility of fixing the property so we could live in it. She literally started from zero.

My mom raised us on her own and gave us a place to live. She was always so loving. She would wake up each morning to walk us to the bus stop, made sure we left, then walked to work. Monday through Sunday, rain or shine. Growing up with a single, immigrant parent was so hard. I mean, the struggles were so real.

I really never thought I was poor; I actually thought I was rich because we didn’t ask for much, yet we had a lot. Now that I look back, I can’t believe we survived. I know it kind of sounds like I’m just talking about my mom, but really, I can’t imagine being here without her. I always worked so hard in school to make my mom proud. They told me in high school that if I worked hard enough, others would help me pay for college.

Today, I am here to thank you personally. The amount of gratitude I feel inside can’t be expressed. I can stand here and thank you all night and it still won’t be enough. I don’t know if you all are aware of how much difference you are making in our lives.

I remember when I first met my sponsor, I felt so blessed. He told me how he put his grandchildren through college and how he was glad he had the opportunity to help someone else. I felt truly humbled that he was willing to invest his money in complete strangers just so they could have a chance at their dreams. We hear about people investing in stocks, markets, and various industries, but rarely strangers.

I remember how many things were going wrong my senior year in high school. A week before the deadline, I heard about the Rodeo Scholarship. I hadn’t done ANYTHING and there was so much mailing and paperwork to do. I remember having a hopeless feeling deep inside of me, but I then had a Bible verse in mind which states, ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ I look back and I feel silly for feeling hopeless knowing that God is always with me and everything is possible through him.

Months after my application submission, I received an email notifying me that I was the only one in my school to be awarded this scholarship. And we’ll, here I am today.

This scholarship is not a gift. It is a loan, because just like you all are making this happen for me, sometime in the near future it will be my turn to pass this loan along to someone who needs it just as much as I did. So again, thank you so much and don’t ever think that your time and efforts are pointless, because every second and even the smallest task has a great significance for people like me.”

Daisy finished her story to find that everyone was up on their feet, every eye was wet with tears of pride, and every heart was touched by her humility.

Personally, I have been at both ends of this give-and-take relationship. I still remember the day when I signed the withdrawal application and took it to my department advisor because I lacked the funds to pay tuition. (My husband was too proud to take money from my father, and no loans were available for international students). But a scholarship from Purdue University kept me in school. The bittersweet memory of that difficult time was very much on our minds as my husband and I made an endowment donation to the University of Houston to fund scholarships. As Daisy suggested, a scholarship is not a gift, it is a loan and we take great satisfaction in being able to repay it in our own way.

I am blessed to be a connector of those in need and those with means. Over the years, I have also learned that blessed are those who receive, but even more blessed are those who give!

When she asked me about my “typical” day?

I was wrapping up my speech to a group of young professionals when a woman raised her hand but quickly brought it down as if unsure. I prompted her to ask the question anyway. She said, “What does your typical day at work look like?”

“Typical? There is nothing typical,” I said casually, but realized that it is one of my most frequently asked questions, so I should answer. After a longer than usual pause, I said, “Would you allow me to tell you about two typical days?” Her face lit up and I began…

A Day in October

It is a beautiful fall morning. I do my daily yoga routine and get ready to leave for office, having ignored the pleading eyes of my dog to accompany me. I arrive for a 7:45 meeting at the university restaurant with a potential donor. Everything on the menu tempts me, but I end up ordering a bowl of berries – they are easy to eat when you have to listen carefully for the words that arent being said. Finding out about a donor’s true passion is the key to successful fundraising.

I arrive in my office by 9 a.m. for an audit briefing and then two more meetings after that – one to sign off on a $62 million construction project and the other to discuss system level issues with university presidents. I walk up to the kitchen to make myself a cup of tea and when I come back, one of my vice president’s is awaiting at the door to update me on something “real quick.” That two-minute “real quick” meeting ends up lasting for 45 minutes!

Meanwhile, two calls have come in, one of which seems rather urgent so I dial it on my cellphone while walking toward the library for the next meeting. The call is a complaint about the quality of food at our stadium’s concession stand. “You have got to be kidding me!” I say to myself, but because the call is from a very important person, I listen patiently and promise over and over again to take care of it right away.

