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!!

Blessed are those who give…

Like every other university president, I spend countless hours raising funds for my university. People often ask me if I like doing so. I smile and reply, “I love it!” Born and brought up in a privileged family, I found asking for anything, let alone money, was difficult at first, but it became easy once I figured out that I was helping two individuals – one who has the means and wishes to make a difference and one who has the dream but needs someone to believe in her.

Daisy

Daisy

The connections that we, as fundraisers, make have transformational impact. No, it is not about transforming an organization. It is about transforming a life, a family and even a generation. Here is an account from Daisy, one of our students, who stood up to thank a group of donors recently.

“Hello, my name is Daisy and I am currently a sophomore at the University of Houston where I am working on a dual degree in psychology and nursing. I think we are all aware about the allegations a presidential candidate made about illegal immigrants, specifically those who come across the Mexican border. He said they brought drugs and crime. He also said, ‘I assume some are good people.’ I promise I am not going to get into politics. I just want to say that he is right… kind of!

My parents, both immigrants, represent both sides of his spectrum. My dad was the drug- dealing criminal one. My mom was the most hard-working and caring person I know. When I was in Pre-K, my dad decided to buy some property. Soon after the contract was made, he got arrested and eventually deported. So my mom was the one who had to carry that huge responsibility of fixing the property so we could live in it. She literally started from zero.

My mom raised us on her own and gave us a place to live. She was always so loving. She would wake up each morning to walk us to the bus stop, made sure we left, then walked to work. Monday through Sunday, rain or shine. Growing up with a single, immigrant parent was so hard. I mean, the struggles were so real.

I really never thought I was poor; I actually thought I was rich because we didn’t ask for much, yet we had a lot. Now that I look back, I can’t believe we survived. I know it kind of sounds like I’m just talking about my mom, but really, I can’t imagine being here without her. I always worked so hard in school to make my mom proud. They told me in high school that if I worked hard enough, others would help me pay for college.

Today, I am here to thank you personally. The amount of gratitude I feel inside can’t be expressed. I can stand here and thank you all night and it still won’t be enough. I don’t know if you all are aware of how much difference you are making in our lives.

I remember when I first met my sponsor, I felt so blessed. He told me how he put his grandchildren through college and how he was glad he had the opportunity to help someone else. I felt truly humbled that he was willing to invest his money in complete strangers just so they could have a chance at their dreams. We hear about people investing in stocks, markets, and various industries, but rarely strangers.

I remember how many things were going wrong my senior year in high school. A week before the deadline, I heard about the Rodeo Scholarship. I hadn’t done ANYTHING and there was so much mailing and paperwork to do. I remember having a hopeless feeling deep inside of me, but I then had a Bible verse in mind which states, ‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper you, and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.’ I look back and I feel silly for feeling hopeless knowing that God is always with me and everything is possible through him.

Months after my application submission, I received an email notifying me that I was the only one in my school to be awarded this scholarship. And we’ll, here I am today.

This scholarship is not a gift. It is a loan, because just like you all are making this happen for me, sometime in the near future it will be my turn to pass this loan along to someone who needs it just as much as I did. So again, thank you so much and don’t ever think that your time and efforts are pointless, because every second and even the smallest task has a great significance for people like me.”

Daisy finished her story to find that everyone was up on their feet, every eye was wet with tears of pride, and every heart was touched by her humility.

Personally, I have been at both ends of this give-and-take relationship. I still remember the day when I signed the withdrawal application and took it to my department advisor because I lacked the funds to pay tuition. (My husband was too proud to take money from my father, and no loans were available for international students). But a scholarship from Purdue University kept me in school. The bittersweet memory of that difficult time was very much on our minds as my husband and I made an endowment donation to the University of Houston to fund scholarships. As Daisy suggested, a scholarship is not a gift, it is a loan and we take great satisfaction in being able to repay it in our own way.

I am blessed to be a connector of those in need and those with means. Over the years, I have also learned that blessed are those who receive, but even more blessed are those who give!

In honor of those who give…

A few months back, I found an entry on my calendar, “Greet and Thank Professor……..”  Because the meeting was set up just for him, I was a little intrigued and was curious to know which noteworthy act of teaching or research the professor had achieved.  So, I opened the attached note that said, “…for $1.5 million gift to establish an endowed chair.”

My immediate reaction was “Wow.” That is a significant gift and it is coming from a current faculty member!  I read the professor’s name again.  No, I could not recall the name from any of my conversations with the development staff.  And no, he was not from a discipline where an invention or a start-up company could have been the possible source of his fortune.  My curiosity remained.

At the scheduled time, I walked in the board room and there he was…an unassuming man with a totally down-to-earth attitude.  He appeared uncomfortable in tie, as if he had put it on just for the meeting. We shook hands and I thanked him sincerely for his generous gift. Then I proceeded to inquire about the reason behind his generosity.

He responded very matter-of-factly, “I have worked at UH for over 30 years and have had the most wonderful time. Every morning, I have been waking up excited to come to work, to see my students, and to do whatever I can to make this a better place. It has been my home; it has been my life.”

We talked some more about the evolution of the University and all of the trials and tribulations it had gone through.  During the span of 45 minutes or so, I noticed that he had never said one negative word about the university.  He was extremely proud of it and very gratified to have been a part of it.

Explaining how he amassed this wealth, he said, “I am not a big spender and I don’t have any obligations so I want to give it to the place that brought so much joy to my life.”  If you dissect his statement, it is clear that…

…He has been working hard for every dollar!

…He has not been splurging it on himself!

…He feels that the University had done more for him than he has done for the University even though he has devoted his entire life to teaching and research!

…He has no expectations for recognition!

Needless to say, the meeting made my day!  In fact, it made my year!  I have repeated his statement many, many times in my head.

Three months later, I saw his name again, and this time, it was in the context of a luncheon given in honor of the University of Houston 1927 Society.  In that room were many faculty and staff who shared similar feelings, and who had made a planned gift to the place that had given them so much!  Some were retired but many were current members of the faculty and staff. They had lived or were living in the trenches, having seen the best and the worst.  Yet, their love for their workplace went beyond their daily frustrations and struggles.  Like the faculty member, they all wanted to express their gratitude by securing the future of the university.

Even though, the professor expected no recognition, I am going to give you his name—Professor Robert Carp!  On behalf of the future generation of students and faculty who will be the beneficiaries, I thank Professor Carp and the members of the 1927 Society for their generosity.  You are indeed bigger than the institution!