Welcome home…to your dorm!

Last week was full of nervous anticipation. It was the final week of summer break and I knew that the campus would soon be buzzing with the energy of 40,000 students, with 8,000 of them living on campus. I had visited Cougar Village II on Friday and it still looked like a hard hat area. Carpets were being installed, doors and windows were being fixed and large areas were plastered with construction paper.

“Are you sure this place will be ready for move-in?” I asked my vice president. “We cannot afford to NOT open it on time.”

“Don’t worry,” I was told.  “We are on schedule.” I knew that might be an overly optimistic promise.

Last Thursday was the move-in day, and I decided to check out Cougar Village II. As I approached the area, I could hear loud music with a DJ playing the latest hits.  Soon, a gray station wagon pulled in and 3-4 volunteers wearing red shirts descended on it. The driver (mom) popped open the trunk and before any of the passengers could get out of the car, the contents from the trunk had been transferred to a waiting trolley. The president of the Faculty Senate greeted the family, shook hands with the student and began to push the trolley toward the front door. Still in shock, the family walked behind the trolley, only to be greeted by another group of volunteers giving them high-fives and “Welcome Home!” cheers.  Beaming with joy, the family walked in to the lobby where they were quickly led to the elevators.

No wait, no papers, no signing.  It was truly like coming home!

I noticed that in 1Fall_2013_Move_In_057-2724557412-O0 minutes, the family was down again, this time with water bottles and maps in their hands. I walked over to them to introduce myself and to asked them if everything was okay.

“Okay? Oh my gosh! We have never seen anything like this before,” said the dad, shaking his head in disbelief.  “We moved our other son to ______ and it was not half as nice.  You guys are the tops.”

“I am so jealous of Georgie. I want to come back to school,” said the sister who had graduated 6 years ago from UH.

I turned to the student and asked, “Are you happy? Do you like your suite?”

“I love it. I really do.”

“I am happy for you, I said, “But do you know what will make me even happier? It is the honor of shaking your hand when you walk across the stage with your degree.”  I told his parents, “Thank you for trusting us.  We will take good care of him.” They thanked me in return.

This same scene and the same conversation got repeated over and over again during the next two hours that I spent at Cougar Village II.

I was amazed that the building was finished, but I was more amazed that overnight, these staff and student volunteers had made it homey.  No amount of training could have ever taught them the passion needed to do that. It was their love for the school and dedication to new students that was on display. Thank you student volunteers, particularly Roxie, Patrick, Rima, Jonathan, Geordie, and Tanzeem. (Yes, I read your name tags!).  You all are an awesome team!

I left the campus that day reassured that the campus culture is definitely undergoing an important change, and this transformation had already taken deep roots.

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Commitment starts from the top…

Last Wednesday, we said farewell to three members of our Board of Regents: Nelda Blair, Jacob Monty, and Mica Mosbacher.  On that day, I felt particularly grateful as I thought of the legacy they were leaving behind. It was during their term that the University of Houston achieved its Tier One status from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.  It was during their term that ESPN Game Day was held on campus in response to our nationally ranked Cougar football team. It was during their term that UH became the university of first choice, as the average freshmen SAT rose steadily to 1140. And indeed, it was during their term that 21 buildings at the cost of $1 billion were designed and constructed.

Of course, it takes a great community to build a great university, but the commitment must start from the top.  Our board members have shown an unwavering support for making the University of Houston an institution of which Houston and Texas can be proud of. Regent Mosbacher encouraged us to embrace change and have patience, since all good things take time.  Regent Monty always reminded us of our duty to serve the under-served and stay persistent. Regent Blair, who served as board chair for two years, was amazing in so many ways.

Yes, she really was amazing.  Just to give you a glimpse of her leadership style, here are few passages from the letter that I wrote in her Memory Book.

“I must admit that your first appearance on the campus as a board member was extremely intimidating…radiant red clothes, stiletto heels, large patterned handbag, bold jewelry, and a champion’s walk…it was the true ‘I have arrived’ look! We, the administration, huddled together and pondered over our future.  What followed was a deafening silence, for none of us had encountered your leadership style before.

Over the next few days, we googled and learned everything we could about you from secondary sources, but nothing was of much comfort. It seemed like your interests and achievements covered every facet of life from sports to television to courts and public office. Then came the retreat and you won us over with your sense of humor and the no-nonsense approach to everything.

