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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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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!

 

From avoiding to dancing in one week…

I met her at Cougar Village, one of the residence halls at the University of Houston, four days prior to the beginning of the new academic year. Accompanied by her mother, sister and a cousin, she seemed unusually shy for an 18-year old freshman. I had gone to Cougar Village to help students move in, a ritual hundreds of staff and faculty members do at the beginning of each year.

As I got out of my car, I saw several volunteers, all dressed in red, waiting outside the residence hall under a temporary white tent in the late morning drizzle. The place was filled with luggage carts and water coolers. A rickshaw carrying two people pedaled by with a sign offering a “Free Ride.” Welcome banners were hanging everywhere, and some upbeat pop music was filling the air with excitement.

Overall, it felt festive and fun.

I shook hands with the volunteers, thanked them for their service, commented on their rain ponchos and stood by the doorway. “It is a little slow because of the rain, but you should have seen it yesterday,” said one of the many volunteers who were understandably full of pride for their contribution. Two cars and an SUV drove in. Driver of the first car popped open the trunk. Before the driver could even walk around to the trunk, volunteers had cleared the trunk and loaded the luggage in a moving cart—a bean bag, a suitcase, a guitar, a bag full of shoes, a cube filled with wires and CDs, a pillow, a wooden bookcase, a large picture frame and two dozen hangers with clothes. One volunteer shook hands with the student, another one handed every family member bottles of cold water and with the greetings of “Welcome to the University of Houston! Welcome to Cougar Village!” everyone proceeded toward the entrance.

Welcome Party

Welcoming Team of RAs from Cougar Village II

At that point, one of the volunteers shouted, “Here comes Erin” and a chorus of cheers and claps erupted from the welcome team standing just inside the door with banners and posters. Blushing, Erin’s face turned red – and not to match all the Cougar red around her. Within minutes, Erin was checked in and her luggage was delivered to her room. Half an hour later, Erin’s family came down the elevator and her mom walked straight up to me saying, “This is not the UH I remember. Wow! This is amazing.” We talked for about five minutes, and I said a few things directly to Erin to which she shook her head, but did not say anything. She was even avoiding an eye contact. She was either shy or uncomfortable – possibly both.

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The Cat’s Back organized by Student Affairs

I happened to run into Erin again on Monday, the first day of classes. Our Staff Council organizes Cougar First Impression (CFI) on the first two days of classes, providing cool water and much needed help to students. Erin was standing under one of our temporary CFI tents in front of the library asking directions. I had come to thank the volunteers for standing under the hot afternoon sun with the temperature feeling like 106 degrees. After answering her question, the CFI volunteer handed Erin some UH goodies. At the very next tent, someone handed her an ice cream that melted away the anxieties. I saw Erin give a polite smile.

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Simon Bott’s Chemistry, one of the classrooms I visited

What a coincidence that I spotted Erin again two days later in the hallway of a classroom building. She was late and rushed in to find a seat. I had come to the class to personally greet students and tell them that the university was committed to one and only one goal, i.e., their learning. At the beginning of my remarks, I tossed some personalized t-shirts to the students. Most raised their hands eagerly to grab a shirt, as did Erin although there was hesitation in her movement. She was still feeling the strangeness of the new environment. At the end of my remarks, I offered students my email address and told them they could write to me if they ever had an issue that they could not resolve on their own. In all, I made 28 classroom visits in two days to make sure that I reached out to every new student in an intimate setting.

The next day was our big event, The Cat’s Back, a celebration filled with fun, food, free t-shirts and lots of prizes. More than 500 student clubs set up booths with information to inform new students of their activities. Although I was not looking for Erin, my eyes spotted her again in front of Women in Business table. By now, she was with two other students and they were chatting away, eating hot dogs.

On Friday, I was coming out of a lunch meeting when I saw a long line of waiting students across the street in front of the Student Center. Out of curiosity, I decided to walk over. “What’s up?” I asked the waiting students.

“Free t-shirts and Ice Cones!” The student at the front of line said with excitement.

