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UH Student ‘Had to Work a Little Bit Harder’

Posted on: November 21st, 2013


Raised in El Salvador by a single mother, University of Houston student Jeovany Ortega Zelaya learned early lessons in determination.

Thrown into Houston public schools as a child who spoke only Spanish, Zelaya quickly found the determination to master the English language. When an injury left his mother unable to work, Zelaya began working full-time at an early age to help support his family.

“It just taught me that I had to work a little bit harder than everybody else,” Zelaya said of his childhood.

Now, a junior in the business marketing program at the C.T. Bauer College of Business, Zelaya is using that same determination to finish his undergraduate education in four years and become the first in his family to earn a college degree.

A diploma and a chance at a rewarding career will make all of those early struggles worth the effort, for both himself and his mother, he said.

“My mom just kept telling me, ‘It’s on you,’” he said. “That put the drive inside me.”

When it came time to choose a school, Zelaya selected the University of Houston based on its proximity to his mother, as well as the reputation of the business school. A four-year scholarship from the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo made attending college possible.

“It was like a dream come true,” Zelaya said of the scholarship. “Of course my family needed it. Having somebody be so generous and giving you that type of scholarship throughout your career … I really appreciate it.”

So far, college has been a rewarding and eye-opening experience, he said, adding that he appreciates that professors are willing to give students individual attention, even in some of the large lecture classes.

“What I liked the most, even though there were so many kids in each classroom, is they [professors] really made it seem like they were just talking to you,” Zelaya said. “They are very helpful.”

One particular favorite, the late Leslie Marenchin, taught philosophy.

“He opened my eyes a lot about how to look at certain things, or just religion in general in a different manner,” Zelaya said. “I love the type of professor who actually opens up your mind to different concepts.”

At the business school, he said he is receiving wonderful training that will lead him to success in his chosen field – marketing.

“I felt like I could communicate really well with other people,” Zelaya said, explaining his decision to go into marketing. “I felt like being positive and being a good communicator really would go a long way with the type of sales marketing approach I wanted to go into.”

Though he is a commuter – he travels 45 minutes one-way to school each day – and must work most weekends, Zelaya still loves to support the Cougars.

With his work schedule, he misses most football games, but he follows them closely on the radio. The exception this year was the Texas Tech game, in which UH defeated Tech 29-28.

“When they are as big as the Texas Tech game, you just can’t pass it up,” he said. “I loved every second of it – rushing on the field. When I have the chance, I love to support UH.”

Though the Rodeo Scholarship helps him pay for school, Zelaya still works 40 to 50 hours a week to help support himself and his mother.

Now, he is working as a data collector at Gallup – a consulting firm known as one of the leading public polling organizations around the world. Zelaya hopes to stay with the company and continue to rise through its ranks.

“The way they influence their employees, and the culture they have, it really influenced me to stay in the company,” he said.

Ultimately, Zelaya said he plans to further his education and earn his MBA.

The accomplishment will make his mother very proud, as well as himself.

“I know that being patient, persevering and being positive throughout my whole life has led me to where I am today,” Zelaya said.

Dedicated to ‘making this great university greater’

Posted on: November 21st, 2013

welcome wilson

When considering where he wanted his sons to attend college, Welcome Wilson Sr.’s father, E. E. Jack Wilson of Brownsville, Texas, never hesitated when he suggested the University of Houston.

Though the fledgling college was only 19 years old and only had three permanent buildings, he decided Houston was the best place for his two boys.

“My father thought Houston was going to be the center of the universe,” Wilson said. “There were half a million people, it was the largest city in Texas, but his vision was that it – Houston – would become one of the greatest cities of the world. … I have no complaints about his judgment.”

As his father predicted, Houston would become integral to Wilson’s success. Houston is where he got his start in the real estate development business, and it’s where he now serves as chairman of the University of Houston System Board of Regents.

But before he met with success, Wilson was just one of an influx of 10,500 students – many of them veterans of World War II – who flooded the university’s campus in 1946.

That year, his father dropped Wilson and his brother, Jack Wilson, off at UH, paid the rent on an Army house trailer in the campus veteran’s village for one month, paid their tuition for the first semester, and gave them each $50.

“We never heard from him financially again, as long as we lived,” Wilson said. “Now, that was not unexpected. In those days, people didn’t expect their parents to pay the bills … we knew we had to fend for ourselves. After all, I was 18 years old and grown.”

The brothers lived on Jack Wilson’s GI Bill money, as well as whatever else they could bring in through various odd jobs, ranging from working as campus representatives for cigarette companies, performing in night clubs, to selling polio insurance door to door.

“The whole thing was survival – how do you get enough money to eat the next month,” he said. “And so, my experience at the University of Houston was not only the learning experience, but it was the entrepreneurial experience.”

After growing up working as a newscaster at his father’s radio station in Brownsville, during World War II, Wilson decided to see if he could find some work in advertising – a line of business recommended by his father.

“My father wanted me to sell advertising, because he felt like anybody who could sell would always have a job in any economy in any circumstances,” he said. “He thought that the most important ingredient in selling was guts. You had to have the guts to go see somebody that didn’t want to see you and sell something they didn’t need or didn’t want.”

At UH, the best opportunity to get into advertising was at the campus newspaper.

“I walked in, and Johnny Goyen, he was president of the student body, he was so startled, because nobody had ever volunteered to sell advertising,” Wilson said. “He said they usually had to go out and brow beat somebody to do it.”

