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UH Alums Devote Lives to Public Service

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

Though they may quibble about the exact details of the beginning of their relationship, UH alums Melissa and Rick Noriega can agree on two shared passions – commitment to public service and loyalty to their alma mater.

It was that Cougar loyalty that initially brought them together.

In Melissa’s version, Rick attended a board meeting of a young alumni group, seeking support for a UH-themed St. Patrick’s Day party he wanted to throw at a local bar. She noticed his nice smile, and the thoroughness of his presentation.

“You would have thought he was moving an army to Germany,” she said. “He had flip charts and schedules and all kinds of stuff. He was very organized.”

In his version, Rick remembers Melissa “picking apart” his proposal, questioning him about mundane details, such as whether he was going to have name tags.

“It turns out, she was the only one that showed up,” he said. “After she came to the party, we started dating.”

The two have been together ever since, marrying on Valentine’s Day in 1991. Over the years, they have become known for their dedication to serving their community.

For Rick, that includes 11 years as Texas state representative for District 145 in Houston; 30 years of military service, including a year in Afghanistan in 2004; and his current work as president of AVANCE, a nonprofit organization that provides educational programs for children and intensive parent education and support in at-risk communities.

For Melissa, that includes 27 years working for the Houston Independent School District, filling her husband’s seat for a year in the Texas House of Representatives while he was serving overseas, and her current role as an at-large member of the Houston City Council.

“We feel called to public service. It is more rewarding than any new job title – knowing that you are advancing the ball down the field and trying to make the world a better place,” Rick said. “That has kind of been our family mission statement.”

While Rick was drawn into political service fairly quickly, Melissa said she didn’t truly contemplate a political career – beyond her year in the Texas House – until she volunteered alongside her husband, who served as the incident commander at the George R. Brown Convention Center following Hurricane Katrina.

“We had all these folks coming from New Orleans – many of them coming with their stuff on their backs or nothing at all, and Houston stepped up,” she said. “I have never been so proud to be from Houston. I decided to run for city council because I saw what Houstonians could do when they set their minds to it. It was amazing.”

In addition to serving the public-at-large, the two also remain committed to serving the University of Houston. Both are lifetime members of the University of Houston Alumni Association, and regularly attend football games and other events on campus. They also make it a point to promote the university and its Tier One efforts whenever possible.

“I feel duty-bound to be loyal and continue to contribute to the university that we love,” Rick said. “In so many different ways, it gave us that really solid foundation to be able to do what we love to do.”

Melissa, the first in her family to graduate from the University of Houston, earned her Bachelor of Science degree in Psychology in 1977 and her Master’s of Education in counseling in 1983. Other family members soon followed. Her two brothers, Charles and Steve, are graduates and both were fraternity presidents. Charles was in the student senate and Steve was Mr. UH and a founder and president of the Young Alumni League. Her father, Charles Meisgeier, is professor emeritus and was founding chair of the College of Education’s Educational Psychology Department.

“There was a time when our son, Ricky, was at the charter school (on campus), my father was in the faculty senate and chair, and both my brothers are alumni – we were all going to the football games,” she said.

As an undergraduate, Melissa was active on campus, serving as president of the Phi Mu Fraternity and vice-president of the Pan-Hellenic Council. She even ran for Homecoming Queen.

“I was very involved with all of the fraternity and sorority things,” she said. “It’s interesting to look back – sometimes people can make fun of that fraternity stuff, but I find as an adult that the things I learned there have been as helpful as anything else I’ve done.”

She spent a lot of time on campus, attending classes, studying and hanging out with friends, playing bridge at the Cougar Den in the University Center’s basement.

“The extra-curricular activities were very valuable,” Melissa said. “I learned how to read a budget, I learned how to plan an event, I learned how to meet people and introduce myself and talk about anything.”

Rick’s introduction to UH began at an early age.

“I grew up, obviously as a Bill Yeoman/Guy Lewis fan. That was our team. I watched through all the national golf championships, and the Carl Lewis years, through the Phi Slama Jama years,” he said. “I remember the first University of Houston football game I attended.”

But it was an ROTC scholarship that eventually brought Rick to UH fulltime to complete his undergraduate degree.

The son of a post World War II veteran, Rick felt the call to military service during the Iranian hostage crisis in 1979, when he joined the U.S. Army Reserves. During a reserve meeting, an assistant professor of military science at UH showed up, looking for possible ROTC candidates.