“The line is too long. How long have you been waiting?”

“Half an hour, but I don’t mind. Can I get a photo with you?” She asked as if she knew the answer would be yes.

“Of course, you can.” I posed for her selfie, which she posted on Instagram instantly. Others followed suit. Thirty photos later, I started to leave when I saw Erin again. She was a little behind in line, but was waving her phone. I walked over and asked, “Is everything all right? How was the first week?”

“Oh, my God… Oh my God,” she said, “this is the best school ever. I love everything here. My dad wanted me to go to ____ but I wanted to come to UH. I knew I was right, I knew I was right. Thank you for everything. I love my classes, and I love you too.” This was our first real conversation, and she was literally dancing with excitement.

What a transformation in one week! Erin was over her apparent anxieties and ready to learn. This is what Making a Good First Impression is all about, I believe. It can be critical in defining the success of a project or partnership. First impression, however unintentional or seemingly benign, gets imprinted in our memory. It becomes a screen through which later information gets filtered and used. Yes, it may take some effort on our part to create one, but creating a bad one has a much bigger cost.

I thank our faculty, staff, and students for volunteering their time and giving our 42,000 students—12,000 of them new—a good first impression so they could take pride in their school, in their learning, and consequently, in their own potential.

[Name and some circumstances have been changed to protect identity.  All photos are from my IPhone]

Let small things remain small…

It was one of those mornings. Nothing was going right. The house alarm went off at 4 a.m. It was a false alarm, of course, but enough to disrupt my sleep. After tossing and turning for some time, I decided to get up and start my yoga instead.

I was locked in a shoulder stand – a routine pose – when I felt the sudden snap. Oh no, I had pulled a muscle! I tried to nurse it, but could feel the tension rising in the upper back, so I popped two Advils in my mouth and started to get ready for office.

Sitting in my car, I tilted my mug to take the first sip and … too late! The lid was loose and the boiling hot tea came pouring down my suit without mercy. I had no choice but to go back in the house and change the suit (which, as other women can understand, meant changing the jewelry and shoes as well).

I arrived late in office only to learn that $20 million of our University’s funding had disappeared in the proposed state budget. “This can’t be true?” I asked in despair.

Within hours came more bad news – the campus had experienced two separate cases of robbery. Thank goodness no one was seriously injured, and the losses were limited to a couple of cell phones, a lap top and a book bag.  Although police later arrested suspects, initial news of the robberies spread alarm across campus.

It was only 11:30 a.m., and I had just about had it. The day was turning out to be bad. Since this was Monday, the rest of the week was not looking promising either.  I was found myself deep in the feeling of “Oh, poor me!”

Little did I know that the most crucial hour of the day was yet to unfold.

The next event on my schedule was a luncheon in honor of the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo, which gives out more than 200 scholarships to our qualified students each year. The lunch was our way of thanking the Rodeo Board for their generosity and giving them an opportunity to meet with these Rodeo scholars.

After I gave my greetings (the usual stuff) and guests finished their meal, Veronica, a scholarship recipient, took the stage to express her gratitude on behalf of all the recipients. She began her story…

“My name is Veronica, and I am honored to share my story today. I had a mother who didn’t care and a father who cared but had his own problems. When I was in the 3rd grade, my father was sent to prison for two years. When I was in the 4th grade, my mother left me and my siblings. The two older children were sent to their own father, my youngest sister went to live with our godparents, my younger brother was left with our mother, and my little sister and me were sent to Houston to live with my dad’s brother and his wife.

“My aunt and uncle would take us to see our father, and each time the tears fell. Every letter we read, tears poured down and every letter we wrote, we cried a river. Over the next year, my life changed many times.

“I was back living with my father. We lived in an abandoned trailer full of holes. We had to watch our feet because nails were everywhere, and the roof leaked all the time. But it did not matter to me because I believed my dad would never leave us like mom did.

“We all knew our dad wasn’t in the best of health – he was overweight, had high blood pressure, and one main concern: epilepsy. We never had enough money to buy medications, but we were lucky that his seizures seem to happen while he was already laying down in bed. But everything changed on June 10, 2008.

