What makes graduation special…

Imagine a place with 40,000 people and every single one of them absolutely happy. Now imagine the sound of applause that keeps on lasting, only to be interrupted by occasional screams of joy. You can feel the air which is filled with thousands of hopes and dreams!

It is graduation day at the University of Houston, or at any college campus for that matter. No other experience in life can ever match the consistency and predictability of this day.

I had the honor of shaking hands with every one of 4,438 graduates who walked across the graduation stage! Among them a 19-year old completing his bachelor’s degree in Biology and a 68-year old receiving his master’s degree in Construction Management. Also among them a student whose physical challenges did not allow him to even move his hands or feet, and another student whose near fatal injury had left him with only a 5% chance of survival.

The day was filled with many special memories. Among them, the moment when actor Dennis Quaid held up his President’s Medallion high and told the graduates, “This university gave me the best gift…it helped me discover my passion.” And the moment when Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil, tightened his grip on his Medallion and said, “My education here was so good that I have sent my daughter here as well.” And then there was the moment when Welcome Wilson, Sr. (a 1949 graduate) stood up to receive his honorary degree from his son who now serves as a member of the University of Houston System Board of Regents.

And then to top it all, Emma, a 107-year old lady, graced the occasion. Born in 1906, Emma always wanted to attend college but segregation robbed her off her dream. Nonetheless, she did what she could at the time and became the first African American woman streetcar driver in San Fransisco to support her family. Later in life, Emma moved back to Houston. She drove her own car and went fishing on her own boat until the age of 100.

She encouraged her great grand daughter, Kimberly, to attend college. Kimberly was admitted to Columbia but life got in the way. Kimberly left Houston for the West Coast, where she met a man and married him. But one day, their townhouse caught fire and they lost everything. With three children in tow, the couple moved back to Houston where, once again, she started to be nudged by her great grandmother, who wanted her to go to college.

Finally, Kimberly enrolled in a community college and then transferred to the University of Houston. Four years later, at age 44, Kimberly was ready to graduate and her great grand mother came to see her walk. How special on a Mother’s Day weekend!

All of us have had people like Emma in our own lives, people who refused to give in even when we did. All of us remember some place special, like Dennis Quaid did, where we discovered our passion.

What better day than today to remember them and tell them how truly special their role has been in our lives. Congratulations, graduates!

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Winning is not important in sports

Winning is not important in college sports. It is VERY important. And it is important not just on the field, but also in LIFE.

Take the story of a freshmen who was recruited to the University of Houston in 1997 as a running back. In his first semester, he received many awards and became an instant star.  And that same semester, his GPA was 0.44.  No, that is not a typo.  But by the next semester, after coming under the wings of an angel, he completed 17 hours with the GPA of 3.22!  He graduated in 5 years, went on to play professional football, and is now a very successful businessman.

Who is that special person? Who is that angel? She would never tell you about this story or any other story, although there are too many to be told.  She is Maria Peden and she joined the Cougar family in 1996.  Since then, she has transformed the lives of student athletes every day and every way.

I first met Maria when I toured the Athletics department upon my arrival in Houston.  She was engrossed in her work, eyes fixed on the computer screen, files opened on her desk, and three students sitting silently in front of her. The look of anxious anticipation was evident on their faces. They were waiting for Maria to solve their problem.

When Maria saw me, she stood up politely to shake my hand.  I could tell that I had broken her concentration and that she would rather be back with her students than exchanging pleasantries with me.  She introduced each of the students to me. At that time, I did not know Maria, but this brief encounter was enough to make a lasting impression on me. I made a mental note to learn more about her.

Next, I met Maria in my office when she came to get my signature on a report. After this second encounter, I knew that we had a gem among us. Maria knew every single student athlete by name, what courses they were taking, where they were struggling, and what each one of them needed to succeed!  Since then, I have heard her praised by more people than I could keep track of.

Last week, a student athlete told me how Maria had gone over and beyond the call of duty to see her through. “She met with me on Sundays,” the student told me. “Weekend?”  I asked.  “Oh yes, Ms. Peden is in her office every Saturday and even Sunday,” She replied.

Later that afternoon, I met with Dr. Richard Scamell, our Faculty Athletics Representative, and I casually asked him about Maria.  And then I could not stop him. He had the same excitement in his voice as was evident in the student’s voice.  Two hours later, several pages of typed notes about Maria signed by Richard arrived at my desk. Clearly, Richard did not want to take a chance.  Below is an excerpt from Richard’s note:

“The pastor at my church once gave a benediction that I have never forgotten. He said, “Go and share the gospel with others, and, if necessary, use words.” Maria is the type of person for whom words are seldom necessary as her actions make a difference to young people in many ways.”

Maria, I am glad that you are a part of the Cougar family!  It is because of your and your team’s dedication that the graduation rate of our student athletes is higher than that of the university as a whole. Furthermore, they are completing more than 13 credit hours a semester, higher than the university, and nearly one-quarter of them are on the Dean’s List, again beating the university average. Like our so many of our former student athletes whom I see having won the game of life, these student athletes will also be winners.

Yes, winning is VERY important!