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.

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!!

Inside the locker room…

Coach Tom Herman invited me to join him in the locker room after the first football game of the season, University of Houston against Tennessee Tech.

“Locker room? Me? Are you sure?” I had never been inside a locker room so I was surprised, but also curious at the same time. I paused at the door until the voices of alert, “Stay dressed! The president is here,” subsided. I walked in behind the coach.

This was not the locker room scene that I had seen in the movies. There were no high fives, no victory chants, and no hearty embraces. Even though they had just played their hearts out and had won their very first game of the season, all the young student-athletes were crouched calmly on their knees.  

Coach walked to the front and stood before the players. His voice was still hoarse from coaching the first game of his head coaching career. I was sure he would start out by saying, “We did it! …yeah! …we won! …now, go out and celebrate!”

Instead everyone bowed their heads as one of the student athletes led a prayer of thanks. Then Coach Herman began, “I am proud of you…you did well today, but now, I want you to think about how blessed you are to be in Houston, a city that supports you. I want you to think how blessed you are to be at the University of Houston, a university that gives you the opportunity to be educated…” Silence settled over the room, and everyone was tuned into the coach.  

“…Think how blessed you are to have a brother playing next to you and giving you everything he has got… for you…so that you could do what you need to do…so that you could win,” Coach continued and then paused for few seconds. There were just the murmurs of “Yes sir, yes sir!”

Coach then called out his assistants who, in turn, called out the best performers of the game. Each player stood and received rousing cheers and applause as he walked to the front of the room. Then each one expressed his gratitude for his football brothers who helped him and the coaches who guided him. Many thanked God, and many thanked their families. Everyone seemed to be competing to give credit to others, and there was no “me and my win” attitude in the room.

During the next 15 minutes, I witnessed what is often rare from anyone, let alone from younger people: the courage to show gratitude! Gratitude is a virtue that only the strong can have. A weak person is busy basking in the glory of his success because doing so makes him feel stronger than he is. But a strong person does not have the need to feel strong because he knows the depth of his inner strength. The source of his strength is not external validation, but his own belief. Because he has no need for the credit himself, his natural reaction is to share it liberally with others.

I had heard that a coach is more than a skills instructor; he is a father figure, a leader, a guide and a role model. I witnessed it first hand in the locker room that night.

To my surprise, Coach also called out my name, handed me a football and expressed his gratitude for my support. I was overwhelmed and fumbled for words – but not the football! – though I do recall telling the team that with this kind of attitude, they can take on any Power Five team and even beat them on their home field. Seven days later, they did exactly that in Louisville.

Coach concluded the session by congratulating the team again and said, “Now, go and enjoy with your family, but remember that tomorrow is a work day. We all need to be here, working!”

I cringed slightly at this order because I had planned to take the day off and do nothing. I thought I deserved it after nearly five hours of walking, shaking hands, cheering, and screaming during the game.

The next morning when I woke up, I saw the football resting proudly on my dining table, and it reminded me of a night full of blessings, brotherhood and gratitude. But most of all, it reminded me of the potential that was being unlocked in that locker room. These student athletes will win games on the field, but more importantly, they will win the game of life.

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]

When leaders lead with personal power: A tribute to my friend, Roth Bose!

Today, the University of Houston gathered together to celebrate the life and achievements of Dr. Rathindra Bose, or “Roth” as we called him. Roth served as our Vice Chancellor of Research and Technology Transfer and in this role he was an integral part of my cabinet for the last four years. The memorial ceremony was a reminder of Roth’s personal power.

Roth Bose as a scientist

Roth Bose, a brilliant scientist

Interestingly, “power” was not the adjective used by anyone during the memorial service. Roth was recalled as a brilliant researcher, passionate teacher, dynamic administrator and, above all, a wonderful person.

But the truth is that Roth was a powerful leader, not because of what position he held but because of who he was as a person.

Come to think of it, all people in position enjoy a particular kind of power, the power that comes from holding that particular position. People may love you or hate you as a person, but they are forced to respect you as the holder of the position. But some leaders are different because they are able to expand their power beyond their position and thus command respect by the sheer weight of their inner strength. This kind of “personal power” has no contractual term limit and is not bound by an organization. The source of this power is a person’s own integrity and commitment. It is also his passion for the common cause. No organization can give personal power to a leader and no organization can take it away. Leaders cannot seize it and they cannot relinquish it; they have to earn it and have to live with it. Standing at the podium in that room today, I was acutely aware how much Roth enjoyed that personal power.