Wilson earned his first commission on a $3 advertisement selling used cars. Later, when Goyen graduated, Wilson took over as business manager at the Daily Cougar. Goyen was later Mayor Pro-Tem of Houston for twenty two years.

“It was the highest-paid job on campus,” he said. “It paid $1 an hour, which was way higher than other student employees were making.”

In addition to bringing in much-needed money, the experience taught Wilson early lessons on how to run a business.

“The Cougar was a great background for me,” he said. “I was running a small business enterprise … meeting the payroll was my responsibility, making the budget balance was my responsibility, selling the advertising was my responsibility. It was a tremendous experience.”

While helping him develop his business skills, the University of Houston also improved Wilson’s social life. He met his wife, Joanne, at a Sadie Hawkins dance.

“I was sitting across the table in the old gymnasium from this gorgeous girl,” he said. “The candlelight was flickering, so I couldn’t really get a good look at her, but I could tell she was beautiful.”

The two did not talk that night, but Wilson was so struck by her, that he spent the next six months keeping his eye out for her on campus.

“One day, I was walking down the hall, and there she came,” he said. “I grabbed her up, and I absolutely was not going to let her get away again.”

The two married in 1949, on the same day Wilson graduated from the University of Houston. She was 18 and he was 21.

After graduation, Wilson spent the next 12 years working for the government, working at UH, and as a Naval Reserve officer. He was an assistant to Mayor Roy Hofhienz at city hall. He also worked in civil service during the Eisenhower administration, attaining a position with the rank of a three-star general at 27 years old.

When it came time to move on to the next stage in his career in real estate development, he sought out other UH graduates. For one of his first major development projects – a 300-acre tract of land in Galveston called Jamaica Beach – Wilson partnered with UH alums Jack Valenti, Johnny Goyen, Bill Sherrill, and his brother, Jack Wilson. Valenti was later president of the Motion Picture Association of America for 40 years, and Sherrill was later a member of the Federal Reserve Board in Washington.

Now, he continues to work at his own business – the GSL Welcome Group LLC, a family-owned group of companies that own and lease single-tenant office, lab, industrial and manufacturing facilities in Texas. He still serves as the company chairman.

Throughout his career, Wilson has stayed close to the University of Houston, giving back whenever possible. He was thrilled when Governor Rick Perry appointed him to serve on the UH System Board of Regents in 2006, but it was literally a dream come true when he was elected as its chairman in 2007.

Wilson remembers in 1947 running into and chatting with the legendary H.R. Cullen, then chairman of the Board of Regents, when Cullen was making the rounds of campus.

“That night, I went home to our army surplus house trailer and told my brother – he was eating beans – that was the staple of the trailer,” Wilson said. “I said, ‘You know, I could be chairman of the Board of Regents one day.’ Jack didn’t even look up, he kept eating his beans. He thought it was so ridiculous.”

Now, as chairman, Wilson said he is working hard to help UH achieve Tier-One status.

“I want the University of Houston to be thought of like the great universities of America,” he said. “In order to do that, we have got to have top-notch faculty, we have to have qualified students, and we have to have a major research initiative going on.”

Wilson said he sees an excitement on campus now that is similar to the excitement on campus when he was in school, adding that UH’s new President has electrified the campus and electrified metropolitan Houston.

“I would say it has a lot to do with creating something. We as students felt like we were building a university,” he said. “As students, we felt like we were an integral part of making this great university greater, and the reason that I have kept so close to the university over all these years is that it was such an important part of my life.”

From UH to Energy Company Leadership Dynegy CEO

Posted on: November 21st, 2013

bruce williamson
In his office, looking out from the 67th floor of the Wells Fargo building at a view that stretches for miles from downtown Houston, it’s hard to imagine that Dynegy CEO Bruce Williamson ever gave a second thought to moving to the nation’s energy capital.

For Williamson, who grew up within sight of the Rocky Mountains in Great Falls, Mont., Texas was a long way from home. A job offer from Royal Dutch/Shell Group gave him an opportunity to move to Houston and begin a career in the energy business.

Now, Williamson, a graduate of the University of Houston’s Executive MBA program, is known as the man who led Dynegy, a wholesale power provider, through a complex restructuring effort with a current focus on viable operations.

Williamson’s first stop in Houston, in June 1981, lasted just long enough for him to take his first graduate marketing class at UH before being transferred to California. When he was eventually transferred back to Houston in the late ’80s, Houston’s energy landscape had evolved and grown, and Williamson decided it was time to focus on his education and complete his MBA.

“The EMBA program at the University of Houston fit the best,” he said. “The program is very rigorous. You commit to it, you are admitted to it and you are in a lockstep program straight through with a group of people. The added discipline of being in a program like that is what I needed.”

The MBA program taught him to think about business, and his career, in a more strategic way, Williamson said.

“When you first get out of school [as an undergraduate], the focus is on getting your job done, getting your assignments done,” he said. “But I think getting the MBA is about lifting yourself up. Now, I can think about things in broader terms, maybe more strategically. That was a big plus for me in terms of a career standpoint.”

The program had an even greater impact on him, because he already had nearly a dozen years of experience in the work force before going back to school.

“If I had gone straight through, I would have probably gotten an MBA by age 25 or 26, and I don’t know that I would have gotten as much out of it as I did by having gone later,” he said. “It was a time to go back to school, rethink things, to refresh yourself and come back re-energized in terms of pursuing your career.”

