That First Rodeo…

When I came to Houston, all I knew about the Rodeo was that it meant hats, boots, food and fun. I was thrilled to buy my first pair of Texas boots, hat and, of course, a rhinestone-studded belt. I was all set to party at my UH Night at the Rodeo reception when a petite woman with commanding voice called out, “You don’t mind eating later, do you? I need you right here for a photo with our Rodeo Scholars.” The voice was so authoritative, yet so full of affection, that I knew I had no choice but to follow her. Soon, I was on my 25th photo and still hadn’t even taken my first bite. I saw this woman commanding everyone with the same ease as she did me and I saw everyone following her with the same helplessness as I did.

Her instructions were almost mother-like. “You, with the red hat in the back, come forward.” “You, Jennifer, better be smiling at the camera.” “You sir, I cannot see you, which means that the camera cannot see you either.” No one protested against her commands and no one minded her authority. With her blind passion, she personified the real spirit of the Rodeo. She was our own Nancy Clarke.

In that one evening, I learned from Nancy that Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo is not just about hats, boots, food and fun, but it is also about students, their future and their dreams. Thanks in great part to Nancy’s stewardship, the Rodeo has donated over $13 million to help nearly 1,300 University of Houston students graduate.. Each one of these graduates has stories that are enough to bring tears to anyone’s eyes…full of inspiration and hope. I know that programs like Rodeo Scholars become successful only if there is someone special to nurture them. For the University of Houston, Nancy is that very special person. She is our Rodeo Queen.

I wanted to find a photo of Nancy in my 500-plus photo file, called “Rodeo,” but failed to find a single one. That tells you something about Nancy…a person who is not in it for herself, but for the cause. Nancy and all those who are stewarding relationships for a cause , thank you. You help make this a better place!

Enjoy these photos from the Rodeo.

mail[2] (2)Rodeo Scholars 1HLSR 1 24 13 Corral Club Brenda Melgar 012 (2)Cougar Cookers 2 21 13 100Rodeo Cheerleaders

My words are hollow until…

My words are hollow until they fill them with substance. They give meaning to my words; they make them real.

I am talking about Krystafer and Sarah and 18 other University of Houston students who are currently interning in Austin. As a university president, I am often in Austin defending our budget, showcasing our progress, and making our case for future investments. In fact, I have already testified four times and will probably do so four more times before the session is over.  I am always proud of the UH story and am equally passionate about telling it to whoever will listen. But it is not about my telling the story, it is about people believing it.

Last week, I walked into Rep. Jessica Farrar’s office and was greeted by Krystafer with his broad and confident smile as if the office belonged to him. Rep. Farrar could not say enough wonderful things about him, but it was not what people said about him but how they behaved toward him that caught my attention.  Krystafer is valued for his work and respected for his work ethics. He was telling the UH story in his own way, and it was real to people.

Ten minutes later, I stopped by to greet Rep. Jim Murphy in the hallway and he asked me if I would not mind stopping by his office and say hello to Sarah, another UH intern.  “We love having her and she is terrific,” was how Rep. Murphy described her to me.  Two hours later, I stopped by his office and once again was greeted with a beaming personality. No one had to say anything (although they all did) but I knew what Sarah was bringing to that office.

A similar scene awaited me in Rep. Garnet Coleman’s office with Yvonne and Jose, and in Senator Rodney Ellis’ office with Mili. Come to think of it, every office that housed a Cougar had praises to sing. Rep. Coleman even funds many of these internships.

So, when I stand in front of the Texas legislature and say, “UH is a Tier One university”, or that “we are a place of opportunity for all”, or that “we are a university on the move,” I am surely being heard…but those are just my words and they can be dismissed. However, you cannot dismiss Krystafer or Sarah or Jose or Yvonne or Mili.

They are the real UH story in Austin.

(Krystafer and Sarah are Honors College students, double majoring in Political Science and History/Economics. Yvonne is in the Graduate College of Social Work. Jose studies Political Science and Philosophy, and Mili is in Law Center.)

Someone held my hand…

My first week as assistant professor at the University of South Florida… so much paperwork, so little time, so many things to do! Twenty-two of us in the Department of Political Science and only two administrative assistants! It was the first day of class, my first day of teaching ever, and I could not find anything–chalk, duster, syllabus, classroom–nothing was in any obvious place or logical order. I was too timid and shy to speak over other voices (yes, you read it right… timid and shy), but someone noticed that I needed help.

Delores, the departmental assistant, removed a big pile of papers from an otherwise empty chair, making room for me, and asked me to sit down. “You need to speak up, Dr. Khator. How am I supposed to know what you need? Let me walk you over to your room.” From then on, Delores took a special interest in me… she would always anticipate what I needed, but she let me ask for it. She would often tell me that I was so special, that I was so blessed, and that I was a breath of fresh air in the department. She would gently (with motherly love) correct my pronunciation, tell me that I needed to eat more, and even told me once that my skirt was a little too short for the office.

Delores–full of warmth, grace and affection–was my first introduction to African-Americans. Her heart was big and her face radiant with positive energy. She would talk about the extensive breakfast she cooked every morning for her family, because she believed in beginning the day by giving all the love that she had.

I often think that if it had not been for Delores, would I have gained the same level of self-confidence that I have today? Would I have developed the relentless drive for many causes, such as student success?

Delores saw me grow and advance in my career during the ten years that I taught in the department before joining the administration. I was there to salute her on her retirement, just as were 400 other people. I was not the only one she treated specially, but she surely made me feel that way. Today, she lives a retired life in Georgia with her two daughters and husband. For me, she has always remained just one click away, still lifting my spirits, still reminding me of my inner strength.

To Delores and all department administrative assistants and secretaries everywhere–thank you. Thank you for supporting and guiding the faculty. You make the world a special place!

Why am I blogging?

For years, I dismissed the idea of blogging. No time, none whatsoever!

But here I am, writing my first blog today. Why? Because as a university president, I get a lot of credit for things I had little to do with. The more I hear these accolades, the more I know that I am surrounded by people who do it all, and yet whose stories remain untold and whose glories remain unsung. This blog is about those unsung heroes. It is not about budgets, accountability, goals, or benchmarks; it is about PEOPLE in my university–for that matter in any university.

In the end, a university is not about bricks and mortar, it’s about people and how they interact with one another to create a magical place–students with their dreams for their future, faculty with their passion for learning, staff with their devotion for service, alumni with their love for their alma mater, and supporters with their belief in the betterment of the society.

As a university president, I witness this magic every day in my life and it fills me with hope and inspiration. Yet, I am too busy to experience it fully…too busy running to my next appointment, or too distracted by that difficult phone call I just had to take, or too lost in my thoughts to solve an unfolding crisis. Admittedly, not every interaction in my daily life is inspirational. I see my share of bad behavior and selfish people, but their interactions are not what I store in my heart.  What I store in my heart is what I will share in this blog.

So, if you are looking for some inside scoop or thought-provoking ideas, you have the wrong address. If you are expecting daily or even regular blogs, sorry again. My blog will be sporadic, but it will be from my heart, and will celebrate all that is RIGHT with our universities today.

Finally, let me mention Nelda Blair, my Board Chair, for inspiring me to undertake blogging. She just started her own blog called ATexanTakesThe5th ( a great blog, by the way) which made me think, “With her incredibly busy life, if she can do it, what’s my excuse?”

So here I go….Should you decide to read my future blogs, happy reading!