“Dad was taking me and my two sisters to our very first dentist appointment. Everything was normal until I woke up in a hospital not knowing why the nurse was stitching my arm and putting a bandage on it, why I had staples in the back of my head or how my back was paralyzed from shock.

“You see, when we were going home from our dentist appointment, our dad had a seizure less than a mile from our home, which took his life immediately. Even today I do not remember what happened. 

“After the car accident I couldn’t bear riding in a car. I would grip on to the handle at only 30 mph.”

Veronica was still speaking, but the room had fallen silent. No one was moving, and no eyes were dry. As incredible as the story was, what was more incredible was to watch Veronica tell her story … no quivering of lips, no tearing of eyes, and no breaking of voice! She was calm and confident. Years of turmoil and emotional havoc had made her mature beyond her age.

We learned that the care of Veronica was permanently handed over to her father’s brother who lived in Houston when she was in the 10th grade. Two years later, she graduated in the top three percent of her class. Her achievements won her a Rodeo scholarship, and that is how she landed at the University of Houston, majoring in accounting.

Veronica concluded her story…

“Today I wanted to share my story about all the possibilities in this world.  I know some people may have it harder than me, but I believe that bad times are temporary. My advice is – don’t drown in your emotions. You are supposed to kick your feet and keep swimming toward the horizon. Reach for the stars and build a constellation. Many times I wanted to give up, but with a little hope, I chose to be happy with my life and my choices.”

As everyone clapped, I did too … but my head hung low.

Bad day?  What bad day? What Poor Me?

Veronica had a choice. I have a choice. We all have a choice…The choice to kick our feet…to swim toward the horizon…to reach for the stars.

But we can do that only if we let small things in life remain small.

Dreaming on the Coast of Caspian Sea…

The Caspian Sea is an enigma. Technically, it should be called a lake because it is an inland body of water, but then it is not really a lake because the water is saline, and the size is much too large for a lake.

As a political scientist, I am fascinated by the Caspian Sea because of its geopolitical importance. Inhabitants of its shores – Russians, Azerbaijanis, Iranians, Kazakhstanis and Turkmenistanis—make it an intriguing yet complex region to grasp.

Meeting in Baku

Meeting in Baku

When I received an invitation from the Baku Higher Oil School, a subsidiary of SOCAR (State Oil Company of Azerbaijan Republic), to establish a partnership in petroleum training, I accepted it. My university colleagues and I arrived in Baku in the middle of the night (1:40 a.m. to be precise), we were pleasantly surprised to be greeted by a welcoming committee led by the Vice Rector of the University. I knew immediately that this trip was going to be anything but ordinary. Sure enough, for the next four days we were escorted, educated and entertained by the University Rector himself, who took great pride in his institution and even greater pride in his country.

Our busy days began at 8 a.m. (we were supposed to have already had breakfast by then) and lasted until midnight. We visited five universities, hundreds of students, dozens of faculty, countless administrators and quite a few civic and political leaders. In between our scheduled visits, we found time to visit four museums, an ancient temple, a mosque, Hayder Aliyev Hall, Martyrs Lane, old town and a modern day marvel, the Flame Towers. Of course, we did not have to make any effort to see oil rigs; they were everywhere.

A view from street in Baku

A view from street in Baku

As interesting and enlightening as all that was, it was enough to tell only half of the Azerbaijani story.  I put together the other half by wandering aimlessly around town and having casual conversations with natives, even if mostly by hand gestures (I realized that my Urdu vocabulary gave me at least 100 words of local language).

My eyes constantly searched for the real Baku, the real Azerbaijan. And in this search, I noticed many things.

I noticed elderly couples holding hands and walking in the tranquility of a very cold night, their faces showing traces of life lived but also anticipation for the life yet to be lived.  I noticed young couples completely oblivious of the world around them walking in piazzas when the clock signaled midnight. I noticed groups of women laughing openly and telling tales under the moonlit sky in public parks. And I noticed young men humming American pop tunes walking out of an Italian restaurant.