After graduating in 1995, Williamson’s career was already on the upswing. He had moved from Shell to PanEnergy, where he had served as vice president of finance. In 1997, PanEnergy merged with Duke Energy International, and Williamson was appointed president and chief executive officer of the resulting company, Duke Energy International.

In 2002, Williamson was lured away to Dynegy. “I did a lot of diligence on the company in terms of whether we could restructure it, and determined that I thought we could. We put a good team together, and we did.”

The problem, he said, was that the company had drifted from its main business line into too many different facets of energy, including jumping into energy trading and broadband initiatives.

“It had, simply put, too much debt. We had to come in and for the last five or six years, really restructure the balance sheet,” Williamson said. In terms of improving the company’s balance sheet, debt was reduced from almost $10 billion to approximately half that today.

“We had to take a longer-term view of our strategy, and where we thought we were best positioned. That [best position] was really focusing the company to a single line of business – in this case power generation – and driving the company around that single line of business,” Williamson added.

The restructuring effort proved successful, and Dynegy remains a major player in its key markets of the Midwest, the West and Northeast power markets. Now, Williamson is focusing on ensuring that the company remains relevant as the energy industry continues evolve.

Williamson said he sees natural gas as the bridge between heavy reliance on fossil fuels and the renewable energy of the future.

“We still have coal-fired power plants, and they are very important,” he said. “But we have diversified to add natural gas combined-cycle power plants to our mix. We see that as an effective bridge to a less carbon-intensive energy future.”

As he prepares his company for the future, Williamson also concerns himself with ensuring that the next generation of graduates at UH is ready to join the energy work force. As an alum, and the chief executive of a company that recruits heavily from UH, he said it is important for him to give back, and support the university’s efforts to become the “Energy University.”

“The work force for the energy business in Houston comes not just from developing the next generation of petroleum engineers and scientists,” he said. “The energy business is also about developing the next generation of people who are going to be the accountants, the public affairs officers, and the human resources officers. … It takes a lot of people with diverse specializations to run an energy company.”

Williamson, who serves on the Dean’s Advisory Board for the C.T. Bauer College of Business and the President’s Energy Advisory Board, said he likes the cross-disciplinary approach UH is employing in energy education.

“I think that is a big advantage,” he said.

The University of Houston is a great asset for the city and the energy industry, Williamson said, adding that he recommends that people keep the University of Houston in mind when they are considering pursuing an advanced degree.

“Given today’s business climate, energy professionals understand the importance of hanging on to their existing jobs. But you don’t need to set aside the ideal of pursuing an advanced degree,” he said. “It’s awfully easy to just pop out of downtown, head out on the Gulf Freeway a couple of exits, and you are there, and you are at a world-class institution.”

Protecting the Interests of the American Middle Class

Posted on: November 21st, 2013


After growing up “at the ragged edge of the middle class,” Elizabeth Warren has a special affinity for those she considers the “moral heart” of America.

That’s why the UH alum, who served as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel that oversees the $700 billion U.S. banking bailout, called for creation of a consumer financial protection agency to repair the market for those struggling to maintain a hold on the American dream. On Sept. 17, 2010, Warren was named by U.S. President Barack Obama to serve as the Special Assistant to the President and Special Advisor to the Secretary of the Treasury on the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau — the very agency she proposed.

“I believe the middle class is America. It is the economy, it is where we produce our goods and services,” Warren said. “I believe the middle class is the moral heart of America … and I am deeply, deeply worried about middle-class America.”

In her new role, Warren will help to develop a new government agency aimed at clamping down on unfair, deceptive or abusive financial practices.

The high-profile position will give Warren a new platform to argue for consumer rights — something she did frequently as chair of the Congressional Oversight Panel, where she was tasked with reviewing the actions of the U.S. Treasury Department and the Federal Reserve and monitoring what happened in the economy as the bailout money was spent.

“Part of what we [did] in the Congressional Oversight Panel is … talk about the kinds of rules we need going forward,” she said. “Part of what I keep pushing for is to evaluate those rules in terms of their impact on middle-class families, on jobs, on small businesses.”

Her work with the panel earned her a spot among Time magazine’s 100 most influential people in 2010. Warren, the Leo Gottlieb Professor of Law at Harvard University, also was named one of the most powerful women in the world by Forbes magazine, and was suggested as a potential nominee for the U.S. Supreme Court.

Though her career focus has changed since she was a communication disorders major at the University of Houston, Warren said she still relies on some of the skills she developed as an undergraduate.

For instance, Warren remembers a particularly interesting class she took with Professor Genevieve Arnold on the diagnosis of learning disabilities, which taught her how to do a step-by-step analysis of a problem.

“It was the single, deepest, most engaging class I took at the University of Houston. It actually turns out it was enormously helpful when I went to law school, and now that I am teaching in law school,” she said. “It became integrated into my brain, and is part of how I think about almost any hard problem.”

The undergraduate experience taught her to be proud of her accomplishments and the hard work it took to achieve them.

“I think the thing I was the most proud of was really buckling down in hard classes,” Warren said. “There were teachers who would encourage me, who would throw out a lifeline when I needed it, but also who would let me go as hard as I could on my own and accomplish as much as I could. At the end of my classes, I felt a real sense of ‘I’ve done something here.’”