“I had two years of community college experience and knew that I wanted to complete my degree, but it was one of those things where I’d take a few hours here and a few hours there,” he said. “Through ROTC, the opportunity for a scholarship allowed me to complete my undergraduate degree and that led to my commissioning as an officer.”

Rick majored in journalism with a minor in military science. He ultimately graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree in Journalism in 1985. During his time at the university, he wrote for The Daily Cougar for a semester, and earned his commission as a second lieutenant in the U.S. Army through the ROTC program.

Longtime communications professor Ted Stanton was one of his favorite professors, in part, because he instilled in him the value of good writing.

“That is something that has stayed with me and is something I use every day,” he said. “Ted was a real stickler for being able to write well, so I certainly credit him with that training.”

Rick worked throughout college, and he appreciated the flexibility available at UH that allowed him to do that.

“My experience was a lot of what I think Mr. Hugh Roy Cullen talked about, of having a quality institution for the working men and women of Houston, where they could achieve their dreams and educational desires while at the same time working,” he said. “So I’m really grateful for the experience and for the university maintaining that value here in the great city of Houston.”

His UH experience also paved the way for his continuing his education at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where he earned his Master’s of Public Administration.

Together, Rick and Melissa say UH provided the foundation for much of their later success, adding that they plan to continue to support UH and its Tier One efforts.

“I think the city of Houston and the University of Houston are marching hand in hand toward whatever the future is going to bring,” Melissa said. “I think the world is changing so rapidly that you are going to have to have the kind of intellectual heft … that comes with Tier One status for Houston.”

Rick agreed, adding, “It seems to always be getting better. I truly believe that the best days at UH are yet to come.”

– By Michelle Klump


UH Professor Margaret Cheung encourages young girls to consider science careers

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

As a child growing up in Taiwan, Margaret Cheung’s interest in natural phenomena was first grabbed by colorful photos in science magazines. Then, that interest was further spurred by sights viewed through a microscope and at the Hong Kong Planetarium.

By 15, Cheung knew she wanted to be a scientist, and she began following a path that would eventually lead her to the University of Houston, where she is a professor and researcher in the physics department.

“I have always been fascinated by how things work, and physics is a wonderful tool to understand how things work,” Cheung said. “I wanted to know why materials became life-like through physics, so it turned out it was an excellent discipline for me to pursue the understanding of fundamental science.”

After receiving her undergraduate degree in chemistry in Taiwan, Cheung was admitted to the University of California at San Diego, where she earned her Ph.D. in physics. While in graduate school, she developed a lifelong mentorship with her Ph.D. adviser – an early experience that taught her the importance of mentoring her own students.

After pursuing postdoctoral work at the University of Maryland, Cheung found her way to the University of Houston in 2006.

“The Department of Physics was starting new research areas, such as biological research,” she said, explaining her decision to come to UH. “In addition, the resources in the Houston area, such as the Texas Medical Center, make UH a great environment for innovative research. That is why I am here.”

At UH, Cheung started a research and education program in theoretical biological physics and soft matter. Her research group – The Cheung Group – studies the behavior of biological molecules in cells using physics theories, modeling and computer simulations.

“This knowledge will impact disease-related research, so we can detect how symptoms develop at an early stage,” Cheung said. “For instance, in diseases like infectious diseases and cancerous diseases, we use computer simulations and modeling to try to understand and predict their behavior inside a cell, particularly under normal and under disease conditions.”

The knowledge that this research could help people with diseases makes it particularly rewarding and exciting, she said.

Cheung’s research is supported by the National Science Foundation, which in July 2009 awarded her $219,000 to study the behavior of protein folding and interactions in a cell.

In her research, Cheung works with undergraduate, graduate and postdoctoral students, and maintains a close, mentoring relationship with all of them.

“I like the way that students and faculty members are very close,” she said. “I have several excellent graduate students and collaborators that really helped me jumpstart my research program.”

Cheung said she tries to develop personal relationships with students so they are not intimidated or afraid to ask her questions. She keeps as many lines of communication open with her students as possible – she even has a Twitter account, and sends Tweets about the latest news for her research group.

“By removing this barrier, it helps students come forward and talk to you about what they want,” Cheung said. “You can give them some timely advice that will turn out to be crucial to some of the students.”