Life was just what it is supposed to be – jubilant, progressive and upbeat. Baku could have been any city in Europe.

Our hosts took great pains in telling us how free and strong Azeri women were, and I listened politely. But, I had to see it myself. And I saw women—young and not-so-young—flashing latest Western fashions in clothes, shoes and hair styles. To see traditional Azeri dresses, I was advised to head to a museum. I also noticed male colleagues giving due respect to their female counterparts, not only in universities but also in private companies. In the largest and oldest university, Baku State University, more than 60 percent of the students are women. The young woman who asked the first question after my remarks at Baku Higher Oil School left me speechless.  She said, “Obviously you are not stopping where you are, so what is next in your life?” Her question was more telling of her own horizons than of mine.

Knowing that 93 percent of the people in Azerbaijan are Muslims, I purposefully searched for mosque towers. However, there were more temples of knowledge—colleges and universities – than mosques. While people talked openly about the oppressions of the Soviet era, I was also proudly shown the new campus of Moscow State University, which had only recently opened (2008!). One of my colleagues asked an administrator, “You decry the Soviet domination, and yet you have a new university that could be a reminder of that history. Why?” The response from her came without pause:  “Moscow State University has been a home to world’s greatest scholars…that is what we see in this name, not the memories of oppression.”

Cougars in Baku

Cougars in Baku

Baku became a sister city of Houston in 1976. I am convinced that it was not a coincident. The two share the same spirit of entrepreneurship and optimism. At night, Baku felt like another Dubai in the making – glitzy, vibrant and bold! During the day, it was obsessed with turning its black gold (oil) into human gold while it can. Baku understands that oil won’t last forever, but people’s spirit will.

Anyone keeping up with the news in the Caspian region knows that there are serious challenges there and uneasy issues in Azerbaijan.  But that is a subject for a different debate, a different discussion.

For now, let us acknowledge that beyond all political conflicts, economic systems, social preferences and religious doctrines, Azerbaijanis are dreaming their future and, just like the enigmatic Caspian Sea, they are not allowing their aspirations to be minimized by the categories and definitions imposed on them by others.

So, I offer a toast to the people of Azerbaijan and to their dreams in the making!

[PS: We signed two bilateral agreements and one trilateral agreement with universities in Baku, Azerbaijan.)

MOU Signing

MOU Signing

A Gourmet Night to Remember…

I am invited to many black tie events every year. Houston loves to dress up and raise funds! But my favorite black tie event every year is the Gourmet Night organized by the Conrad N. Hilton College of Hotel and Restaurant Management here at the University of Houston. Nearly 400 students make this a night to remember.

Student Manager Team

Student Manager Team

Let me take you to this year’s Gourmet Night with me.

The theme is Route 66. The invitation itself takes you back in time – very retro, very nostalgic! You are requested to dress in theme-appropriate attire or black tie. I was raised in India, and therefore have nothing in my closet that could be called “theme-appropriate,” so I opt for a red gown. One can never go wrong with red!

Upon arrival, you notice that there are no professionals running around because no event planning companies or outside vendors are involved. Every little detail has been planned, and is now being executed, by the college’s students as part of their training.

We are offered a glass of Champagne and are given a number that we can use to bid on hundreds of items displayed in the silent auction. I am drawn to the section on vacation packages and restaurants – too many to count and each one under fierce bidding. What else would you expect from a hospitality college? I stop in front of an item, called “A Collection of Wines by the Faculty.” Before I can place a bid, I hear someone calling my name and asking if he may introduce himself. I turn around and greet him and forget the bidding.

With Martina Bahr, sous chef

With Martina Bahr, sous chef

In few minutes, the sound of the dinner bell invites us to the ballroom which has been transformed into Diner 41 in celebration of the 41st year of the Gourmet Night. Women in poodle skirts and men in 1960s hair style greet us in the hallway. We stop for a quick photo, one being taken with an IPhone and one with an old-style camera. We find our table, decorated with records and candy jars. A loud band plays familiar songs and I can see people moving in their chairs to the beat of the music.