Just eight years after graduating with a bachelor’s in communication disorders, Warren was back on the University of Houston campus – this time as an assistant professor at the UH Law Center, where she became “one of those young, enthusiastic teachers that I had as an undergrad.”

Warren taught at UH from 1978 through 1983, taking the time to learn from other, more experienced professors.

“It was my first teaching job, and I was taught by the more senior members of the law faculty,” she said. “John Mixon in particular would take me out to lunch after my contracts class three days a week, and we would sit down and talk about what happened. It was only a couple of years later that I realized he was really teaching me how to teach.”

Now, as a professor at Harvard, Warren said she still loves teaching.

“I think the best part about working with students is you get to relive the incredible joy of experiencing new experiences,” she said. “I get to watch and participate as the light bulbs go off, as people make connections they have never made before, as they start to have new insights they haven’t had before.”

In addition to her teaching, Warren is a prolific writer, having written more than 100 scholarly articles and multiple books, including two she wrote with her daughter, Amelia Tyagi: “The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers are Going Broke” and “All Your Worth: The Ultimate Lifetime Money Plan.”

She also has made multiple appearances on television programs such as “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” and “Dr. Phil,” as well as appearing in Michael Moore’s documentary, “Capitalism: A Love Story.”

The interviews and television appearances are intended to spread her message about the need for financial reform to all Americans.

“Frankly, I just started saying ‘yes’ as much as humanly possible. When reporters called, when the movie makers called, when “The Daily Show” called, if I could, if it was possible to fit it into the schedule, I went and talked,” she said. “My view was I could reach another audience. … I was trying to give Americans everywhere at least a little piece of information so they could participate in a really important national conversation.”

Warren said she wants to see more Americans engaged in the discussion about the economy and financial regulations.

“The decisions we will make in the next few months about our economy and what the rules are going to be going forward will shape what we are as a country for the next century,” she said. “The only way that Americans’ interests are really safeguarded is if more Americans understand.”

Family Tragedy Inspires Student to Pursue Medical Career

Posted on: November 21st, 2013


Inspired by the death of a brother he never had a chance to meet, UH student Binh Vu is pursuing a career in medicine, hoping to help others with limited access to health care.

Before Vu was even born, his family dealt with the death of his brother following complications related to his premature birth. Vu’s older sister also was born prematurely and faced challenges to her health, Vu said.

The family, fearing any other health emergencies, left their home country of Vietnam for Houston.

“[My brother] was born premature, and he died a few weeks after because healthcare wasn’t very accessible to everyone,” Vu said. “We immigrated because we were afraid for our health.”

Now, though his family is covered by health insurance, Vu has witnessed a similar lack of access to health care for many in his new country. Hoping to work toward solutions to broaden access to healthcare, Vu, a senior biology major, plans to attend medical school and become a doctor.

“When we came over here, we thought that healthcare was for everyone, but it’s still only for those who can afford insurance,” he said. “Healthcare is slowly changing, but I’m hoping … one day we can make it more affordable by changing some of the practices.”

Vu’s journey from Vietnam to the University of Houston was not an easy one. When his family moved to Houston from Vietnam in 1994, he was six-years-old and didn’t know any English.

“It was hard learning English, so I was in ESL [English as a second language] for about three or four years,” Vu said. “At school, I couldn’t communicate with anyone because there was a language barrier. The first two years, it was just talking to teachers and family.”

After three or four years of ESL classes, Vu’s English improved.

“Being over here in America, you have to know English to get somewhere,” he said. “I just pushed myself every day. I read a lot of books.”

By the fourth grade, his teachers noticed that he was ready for new challenges.

“From then, I went into honors programs and AP classes,” he said. “I just did a lot of work. I tried to achieve what my parents expected.”

When searching for a place to continue his education, Vu was drawn to the University of Houston because of its nearness to family, its affordability, and mostly, its location near the Texas Medical Center.

“I knew that UH has a lot of programs with the Medical Center,” he said. “There are just a lot of opportunities in going here. I get to meet more diverse students, have better quality teachers. It just opened up a lot of opportunity for me.”

Vu has received several scholarships, including from his high school, the UH Asian Alumni Association, the Houston Endowment and the Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo. The scholarships have enabled Vu to not worry so much about money, and take advantage of the opportunities available at UH to help him achieve his goals.

During his freshman year, Vu joined several on-campus organizations, including the pre-health society, which helped introduce him to his chosen career. Now, as he gets closer to graduation, Vu has been able to find opportunities at other Medical Center institutions that are best suited to helping him achieve his goals.

For instance, Vu now works at the UT Health Center in the pharmacy department. He also does research at the Methodist Hospital. Both experiences are possible because of UH’s connection and nearness to the Medical Center.

“If I had gone out of state or out of the city, I would not have received the opportunities I have going to UH,” he said.

Though he is a commuter student – traveling up to 40 minutes each way to school – Vu said he still enjoys the college experience offered on campus.

“It’s just the environment, and how everywhere you look there is diversity,” he said. “The university has a lot of events where you can have a chance to experience school pride.”

When he graduates, it will be a very proud moment for his parents, Vu said.

“My parents never graduated from college,” Vu said. “They never attended college. So being the first to graduate with a degree – it’s an honor for them.”

Vu is in the process of applying to medical schools. Ideally, he said he would like to stay close to home.