I recalled one of my meetings with Roth. It was to evaluate his annual performance. As always, we opened charts and tables and looked at various indicators. We talked about the challenges ahead and discussed strategies. Toward the end of the meeting, I asked Roth, “Have you thought of becoming a university presidency?”

He laughed lightheartedly and said, “Oh no, Chancellor, that is not for me. I know what I want to do.” (He made it a point to call me “chancellor” because he said coming from South Asia, he was so proud of me.) Then he confided that he would like to retire in two or three years and start a foundation that could, among many other things, enable people to get their DNA tested at an affordable cost. This is how he wanted to serve the people in his homeland of Bangladesh and also in America. I know that somewhere, someone will fulfill his dream, and when I see it in action, I will know Roth is at work in heaven.

Roth Bose

Roth Bose

Roth’s illness came fast and took him away quickly. None of us had time to say a proper good-bye and, even though I had come to know of this eventuality few days prior to his final departure, the news of his passing away came as an incomprehensible shock. When I had visited him in hospital, even though his voice was feeble, he was still telling me about two ongoing projects and what needed to happen for them as next steps. I told him that I needed his leadership to move the University forward and assured him we would open a bottle of Champagne when he returned. To this, he smiled brightly even though he was in serious pain.

Roth was a brilliant researcher and a serious inventor. During his time at the University of Houston, nine of our faculty members were named into the National Academy of Inventors.  I learned about eight of them from Roth, but I found out about the ninth one from the official announcement.  Yes, you guessed it…the ninth one was Roth himself.  He was too modest to tell me about his own achievement. I remember one day he walked into my office saying that he had two pieces of news – a big one and a small one.

“Give me the big one first,” I said.

“UH is now a finalist in XXXXX,” he said, naming a specific proposal. “People have worked really hard on this, and we are going to get it!” He was so excited.

“Great! Good job! And the small news?”

“You remember my cancer drug? Well, it has just moved to the second phase of clinical trials.” He said it modestly, never wanting to toot his own horn.

“Roth. Congratulations! You call this small? This is huge! This is really a big deal!” I had to repeat it because Roth was not going to. The drug was the centerpiece of his life’s work and dream and it was very big news!Roth Bose  as a proud team member

But that is who Roth was, always putting others before his own interests. He was a proud man … proud of his children and grandchildren first of all. We often shared stories about our families and his eyes twinkled every time he mentioned his family.

Today at the celebration, all of us said good-bye to Roth in our own ways and I said mine. The loss still feels no less, but the sharing of the memories with others helps me understand him even better.

Good-bye, my friend. Rest in peace!

In search of a leader…

It was late in the afternoon, and I was feeling the weight of the day when I heard a soft knock on my door. I glanced at my calendar and realized I still had three more meetings, and all three were interviews for a senior leadership position.

I quickly pulled out the file and before I could say anything, the door opened and Candidate #1 walked in holding a big stack of files and papers. She sat down, anxious, fiddling her pen and rearranging her stack of clipped papers. After getting pleasantries out of the way, we got into the specifics of the position.

I asked the usual questions about vision, philosophy, experiences and leadership style. I heard all the right words – “visionary, loyal, full of integrity, strategic, collaborative, consensus-builder, and decisive.” Throughout the interview, she kept writing down parts of my questions as if afraid to forget something critical. Several times, she searched through her files and pulled out brochures to show them to me as proof of her experience. Clearly, she had methodically prepared for this interview.

At that point, I threw her a curve ball. Handing her a piece of paper with a very short paragraph describing a project, I said, “I have this great idea. Would you be able to implement it for me?”

She read it eagerly and said, “You are my role model. I believe in your vision. It will be an honor to do whatever you tell me to do. I will gather more information on the idea, talk to whoever I need to talk to and will get it done ASAP.” I smiled. The interview was over.