In addition to her work with her research group, Cheung spends countless hours working with elementary, middle school and high school girls, trying to get them interested in thinking about math and science as a career.

“Once I came to UH, I realized there is a need for role models in science, so I offered workshops for high school students and teachers, as well as reaching out to young girls in elementary and middle school, for them to share the excitement of research,” she said. “It is very important to bring the excitement of research into the classroom.”

In 2009 alone, Cheung’s outreach work has impacted more than 400 young people in the Houston area.

It means a lot to her to serve as a mentor to young girls, because when she was young, her own mentors helped her focus in on her career.

“I realize that girls are often quite intimidated by science and mathematics. Without mentorship, students will miss out on the opportunity to consider science and engineering as their career options,” Cheung said. “This is very important in middle school and high school, because they could miss out on classes that will train them to learn more mathematics and physics. Without that background, they may not have the opportunities to pursue a degree in these very exciting fields.”

And for those who are interested in science as a career, Cheung likes to point out that the University of Houston, with its access to major leaders in the energy and health industries, is a great place to study.

“It is an exciting time to do science in general,” Cheung said. “I’m very happy that UH is at the right time and right location. Houston is the city of energy and health. With all of these right ingredients combined, it makes UH an excellent place for research. It is very exciting.”


Former UH Student Helps People Find Their Voice on the Web Frustration with blogging software led Matt Mullenweg to create WordPress

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

Matt Mullenweg
Long before it became one of the most popular blogging platforms on the Internet, WordPress was just a side project for creator Matt Mullenweg, who fiddled with its programming code between classes at the University of Houston.

“It was kind of funny – when I was at UH, when WordPress first started, we had no users, so I ended up setting up blogs for all of my friends just so we could get the first five or 10 users,” Mullenweg said.

Now, WordPress has more than 23 million individual users and thousands more added every day from around the world.

“The fact that it has ended up being so useful for so many other people has ended up being a very pleasant surprise,” he said.

The journey from UH student to Internet innovator – Mullenweg was named one of PC World’s Top 50 People on the Web, Inc.com’s 30 Under 30 and Business Week’s 25 Most Influential People on the Web – was not a direct one.

In fact, though he grew up around computers and technology, Mullenweg’s first passion was the jazz saxophone. A student at Houston’s High School for the Performing and Visual Arts, Mullenweg focused on his music for hours and hours a day.

“I really dove into it,” he said.

It wasn’t until his senior year of high school when he became involved in an economics competition run by the Federal Reserve that Mullenweg first began to contemplate another option. His team made it all the way to nationals in Washington, D.C., and Mullenweg got into blogging as a way to share his photos with friends from home.

He began the blog the summer before he started at UH and kept at it.

“I got frustrated with [the existing blogging software] and started hacking on the software myself,” he said.

At first, the blogging was on the side, done in spare time while he pursued his studies of economics, political science and philosophy at the university, where his father had earned a degree in computer science years earlier. Mullenweg said he enjoyed those subjects, particularly the classes taught by his favorite professor, the late Ross Lence.

“I was a big fan,” he said of Lence, who taught political philosophy at UH until his death in 2006. “He really inspired me to do a lot of reading of the classics, which I hadn’t really studied before.”

But soon, even in his political science classes, Mullenweg found his mind returning to the problems he perceived on the Web, the limitations of existing blogging software, and the ability of open-source software to solve those problems.

“In political science, you read a lot about how to organize movements and how things historically have worked,” he said, adding that he saw a correlation between the political movements he studied and the concept of open-source software, which allows users to use it, edit it and improve it for free.

“Open source was something I had attached myself to philosophically,” Mullenweg said. “I believed a lot in free software.”

He began to use those principles as he continued to develop what would eventually become WordPress, free software that enables people to publish blogs or entire websites online.

As the software gained users, Mullenweg began attracting the attention of Web technology companies. On a trip to San Francisco to see a friend, he visited not the Golden Gate Bridge or Alcatraz, but technology companies like Google and Yahoo!.

When he returned to Houston with the intention of going back to school, one of those companies – CNET – offered him a “dream job – the kind I would have hoped to get if I had finished school.”

Mullenweg left UH after his sophomore year and moved to San Francisco.

“It still wasn’t an easy decision though, because my parents had always emphasized education so much, and also because my dad had worked so hard to go to school,” he said. “It felt careless in a way to be throwing that away to focus on the Web and WordPress, which no one really knew was going to go anywhere.”