“I want to stay here in Houston, close to family and close to UH,” Vu said. “I want to connect back to UH as an alum … I want to give back.”

Physics Student is Among the Top Science Students in the U.S.

Posted on: November 21st, 2013

matthew reichl

When he began at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Matthew Reichl wanted nothing more than a future as a jazz pianist.

Reichl was on track to meet his goal – he was already performing with professional musicians and learning Houston’s music scene from the inside – when something happened his junior year to change his career path.

“I took a physics course my junior year, and I had a really excellent teacher. I guess I started playing with the idea of doing something else, and it just kind of caught on,” he said. “I took another physics course after that, and I just kind of fell in love with the subject.”

The change in focus paid off as Reichl, a junior physics and mathematics double major with the University of Houston’s Honors College, was named one of the top science students in the U.S. as a 2010 recipient of the Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship.

The scholarship program, established by the U.S. Congress in 1986 in honor of former U.S. Senator Barry Goldwater, is designed to provide a continuing source of highly qualified mathematicians and engineers by awarding scholarships to college students pursuing careers in those fields. It is awarded to 300 college sophomores and juniors each year, and is considered the most prestigious award for an undergraduate student of the sciences.

“I’m very happy about it,” Reichl said of the award. “It makes life a lot easier as I start applying for graduate school. I get to stress out a little less.”

The award also validates his decision to make the switch from performing in jazz clubs to conducting research in a physics laboratory – a decision Reichl describes as surprisingly easy.

“It might sound strange that I would switch from an art that was obviously creative to something very hard science,” he said. “Interestingly enough, what really excited me about it was the creativity involved in solving the problems and in analyzing the problems.”

When it came time to choose a college, Reichl gave up his plans to attend music school, and began to focus on finding a place relatively close to his home in the Katy area, and one that had a good physics program. He applied to two places – the University of Houston and the University of Texas. The Honors College sold him on UH.

“I was invited to an orientation, and I was just really impressed with the liberal arts aspect of what is going on here,” he said. “I wanted to have a good balance between the sciences and the liberal arts and I thought The Honors College was a good place to go.”

The small class sizes, the individual attention, and the quality of the courses have convinced him he made the right move.

“The physics program here is really small, and that just has benefits all over the place,” he said. “I have a class with four students – that is quite nice.”

The personal attention he has received at UH has led to a number of opportunities, including the chance to do research as an undergraduate.

“I was found out. I wasn’t even going to get involved in research until later on, and a professor just noticed me, and kind of took care of things for me,” Reichl said. “He really motivated me to get involved in research. He contacted some professors for me, which I thought was really pretty amazing.”

The summer after his freshman year, Reichl was selected to do research in Kevin Bassler’s laboratory, doing field work in statistical mechanics. He has continued his work in that lab.

The experience has taught him to love physics even more.

“As soon as I started doing research, I saw how creative it can be,” Reichl said, adding that he hopes to continue doing research through graduate school. Ultimately, he hopes to do research and teach at the university level.

While he enjoys the creativity involved in physics, Reichl still enjoys other creative outlets. He continues to perform around Houston, playing with a jazz band every Monday night at a bar in Montrose.

Living on campus has made it possible for him to fit so much into his schedule, while still having the traditional college experience.

“I’m happy that I have kept a good balance,” Reichl said. “I have studied hard, and spent a lot of time with it, but I have also had a lot of fun times … I have gotten to play music and do a lot of things outside of pure academics. I love having the opportunity to go to the games and stuff.”

After winning the scholarship, Reichl said he plans to move out of the dorms and into an apartment for his senior year. But he will still stay close to campus to take advantage of all of the opportunities available for him there.

“I like having the chance to stay after class, and hang out with friends,” he said. “I like studying with other people. And also, I do research during the school year, and it helps to be able to stay at the lab whenever I want.”

Wherever he ends up, Reichl said he will look back fondly on his time at UH.

“It is a great school,” he said. “I think it is a completely underrated university.”

Reaching Great Heights UH Alum Danny Olivas Followed His Passion to NASA

Posted on: November 21st, 2013


As a child growing up in El Paso, Danny Olivas spent many nights on the roof of his house with his dad, gazing at the stars and looking for craters on the moon. But it wasn’t until a trip to the Johnson Space Center in Houston that Olivas says he was truly “bitten by the space bug.”

Looking back, Olivas, an astronaut and University of Houston alum, says it was that early visit, looking at artifacts from the Apollo era, that made him realize he might be able to play a role at NASA.

“My father, years before, had worked at a machine shop in Los Angeles, and he began explaining some of the parts he built on rockets,” Olivas said. “I was just really fascinated by the thought that my father helped contribute to what I just finished seeing at this museum.”

Now, the veteran of two spaceflights, Olivas says it was his passion for engineering -nurtured while a graduate student at the University of Houston – that made his career at NASA possible.

“It was that pursuit of a passion that … NASA saw,” he said. “That is really what they were looking for – not so much people who wanted to become astronauts as people who were passionate about whatever they were doing.”

Olivas developed his interest in mechanical engineering as a child, watching his father take apart machines and put them back together.

“There was not a single machine that he was afraid of tearing apart,” he said. “That, as a kid, was very influential for me, and ultimately helped me develop my love and passion for machines and mechanisms.”

Olivas followed that passion to the University of Texas at El Paso, where he earned his undergraduate degree in mechanical engineering. His next stop was a job at a chemical plant in Freeport – a job chosen because of its nearness to Houston and NASA.