Next came Candidate #2. In contrast to the first candidate, he walked in empty-handed, sat down comfortably and leaned back. He must have had a pen and paper in the inner pocket of his jacket, but made no attempt to take them out. I asked him the same usual questions and got the same usual answers using the same usual words. I challenged one of his facts, hoping to see if his posture or attitude changed. But he stayed casual and confident.

Then came the time to throw my curve ball. He read the paragraph, put the sheet back in front of me (as if he had already memorized it but I might need to refer to it) and said, “I have implemented a very similar idea before, and it should be possible to do it here as long as I can get the needed resources.” I smiled. This interview was also over.

By the time, Candidate #3 walked in, I was getting disheartened. He rested his briefcase near the chair and sat down on the edge of the chair, engaged and alert. I asked the same usual questions fully expecting the same usual answers. But that was not the case. His answers stretched the conversation to a whole new level. For instance, when I asked about his leadership style, instead of describing it theoretically, he started with a description of where my organization was and what kind of leadership style was best suited for it at this point in time and then concluded by saying he was sure he had those traits. Pretty clever, I thought! He had done his homework and knew how to show it.

Toward the end, I threw my curve ball again, but unlike the other two, he took longer than usual to read the paragraph (as if reading it twice). Then he put the paper down, still facing toward him, looked up and said, “May I ask if it is really your idea?”

“Excuse me?” I hardly expected this line of questioning.

“I am sorry but from everything I have read about you, it does not sound like you would want it this way. I realize this is an interview, but in order to be successful, you need my expertise more than my yes-manship. Would you be willing to reconsider a different strategy?” he said, turning the paper around so now it was facing me. Before I knew it, he was drawing lines and circles and developing his idea. Then he looked up and said, “The goal that you have in mind can be accomplished, but I will need some flexibility to come up with the right strategy.”

I nodded. The interview was over.

During my 15 years in central administration, I have had the privilege of hiring many who were leaders and meeting many others who thought they were. In this case, all three candidates could manage the job, but not all three could move the needle.

Candidate #1 was blindly loyal and because of it, she would be the easiest one to work with. She would gladly do whatever she was told to do.

Candidate #2 was calm and content and because of these traits, he would be the safest one to have around. He would only do whatever he could safely undertake and complete.

Candidate #3, on other hand, was hungry and even arrogant. But it was what I consider positive arrogance. He believed in his ability to find the right solution, showed courage to question a given decision, and he put his brain to work to find an alternate solution. It was clear that he would care for the organization, but most importantly, it was clear that he would prevent me from making mistakes.

In the end, I knew that life could be easy (with Candidate #1) or safe (with Candidate #2), but if I wanted it to be rewarding, I had only one choice: Candidate #3.

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

Dreams have power…hang on to them!

During the first week of Fall Semester, I visited 17 classes in the hope of reaching out to freshmen in a more personal way, welcoming them and letting them know the university is vested in their success. I gave them the reasons why students drop out and why it is important to adopt good learning habits now.

Since all the visits took place over a two-day period, naturally I was exhausted.

But then I started to receive emails from students, some pledging to persevere and complete college and others simply saying how inspired they felt. With each one, I felt less and less tired. And then I received an email from LeeAnne Beckham Carlson (produced verbatim below), which dissolved all my exhaustion.

A dream in the making

“Yesterday you spoke for a few minutes to the students in PHAR 2362, Principles of Drug Action. I was in the audience and I would like to share my story with you.

You spoke about the factors that contribute to academic success. Thirty years ago to the very day that you spoke to my class, I was starting at UH as a freshman straight out of high school. I did not have much in the way of family support, and I was largely unfocused and without direction as well as not yet having been diagnosed as having ADHD. I did become involved on campus, joining the Cougar Guard and taking care of Shasta V. I met my husband in the Cougar Guard, and we married at the end of my freshman year.

I was also under academic suspension at the end of my freshman year.

I did plan to return, but as you noted yesterday, one semester turns into two, which turns into years.

My husband finished his degree at UH. We had children – twelve of them. We have homeschooled all of them. I had a career as a midwife, delivering hundreds of babies. We built a successful family business. I have, by no means, lived a life of failure.