In 2005, Mullenweg left CNET and founded Automattic, a Web development and services company, which continues to run WordPress, along with several other Web services such as Akismet, Polldaddy, IntenseDebate, Gravatar and VideoPress.

While he continues to get excited about the latest technological breakthroughs, and even on occasion still dives into the software code, Mullenweg said his passion is fueled by the connections that blogs are able to build between people around the world.

“The fact that we are enabling people to publish who have never had a voice before, and even in places where their voice might actually be suppressed by the government, or ruling forces, is very humbling,” he said. “WordPress is just a tool. [Users] are using the tool to actually make a difference in the world. The more people we can touch in that way, the more fulfilled I can be.”

Though he has found immense satisfaction in his job, Mullenweg said he has found himself recently feeling wistful about school – particularly when he visits college campuses across the country.

“I think I didn’t take advantage of the opportunities that dedicated scholastic endeavors provide for you – like you get to read the classics and really dive deep into them and discuss them with your classmates and professors who studied it for 20 or 30 years,” he said. “I think I treated my schoolwork more like something to get out of the way, so I could work on this Internet stuff. Now, I kind of miss the ability to just sit down with a book for a few weeks and really contemplate it.”

Despite his decision to leave school, Mullenweg said he generally recommends that students finish school, and take advantage of opportunities offered on college campuses.

When he thinks back on his time at UH, Mullenweg said he appreciates the university’s accessibility.

“It was a fantastic educational institution right in my hometown and provided me with an opportunity with scholarships and everything to be able to financially go to school and not have to work a day job like my dad did,” he said. “That was really special.”

Once he got there, Mullenweg said he was inspired by a few professors who “blew me away with their thoughtfulness” and inspired him with their fervor for knowledge.

“That sort of devotion and depth of research was kind of cool, because I think when you see someone who is really, really passionate about something, no matter what the topic, it is infectious,” he said. “Their passion for history and political science and philosophy and philosophy of language and all of those courses I took that I really enjoyed inspired my passion for the Web and publishing.”


Lengthy Career Includes Many Historic Cases UH Alum Richard Haynes

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

Long before he became a legend in the courtroom, amassing one of the longest winning records in legal history – long before he even thought about law school – famed attorney Richard “Racehorse” Haynes was considering a career in medicine.

“I worked for a couple of weeks at the hospital, and I said, ‘Man, I’ve got to get a profession where if I screw up, you can appeal,’” Haynes said. “Because if you are a doctor and you screw up, you’ve got to go to the funeral, and I didn’t want to do that.”

With that realization, Haynes put his pre-med days behind him and joined the Marines to fight during World War II. When he came home, he enrolled at the University of Houston, where he would attend as an undergraduate and law school student before launching a successful career that would last more than five decades and find him defending clients in some of the most memorable murder cases in Texas’ history.

A Houston native and an athlete throughout his high school years at Reagan High School – Haynes got his nickname “Racehorse” while playing football in junior high – he decided UH was a good option.

“Some of my friends were going there, and I thought, ‘It’s a great place to go. They will crank up the athletic program, and we will be playing football and basketball and running track against some of those smaller schools. UH is the place to be,’” he said. “And sure enough, it was.”

An accounting major as an undergraduate, Haynes did throw himself into athletic endeavors on campus, joining the football, basketball and track teams as well as the unsanctioned boxing team. He met his wife through a friend on the football team. The two married in 1950 and lived in an apartment just off campus.

In addition to athletics, Haynes embraced campus life, participating in a number of activities, including helping to put on Frontier Fiesta, for which Haynes served as the master of ceremonies.

“You’ve got to get involved in those different activities and meet some of the people – get involved and grow up,” he said. “That is why I think UH is a great school, because you can grow up there.”

As the student body president, Haynes made a point to speak his mind, even if it meant stating his case before the university president himself. On one occasion, Haynes said he protested to the president about a request that students sign affidavits declaring that they were not communists.

“I wouldn’t sign it,” he said. “I said, ‘I’m not a damn communist, and I don’t need to sign an affidavit to anybody to say I’m not. Just check my war record.’”

After successfully advocating for other students, Haynes realized he just might have found his talent. He enrolled in law school at the University of Houston – one of a class of about 39.