While there, Olivas and his wife Marie decided to pursue graduate degrees. Both found the University of Houston a good fit, particularly for working students.

“We had wonderful experiences while we were there,” he said. “What I liked most about it is they were able to accommodate my working schedule, and my wife’s working schedule. They were very flexible in helping us achieve our educational goals and ultimately our career goals.”

Though they were commuter students and spent much of their time on campus during off hours, both Olivas and his wife made sure to take part in the active campus life – she on a dance team, and he on an intramural basketball team.

“You never really think of book-worm type graduate students having this sports competitive edge to them, but sure enough we did,” he said. “We’d go there and mix it up and have a great time doing it. There was a lot of camaraderie at [UH], and we enjoyed that.”

Olivas remembers being impressed by the caliber of graduate students on campus – many of whom, like himself, were pursuing graduate degrees while working full-time.

“They were all from different companies, and they were all basically doing what I was doing – this pursuit of higher education and trying to better themselves through education,” he said. “The professors really went out of their way to really try and work with the students.”

One of the professors who went out of his way to help Olivas was Charles Dalton, a professor of mechanical engineering. Olivas remembers showing his thesis to Dalton.

“He took that document, and he just ripped it to shreds, and justifiably so,” he said. “In doing so, he made me a better engineer.”

After graduating from UH in 1993 after just two years, Olivas earned a doctorate from Rice University, and took a job at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. In 1998, he was accepted into the astronaut training program at NASA.

Olivas made his first spaceflight in 2007 on Space Shuttle Atlantis, during which he worked on the International Space Station. He made his second spaceflight on Space Shuttle Discovery in August 2009, also working on the space station.

“The view from space is so breathtaking that words alone cannot do justice to how wonderful it is,” Olivas said of his trip. “And you can’t help but feel a sense o f disappointment in not being able to carve some of that out and be able to share that with people.”

Though it’s impossible to share that feeling of seeing Earth from space for the first time, Olivas tries to share his experience with others, including UH students, in many ways. He has made several visits back to campus, meeting with faculty and grad students. He also regularly attends Cougar football games.

To students, Olivas advises that they find their passion and continue to challenge themselves.

“If there is no challenge, then there is no learning, there is no opportunity to grow,” Olivas said. “You should push yourself to failure. You should know what your personal limits, what your personal boundaries are. If you don’t give up, that is when you learn. That is when you succeed.”

Engineer Finds Humor in His Own Life Experiences UH alumnus Saidas

Posted on: November 21st, 2013

saidas ranade

When joking about thermodynamics or the expanding universe, comedian Saidas M. “Sai” Ranade offers a glimpse into another part of his life.

Ranade, who earned his master’s and Ph.D. in chemical engineering from the University of Houston, has found that his experiences as an engineering consultant and his knowledge of physics and mathematics provides the perfect fodder for his personal brand of comedy.

“Comedy is about perspective. It’s about what makes your life unique, and how you get your audience involved,” he said. “For me, coming from India, an engineer, and being a Ph.D., it was like three strikes and you’re in!”

Ranade fell into comedy when a friend told him about a stand-up class being held at a local comedy club.

“I got into comedy because I was always interested in the idea of humor,” he said. “I really took the class to meet some interesting people.”

But even before those classes, Ranade was practicing early versions of his jokes while a student at UH. During his time there, he held leadership positions in the university’s program board, the India Students’ Association and the International Students’ Association.

“It allowed me to practice a lot of things, including some of my jokes,” he said. “So I want to apologize to a lot of those people who suffered from those initial versions of my jokes.”

Ranade, who grew up in Mumbai, India, earned the opportunity to continue his studies in the U.S. as the top chemical engineering student in his class. He wound up at UH after his professor met a UH professor at a conference in England and was urged by him to send good students to Houston.

“It was kind of an amazing thing in terms of being first in class – I was first by one point out of 1,200,” Ranade said. “Sometimes you look back and wonder, is it effort? Is it destiny? What is it?”

While he didn’t know what to expect in the U.S., Ranade said he soon discovered a world of opportunity.

“When I came [to UH] I didn’t really have any expectations. I was just coping with the circumstances as they unfolded,” he said. “There were world-class programs and the opportunity to meet students from all over the world.”

The chemical engineering department offered him the challenges and opportunities he was seeking, as well as high-caliber professors, such as John Lienhard, a member of the National Academy of Engineering, who taught one of his classes.

“The expectations were very high,” he said. “The standards were very rigorous at the chemical engineering department … but at the same time, the University of Houston allowed me to practice skills, not just academic, but comedic and leadership skills as well.”

At the time, Ranade said he also remembers being inspired by other things happening on campus.

“Carl Lewis was a student then, and we had the Phi Slama Jama going on, so inspiration was all around,” he said. “But to me, it was an excellent opportunity to learn, to practice and to broaden my horizons.”

Ranade, who earned his master’s degree in 1982 and his Ph.D. in 1985, said the university was crucial to his success.

“I would say it gave me an amazing start to my life in the United States,” he said. “It was just the perfect launching pad for my career as an engineer, as a consultant, as well as, if you can believe it, a comedian.”

In his day job, Ranade is an engineering consultant. He travels the world – he makes regular trips to Colombia in South America – teaching different topics such as process control, mathematical modeling and competency mapping.