One thing, however, was unfinished – my degree. In April of this year, a family decision was made that I would return to school. Although we now live closer to Texas A&M and Sam Houston State University, there was never a doubt in my mind that I wanted to finish where I began – at the University of Houston.

Going through the process to be readmitted took several months. I have met with my academic advisor as well as with the CLASS Dean’s Office. I was given a series of required steps, including meeting with a counselor at Learning Support Services as well as with a career counselor, which I have completed. I have several more required workshops and counseling meetings to attend as well as meeting with the Dean’s Office again in October. Technically, thanks to the three courses that I took over the summer at the local community college (getting an A in each one of them), I will no longer be on Academic Probation by the end of this semester. I will continue to utilize the support services available to me as a student. I firmly believe that had these services been available to me thirty years ago, I might not have failed in my first attempt as a college student.

This time, I will succeed. My sights are set on graduate school, also at UH, in Creative Writing. My children (ages 4 to 26) are watching. My husband is my biggest supporter. This family support combined with the support systems now available at the University leave me with no doubt that this time I will finish what I began thirty years ago. A thirty-three year graduation plan may be unorthodox, but it is my plan and I am proud to be making the plan as a Cougar.”

LeeAnne, we are proud of you. I know you will succeed and because of you, the University of Houston will succeed.

Dreams have power. They can make us do things we don’t think possible. Hang on to them!

Anything worth winning is won with passion

Last week, I was waiting for the elevator when I heard someone running toward me, literally screaming, “Oh My Gosh! I can’t believe it is you! Can I please take a selfie with you?”

“Of course, you can. Where is your phone?” I said. She fumbled for it in the backpack, too excited to concentrate. Finally, the student found the phone and took a selfie, still chanting, “Oh My Gosh, Oh My Gosh!”
She was vivacious, happy, full of life and full of spirit. We started talking and within few minutes I realized that Tina was no ordinary person.

During high school, Tina became the sole survivor of a fatal car accident that claimed her mother and sister. She delayed her entrance to college by one year. During her sophomore year, Tina was diagnosed with cancer with not-so-good odds of survival. She took a year off from college, fought the battle successfully and returned. During that time, she managed to complete one online course.

In her senior year, Tina’s father lost the functionality of his legs in a random shooting. Once again, she had to stay home to care for her father and provide support to two younger brothers. But Tina enrolled in several online courses and completed them with good grades. “I love being on campus, but you don’t get everything you want,” she said in an accepting voice, without a note of complaint.

“You will be proud of me, President Khator, but I am graduating within six years. I did not want to let you down.” She had the smile of a winner as she said it.

I hugged Tina and held her a little longer than usual. I did not want her to see tears filling up my eyes.

What kept Tina going against all odds? Life pushed her back again and again and yet she came out victorious every single time. “I am so proud of you,” I said admiringly. “I am so glad you chose to continue your studies.”

“I had no choice,” she replied. “I never thought that way.” Tina waved good-bye and ran in the other direction. She was gone, but her words kept buzzing in my ears throughout the day … and the next and the next.

I never thought that way! That way…

What way?

Did Thomas Edison feel the same way when he failed 999 times before inventing what led to the modern light bulb!
Did Henry Ford feel the same way when he declared five bankruptcies before becoming hugely successful?
Did R.H. Macy feel the same way when he closed down seven stores before finding success in New York?
Did Walt Disney feel the same way when told by his newspaper editor that he lacked imagination?
Did Dr. Seuss feel the same way when rejected by publishers, not once, not twice but 27 times?

What is “that way of thinking” that seemed to give them no other choice? Did passion make them blind to reality and deaf to the voices of reason?

Tina, like these famous people, had passion for her goal, and that passion pushed her forward. In theory, she may have had choices, but she could not see them and that made her succeed despite many setbacks. When people face setbacks, they react in one of two ways: They think from their brain and analyze everything minutely to decide whether it is wise to quit. And then there are those who respond from their heart and look for a different way or a different time or a different setting to reach their goal.

Winners fall in the second category because their eyes are on the goal, not on many ways to reach the goal. They keep trying different tools, because their goals are not negotiable.

I salute Tina for making me see her way, that way… the way of winners!

[To protect her identity, this student’s name and circumstances have been altered.]