You never, for one day, micro-managed anyone or anything, and yet you knew exactly where all the major issues stood on any given day. You could get to the bottom of an issue irrespective of how muddy the context was, how hidden the agendas were, and how loud the voices were. You had a clear view of your principles and you stood firm on them.

Every single day, I felt empowered yet accountable, under pressure to perform and yet fully supported to get the job done. I felt overwhelmed by the ‘Uniquely Nelda Look,’ and yet totally comfortable as myself. If it is not true leadership, I don’t know what is.

Thank you, Nelda!  You will always be in our hearts and you will always remain our Chair Blair!”

Today, I salute our regents–current and former–for their commitment to excellence, for their countless hours of volunteerism, and for their unwavering passion for all of our universities. We know that we stand tall on your shoulders! Thank you.

Gift of a dream…

My weekend started pretty rough on last Friday evening. After finishing a day-long meeting in Chicago, I rushed to the airport only to find that my flight had been delayed. “No problem,” I consoled myself, “it is better this way than missing the flight.” After a wait, we all boarded the plane only to be told 45 minutes later that the plane needed to go back to the hangar and that another one was on its way.  Another wait at the gate before I learned that the flight had been cancelled altogether.  I headed to the Service Center to see an agent.  The agent tapped his fingers on the keyboard while I tapped mine on the counter.  Then, he lifted his gaze and said, “I can rebook you on a flight tomorrow.”

“WHAT!!!!” I screamed, “Tomorrow? No, please, I want to go home and I want to go now.”  I must have looked either so pathetic or so overbearing that the agent looked down and started to tap his fingers again.  Two minutes later, he looked up, “Oh, I found you a seat in the next flight but it leaves now.” I was overjoyed, “I will take it.” I literally snatched the boarding pass from the agent and ran, once again, to catch my new flight.  But no sign of any airplane at the gate!  Delay, wait, more delay, more wait.  Finally the plane arrived and everyone boarded the aircraft.  We pulled about 20 feet from the gate and stopped again for a wait that seemed like forever.  Finally the plane got airborne and I breathed a big sigh of relief.  I was hungry and exhausted when I arrived in Houston very late that night.

I was still feeling sorry for myself the next morning when my alarm went off.  Oh, shoot!  I have a 7:30 am event on campus.  I grumbled for a moment but had no choice but to get up and go.  Upon arrival on campus, I saw that the place was buzzing with energy.  A crew of 600 volunteers was busy handling the last-minute logistics (Over 300 of them were UH students, staff and faculty in red shirts).  Outside under a large tent, hundreds of little children, their eyes still heavy with sleep, were standing in line with their parents.  I learned that 15,000 kids were expected to come to campus that day!

The event was Mayor Parker’s “Back to School Fest,” designed to give school children ready for the new year, and it was the first time for the University of Houston to host the event.  Mayor Parker arrived and cut the ceremonial ribbon. The Cougar marching band filled the atmosphere with Cougar spirit. And there wasn’t a sleepy face to be seen anymore.

Kids were pulling on their parents, wanting to touch Shasta while parents were pulling on their kids, wanting to grab a photo with the Mayor.  It was a festival like none other.  Multiple booths catered to every need a child may have on the first day of school: Immunizations, eye screenings, dental exams, and basic health check-ups.  Volunteers were handing out backpacks filled with basic school supplies, uniforms, and bags of food.  Lots of games, lots of fun, and lots of happiness in the air!

Then, someone reminded me that most of these kids had probably never been on a college campus.  As I talked to parents, I soon learned that was true for them too. College, to both parents and kids, was someone else’s dream, a cold and intimidating place where “others” went.

But not today! They seemed happy and comfortable.  Had this one visit started to melt the ice? Has this one visit made them realize that college could be “their” dream too?

I stopped some kids and asked, “Do you think one day you would like to come here, to the University of Houston?”

“Yes!” they said without the slightest hesitation.  “I hope so, I hope so,” nodded their parents. “You know you have to work very hard in school,” said others to their kids.  I knew then that, for many, the dream had already started that today.

Did I start this blog with the words “my weekend started pretty rough”?  Well, even if it did, it turned out to be a pretty special one. Don’t you agree?