When possible, at night, he makes appearances at comedy clubs in the U.S., where he has become popular with audiences. In 2000, he won the comedy category of the late Ed McMahon’s “Next Big Star” program, and he’s been a finalist in Houston’s Funniest Person Competition twice. In addition, his comedy routines air almost daily on comedy channels on Sirius and XM Satellite Radio.

“Comedy to me is really about engagement and connection,” he said. “I’m there to make people feel better even if it is for a short time while they are there. My job is to entertain them, and I’m going to use every trick in the book to do that.”

Ranade draws from his own life when coming up with jokes.

“I talk about cultural issues, the language issues that one confronts, as well as professional matters that set me apart,” he said. “Like when we had a lot of layoffs, I made humor about layoffs. Or coming from India, and having an awareness of security concerns in the United States also gave me an opportunity to dwell on that topic.”

He’s always writing new material, and searching for interesting ideas or concepts to be used in his next joke.

“To me, the real part is the simplicity of comedy. It’s you and the microphone and immediate feedback,” he said. “You don’t get that in many jobs.”

Ranade said he finds he is most successful with his comedy when he is doing well with his consulting job, and vice versa.

“For me, these days, I only do what I love to do. I love comedy. I love physics, mathematics and engineering. I’m at my best when I do both,” he said. “If I’m doing good work in chemical engineering and mathematics and physics, it appears that my jokes are also better.”

As he sees more professional and personal success, Ranade said he always remembers the role the University of Houston has played in his life.

“Whatever opportunities I have had … one factor of my success is the University of Houston,” he said.

Ranade said he is pleased with the progress that is being made at UH, and particularly its efforts to achieve Tier-One status.

“Over the last 25-30 years, it has grown in amazing ways in the right direction,” he said. “I am seeing progress, I am seeing excitement … We have a world-class university in a world-class city that is very dynamic, very international. I think that combination is simply unbeatable.”

Singing Her Way to the Spotlight Alum Barbara Padilla faced trials and triumphs on her way to the top

Posted on: November 21st, 2013

barbara padilla

Though she couldn’t understand the language at the time, Barbara Padilla remembers being touched by opera at a young age. She loved the music so much that during family vacations to the beach she would mimic the voices coming from her mother’s car radio.

“When we were driving to the beach and my mom was playing opera, I used to reproduce the sounds,” Padilla said. “I just knew that I could, so I did it. And my mom was very tickled.”

Now an opera sensation herself, and runner-up in the 2009 season of “America’s Got Talent,” Padilla, a UH alum, hopes that others are able to get as much out of her music.

“I just remember the happiest moments of my life and I relate that to music,” she said.

Padilla’s journey to the national spotlight was a long one, filled with moments of personal tragedy and triumph.

Born in Guadalajara, Mexico, Padilla was studying music and singing with the state choir in her hometown, when she was diagnosed in 1996 with Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The treatment called for chemotherapy and radiotherapy performed near her vocal chords.

“They were sure I wasn’t going to be able to sing again – my neck was totally burned,” she said. “But I never even had a scratch in my voice. I just kept singing.”

Padilla fought the disease for five years, and eventually she made her way to Houston for a second opinion at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center. While in Houston, one of the sponsors of her trip made a phone call to Peter Jacoby, music director at the University of Houston’s Edythe Bates Old Moores Opera Center.

“He is going to tell you, ‘I don’t know why I took the phone call. I don’t know why I said yes, but I said yes,’” Padilla said. “He saw me the next day, and I sang for him one of the pieces I knew … he said, ‘You know, I am going to give you a full scholarship.’”

She went home to Mexico to go through another round of radiation. When she again defied doctors’ predictions and didn’t lose her voice, she came to Houston in January 2000 to begin her career at the University of Houston. That summer, she had another relapse. She went back to Mexico for a bone marrow transplant – a procedure doctors weren’t sure would help.

“I was like, I’m not going to do this anymore. This is just too painful. But [friends and family] told me, ‘No, we believe in you,’” she said. “When you have people around you that believe in you so much, you go, ‘Well, I owe them.’ So I did it.”

Against all odds, Padilla again came through the surgery. Within a month, she was ready to travel again. She came back to Houston in January 2001, and has been well ever since.

At the university, Padilla lived her first year on the 16th floor of the Moody Towers. She spent her time in the practice rooms at the Moores School of Music, at the library and on the stage at the opera house, performing roles in several productions, including the lead in Mozart’s “La finta giardiniera.”

“I enjoyed every minute of it,” she said. “I just wanted to suck everything in … like a sponge. Whatever you learn, you learn for life, and I really wanted to seize the moment and learn from all of these people.”

She describes the UH faculty as second-to-none, and credits professors such as Jacoby and Buck Ross with helping her succeed.

“It’s like working with the greatest opera company,” she said of her time on the stage at UH. “Once you have that professional experience, when you go out to the real world, it is very smooth.”

While still a student, Padilla had multiple opportunities to shine in the “real world.” In 2001, she earned top honors at the National Association of Teachers Singing competition in the advanced adult category. She also performed both the Mexican and American national anthems before a sold-out crowd at a U.S.-Mexico soccer game in Reliant Stadium.

“I was singing in front of 70,000 people, so it was an experience,” she said of the soccer game. “It was fantastic.”

After graduating with a master’s degree in vocal performance in 2004, Padilla took some time off to be a stay-at-home mom with her newly adopted daughter. But in 2009, when auditions for “America’s Got Talent” came to Houston, she took the opportunity to try out.