“The classes were smaller, and you couldn’t goof off very much,” he said. “I met some really fantastic people at the University of Houston. They made a tremendous contribution to the state of Texas and to the nation.”

One of those people was John Mixon, who joined the faculty at the UH Law Center in 1955 – the year before Haynes graduated. Mixon still serves on the faculty today.

“Professor Mixon is … one of the most brilliant human beings that I ever met,” Haynes said. “So anybody that takes a property law course from him has really hit the ball out of the park, because he knows what he is talking about.”

Though he learned a lot from his professors and other classmates at the law school, Haynes said some of the most valuable lessons he learned were taught off campus, when professors encouraged the students to go to the county courthouse and watch trials.

“There were always a lot of great personal injury lawyers and lawsuits,” he said. “We could come and sit in the courtroom and watch them.”

He learned a lot about arguing in front of a jury while watching those trials, but it was personal experience that helped to develop his own courtroom style – a mixture of folksy charm, tough-as-nails questioning, and a dash of theatrics.

His first lesson about how staged drama can impact a jury came within a few days of receiving his law license, when he was already preparing for trial in front of a jury. At that time, courtrooms still contained spittoons for chewing tobacco, and Haynes, in his first address before a jury, accidently knocked it over.

“It made them laugh, and anyway, they found my client not guilty,” Haynes said. “After that, every time I had a case in that courtroom, I moved the spittoon over there so I could kick it a little bit and get the attention of the jury.”

Eventually, the judge got wise to his trick, and asked him if he was planning on kicking the spittoon over again that day.

“I said, ‘I’d like to kick it one more time judge, and I won’t kick it no more,’” he said. “That was the last time I kicked it in the courtroom.”

Through the course of his career, Haynes became known for winning high-profile cases. He represented John Hill, a prominent Houston plastic surgeon accused of killing his wife, and Fort Worth multimillionaire T. Cullen Davis, who was accused of killing his stepdaughter, his estranged wife’s boyfriend and attempting to kill his wife. In 1985, the National Law Journal named him one of the top litigators in the country.

Despite the high-profile cases, Haynes said his favorite case was defending a poor construction worker who was accused of stealing money from his employer.

“I felt really good, because I felt like I had enhanced that fellow’s life and made him believe in justice and made the jury believe in justice,” he said.

Though he is almost 83, Haynes said he has no plans to retire yet.

“Right now, people say, ‘Why are you still practicing?’” Haynes said. “Well, I’m still practicing because I don’t know how to do it yet. By the time I think I know it, it changes.’”

What he does know, he is willing to share – especially with law students. Haynes likes to come back to campus to visit the law school. When he is there, he is constantly amazed at the changes.

“You can hardly drive across it without getting lost,” he said of the campus. “And it’s beautiful. I like to see it from the air. … We’ve got the acreage, we’ve got the buildings, now we’ve got the president. We are doing good. U of H is on the way.”

Haynes loves to show off his Cougar pride, both in the courtroom and out in the community, because he knows he is certain to meet another Cougar.

“I wear my Cougar ring and many times, I have a Cougar pin, because I’m going to have Cougars in the jury and in the courtroom, and that helps,” he said. “The Coogs have a tremendous possibility in Houston and Texas to be all over. The Coogs have just knocked the ball out of the park.”


From UH, Olympian Gained Momentum Alum Carl Lewis broke several records on his path to the gold

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

Long before he became the fastest man in the world, Carl Lewis was a self-described “small, skinny kid” looking for the best place to nurture his growing talent.

After breaking the national high school long jump record as a student in Willingsboro, N.J., Lewis was recruited by hundreds of colleges. But after multiple interviews, he finally found what he was looking for at the University of Houston, with Tom Tellez, the men’s track coach.

“Houston was the only school that told me what they could do to advance me, which is what the college experience should be,” Lewis said. “Everyone else was saying, ‘Look at what you could do for our college.’”

Tellez and UH lived up to its promise, helping train Lewis to achieve remarkable feats – 10 Olympic medals, including nine gold medals, and a world record for speed.

“When I came here my freshman year, I was a very shy, little, skinny kid. People don’t remember that,” he said. “I’m none of those things now, and a lot of that is because of my experience here [at UH].”

Lewis arrived on campus in fall 1979, and spent his first year in the Moody Towers – a dorm experience he recommends for all undergraduates.