All too soon, it is 12:15 p.m. and the Faculty Senate is in session. I am on the agenda to give a report, which I do, followed by a couple of questions from the floor. I stay for a while and enjoy listening to passionate arguments against an issue that has already been decided by the state legislature. But I am grateful for their insight because I know it will help us frame the implementation.

Back in the office, I grab a cup of soup and stick it in the microwave. During those few minutes while the microwave clock is winding down, I chat with whoever is in the kitchen. I am back in office for a meeting with the leaders of Student Government Association. Their agenda is long, but superbly organized and efficient. It is a joy to watch the next generation of leadership in the making.

I am eager to spend an hour of desk time, as clearly noted on my calendar from 3 to 4 p.m. But after only five minutes, one of the university attorneys walks in with a “for your information only” matter that turns into a 30-minute detailed discussion about how, why and what. I am grateful for the early alert.

I return the second phone call from the morning and make another one to a Board of Regents member on a pending issue. It is almost time to head to the academic building to offer greetings to 500 people assembled for a talk on energy. I quickly scan through the bio of the speaker, take a deep breath, and walk toward the podium to do my part.

At 5:30 p.m., I get in car to go home where 80-plus athletics boosters have been invited. Thanks to our wonderful staff, I can just walk in and play hostess. I give an update about the university, turn the program over to my vice president then hop in the car again for one final stop, a fund-raising dinner for one of our colleges where I need to make a few remarks before I can have my dinner.

I come back home around 10 p.m. and review the agenda for the next day before hitting the bed at 11:30 p.m. to fall asleep instantly.

If the day sounds like one made for the Energizer Bunny, it probably is. From September to May, with our university operating at full speed, it is all about stamina. There is precious little time for long-term, strategic thinking because the day is carved out in 30-minute slots. But then there’s …

A day in June

It is a hot and humid summer day. Now that the sun rises early, I am able to let my dog take me for a walk before getting to the office. I arrive at 8:15 a.m. and spend 30 minutes organizing papers and then walk in to the board room. Two flip charts are arranged on both sides of the table for this brainstorming session with vice presidents. The question of the day is, “What is a game changer for the University of Houston?” There are no passes. Everyone is forced to chime in and offer his or her best, brightest, and often crazy ideas. Once the list is exhaustive, we begin to pick apart each idea by looking at its feasibility, desirability and transformative impact. Finally, we vote and settle on our top three ideas before ending the meeting at noon.

I decide to have lunch in the student dining hall and then take an unscheduled tour of engineering building under construction. It is terribly hot, but I need to get out and feel the air. On my way back, I stop at the bookstore and casually chat with students enrolled in the summer session.

At 1:30 p.m., I leave for home where my long dining table is cluttered with papers left from the previous night with a warning sign, Do not touch. These papers include budget requests, performance numbers, tables and charts. Among them are also stacks of white papers and proposals. I make a cup of hot tea (yes, I survive on tea!) and pick up highlighters in yellow and pink colors.

I walk around the table and search for answers, but there are none to be found. “Why is the retention not better for low income students who are on full tuition waiver?” The figures puzzle me, so I make two calls to my contacts in other universities hoping to get to the bottom of the issue. One of my colleagues gives me the name of an industry expert, and I immediately call her. She promises to send me some material, and I offer to host her at a football game if she visits Houston.

I pick up a book from the small table nearby and for the next two hours, read the case study from a university where retention rates have dramatically jumped in recent years. I make a list of questions I should be asking our staff.

It is 6 p.m. and I feel like I should cook a good Indian dinner for my husband tonight, but the phone rings and our friends want to know if we care to try this new “hole-in-the-wall” ethnic restaurant. We agree and take our own bottle of wine that costs three times as much as the dinner itself.

Even though I want to go to bed early, I decide to check my email just one last time. I see that a colleague of mine has sent me several articles on university-led innovation centers and their impact on a city’s economy. I get engrossed and before I realize, it is midnight.

If that sounds like a day made for a graduate student, it probably is. Trained as a policy analyst, I relish delving into issues myself and coming up with strategies. This day has been all about strategy and such days last from June through August.

Two days, two lives! One is about strategy, the other about stamina. One feeds my scholarly spirit; the other keeps me close to the people I serve. I cherish both, and I have come to know that both are needed to lead the institution effectively.