With Katie Proctor and Diego Cardenas

With Katie Proctor and Diego Cardenas

Now we are ready for the gourmet part of the night. Five courses accompanied by five wines please our eyes and taste buds. Hundreds of students offer synchronized wait service on multiple tables in an expertly choreographed fashion. They are eager to explain any wine or food item in front of us.

Here is the part that I always wait for. The student general manager takes the microphone and introduces all of her managers – the food manager, the beverage manager, the service manager, the marketing director, and on and on. Then she calls on all the volunteers and a parade of 400 students enters from one side of the ballroom and marches across to the other side.

We all sit in amazement as this night comes to an end. Students start to plan this event as a part of their curriculum almost a year earlier. They compete and audition for leadership positions. They take responsibility, form teams, delegate tasks, hold each other responsible, manage conflicts, and finally produce an evening that is unparalleled in experience and elegance.

In order to pass, students are judged by a really tough group, because the room is full of big names in the industry, from people who manage their own restaurant to those who are the owners of the largest franchises in the world!

As we walk out of the ballroom, we are handed a Coke bottle reminiscent of the good old days. We thank the students and walk to our car, proud and happy in the knowledge that all of the managers will get job offers – if they don’t have one already! Because, after all, they are the best of the best!

 

 

The “Good Old Days” came back for a day!

I was not at the University of Houston when Coach Guy Lewis and his Phi Slama Jama team became a national sensation. Nor was I here when Coach Lewis made history by playing UCLA—and winning—in the first ever nationally televised basketball game. But from the day I arrived on campus in 2008, I started hearing about that magical time.  I could see it in the eyes of those who told me, with intense fondness, stories about the “good old days.”

So, when the time came, it didn’t take me any time to decide to make the trip to Springfield, Massachusetts, for the induction ceremony for Coach Lewis, and experience the magic myself.

I arrived in Springfield already on cloud nine since our Cougars had defeated Temple in a hard-fought game just a day before.  As I walked into the hotel lobby to check in, it was clear that celebrities were staying there. A line of visitors was already gathering behind ropes to catch a glimpse, or better yet, to grab their autographs.  A while later, I came down from my room to join our group, and sure enough, I soon saw who the fans had been waiting for –Elvyn Hayes and Clyde Drexler were in the middle of the commotion, hugging their Cougar fans, giving high-fives to each other, and signing autographs.

Decked in red, we all accompanied Coach Lewis, who was in his wheel chair, to the nearby hall. By then, Hakeem Olajuwon had also joined in the group.  I must admit that it felt like a Hollywood premier!  People were standing on both sides of the street, clapping and cheering for our icons.  Cougars had brought the biggest line-up of stars for this ceremony.  Our players were being stopped left and right by every television and radio station for a quick interview.

We then arrived at the buffet given in honor of the inductees.  The ballroom ceiling appeared awfully low and my neck soon started to hurt.  And then it dawned on me that the room was full of 7-foot basketball players!

For the next one hour, the event seemed like a big celebration for Cougars (no, I am not biased).  If anyone wanted to find Coach Lewis and his players, all one had to do was to look in the direction of the biggest and loudest group in the crowd.  Reporters, players, coaches, referees—all wanted to take photographs with Coach Lewis and his former star players.

The induction ceremony began with the pump and show of a live television awards program. At the appointed time, a short video was shown to introduce Coach Lewis, and then from the left of the stage Elvyn, Hakeem and Clyde wheeled Coach Lewis to center stage. Everyone in the hall jumped to their feet.   The applause lasted for what seemed like an eternity.  There was so much pent-up joy and gratitude in crowd’s heart, and it felt like they wanted to pour it all out that minute, right then and there.

On his face, Coach Lewis had the smile worthy of an artist’s brush or poet’s pen!

We all had teary eyes!  It truly was a special moment!  Thank you, Coach Lewis, for once again putting the University of Houston on the national map! It was a long time coming, but we are all happy that you finally honored the Hall of Fame by being a part of it!

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?