With an emotional rendition of “O mio babbino caro” from the opera “Gianni Schichi” by Puccini, she wowed the judges, who sent her on to Las Vegas. She continued competing each week, until she was finally named in second place.

“At this point, I still can’t believe I made it to the top 40, let alone runner-up,” Padilla said. “Keep in mind that it’s the biggest talent show in the world. Last season more than 100,000 acts auditioned for the show. So, yeah, being runner-up is kind of awesome.”

These days, she is performing with other “America’s Got Talent” finalists in a show in Las Vegas. But she always looks forward to coming back to Houston and UH.

“What Houston means to me? Oh, imagine a second opportunity at life,” she said. “It’s like going back to your mother’s house. It is home. You never stop being a part of it.”

Living the Dream

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

hakeem olajuwon

Growing up in Nigeria, Hakeem Olajuwon saw his first athletic success on the soccer field, using his fancy footwork to fend off points as a goalie.

“Soccer in Nigeria is like basketball in America,” Olajuwon said. “In Nigeria, playing soccer is natural.”

But after picking up that first basketball in high school, Olajuwon found his true passion – one that would lead him first to a stellar career at the University of Houston, and eventually to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

The path to basketball greatness began at a title game during an international tournament held in Angola. The head coach for the opposing team was so impressed with Olajuwon, he encouraged him to play in the U.S.

“I responded to him that I didn’t know anybody in America,” he said.

That same coach helped connect Olajuwon with Guy Lewis, then the head basketball coach for UH, who agreed to bring him to America for a tryout.

Instantly, Olajuwon felt at home in Houston, he said.

“When I came to Houston, I first of all felt comfortable,” he said. “The weather is very, very similar. And I was living on campus at [high] school, so now, living on campus at the university, I have a little background.”

Olajuwon lived in Moody Towers when it was brand new.

“It was wonderful,” he said. “Living on campus, it was just a wonderful life for a student to experience. When you live on campus, you don’t worry about the outside world.”

For Olajuwon, the only worries were school and basketball. Because of values instilled in him by his parents, higher education was very important to Olajuwon.

“In Nigeria, education has been perceived as the gateway to success,” he said.

Olajuwon, a physical education student in the College of Education, enjoyed attending classes at UH, including his favorite, a business law class that he said gave him “exposure to the real world.”

But despite the comfortable surroundings, Olajuwon’s first year on campus wasn’t without some difficulty. He was red-shirted his first year, and only played sporadically. But after asking coaches how to earn more time in the game, Olajuwon began working out with NBA star Moses Malone, who then played for the Houston Rockets. Under Malone’s tutelage, Olajuwon developed the skills that would earn him the nickname “the Dream” in later years.

By the 1982-83 season, Olajuwon was an integral member of “Phi Slama Jama,” the so-called “college dunking fraternity” made up of Olajuwon and other players, including Clyde Drexler and Michael Young.

“That was a wonderful experience to have a bunch of guys with that level of talent at the same time,” Olajuwon said.

From practice to post-season play, Olajuwon said the UH Cougars felt almost destined to win.

“When we stepped onto that court, we believed we were supposed to win,” he said. “To play on that kind of team is special. It is not something that is common.”

The unifying force for the team was Guy Lewis, the head coach whom Olajuwon described as a mentor.

“For us, there was tremendous respect and regard for Coach Lewis,” he said. “He demanded the best from you … each individual player had to give his best to him every time. That is the kind of coach he was to be able to gather all of that talent together.”

With Lewis’ leadership, the UH Men’s Basketball Team made it to three Final Fours and two national championship games.

In 1983, though his team lost the title, Olajuwon was named the NCAA Tournament Player of the Year.

In 1984, he was the overall first pick by the Houston Rockets in the 1984 NBA draft. Within his first year with the Rockets, the team went from a 29-53 record to a 48-34 record.

Throughout his 18 year NBA career, Olajuwon continued to earn recognition, from being named the NBA’s all-time leader with 3,459 career blocked shots to being named NBA Most Valuable Player in 1993-94 to being selected as one of the 50 greatest players in NBA history.

During the 1993-94 season, he led the Houston Rockets to their first national championship, following that up with a second national title the next year.

“In college, we went to the Final Four three times, and played in the finals twice. We had been close so many times,” Olajuwon said. “When you finally win your first championship, it has so much value, because you have been there so many times.”

The 1994-95 season was particularly special for Olajuwon, because he was reunited with his old college friend, Clyde Drexler, in Houston. The two had talked for years about wanting to play together again, and finally winning a national title. When Drexler was traded to Houston, the two decided nothing would stop them.

“It was a dream, and now it was a reality. We had to make it happen,” Olajuwon said. “That year was very special.”

After retiring from the NBA in 2002, Olajuwon was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame in 2008. He continues to have an impact on the sport today by holding workshops and giving back to younger players. Olajuwon has worked with several NBA stars, including Yao Ming and Kobe Bryant, teaching them his signature moves.

Reflecting back on his career, Olajuwon said he is thrilled at the opportunities he found at the University of Houston, and couldn’t imagine having gone anywhere else.

“If you look at it, it is the realization of the ideal,” he said of his experiences. “To be here at the University of Houston, to be drafted by the Rockets in Houston … that is something that is part of a dream situation.”