“I loved the experience. I loved being on campus,” Lewis said of living in the dorm. “I enjoyed very much not just the atmosphere of being in school, but also the camaraderie of my teammates.”

He enjoyed wandering around the campus – then much smaller than it is today – and taking other classes that helped to shape him into the man he would become.

One such class was a speech class, which Lewis credits with teaching him how to present himself to the public.

“What happened is that I realized that I couldn’t be what I wanted to be without being able to articulate my ideas, so I took speech classes here,” he said. “I said, ‘How can I become a better public speaker? How can I extend my vision?’ I learned that at the University of Houston. That wasn’t a natural thing.”

While learning new skills, Lewis also took the opportunity at UH to advance his natural abilities. He spent his days training with Tellez and the track team. Very quickly, that training began to pay off.

Lewis credits his longtime coach with teaching him how to compete in multiple events without injuring himself.

“I came in here with bad knees,” he says. “Coach Tellez changed my technique and I was injury-free.”

Lewis’ ability to compete successfully in both track and field events – a rarity among track athletes at that time – soon became readily apparent. By 1980, Lewis had qualified for the Olympics in long jump and as a member of the 4×100 meter relay team. The American boycott of those Olympics meant Lewis didn’t compete that year. But he spent the intervening years until the next Olympics training with Tellez and becoming a formidable challenger in another event – sprinting.

He won six National Collegiate Athletic Association titles for the University of Houston, and by 1984, he was considered a heavy favorite at that year’s Olympics in Los Angeles. He exceeded expectations when he won his first four gold medals there – in the 100 meter, the 200 meter, the long jump, and the 4×100 meter relay.

At the 1988 Olympics in Seoul, Lewis added two more gold medals and one silver medal to his resume. He earned his seventh and eighth gold medals in 1992 in Barcelona, and his final gold medal at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta at the age of 35.

In 1999, as a testament to his lengthy career and multiple achievements, Lewis was named “Sportsman of the Century” by the International Olympic Committee, and “Olympian of the Century” by Sports Illustrated magazine.

Since retiring from the sport, Lewis has gone on to act in movies, serve as a mentor to students, and launch his own sports social networking Web site – www.fitforever.com. He also likes to promote the University of Houston, particularly the educational opportunities it offers, during his travels around the world.

“What people do not know, especially in the places I have been, is the educational side of the University of Houston, and the contributions … why it was founded, and what it is all about,” Lewis said. “I felt that it was time to start talking about that as well.”

He gives back to the university in countless ways, with donations of both money and time. In 2000, the university’s new track and field facility was named for Lewis in recognition of his accomplishments and all of his contributions.

“The reality is I became a man and a person in Houston,” Lewis said. “Houston will always be a very important part of me, no matter where I am.”

And he will always consider himself a proud Cougar.

“If I didn’t come here, you wouldn’t know me,” he said. “I feel that strongly.”


Former UH Quarterback up for the challenge

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

A self-described “small-town guy,” Kevin Kolb admits he was a little nervous about his decision to attend the University of Houston.

Having spent much of his life following his father to coaching jobs in rural Texas, Kolb felt at home in locker rooms and on football fields, but he wasn’t sure what to expect in Houston. He was a little scared of the “big city” and unsure about connecting himself to a program that wasn’t widely known. But as a former player for then head coach Art Briles, Kolb trusted that together the two of them could create something memorable at UH.

“I just knew that he was driven and he had the desire to win,” Kolb said. “I wanted to be the guy that helped him get there. I had a lot of faith in him, and I think he had a lot of faith in me. We looked forward to achieving change together.”

The decision, Kolb said, was the absolute right one. After breaking school records and leading the university to its first conference championship in football in years, Kolb’s success with the Cougars translated into personal success. His professional career started as the 36th overall pick in the 2007 NFL draft, and has led three years later to a chance to lead the Philadelphia Eagles as starting quarterback for the 2010 season. Kolb is now starting quarterback for the Arizona Cardinals.

“It is gratifying,” he said of his new position. “I worked hard to get here. I wanted the opportunity, and I know that this position comes with a lot of responsibility, but I am looking forward to the challenge and getting it done.”

Kolb’s strong work ethic began as a young boy when he found his place on the football field.

“My dad was a coach, so from the time I was little he had me in the locker room, and around the guys and passing the ball back and forth quite early,” he said.

A standout star in high school at Stephenville, Kolb fielded scholarship offers from many schools, including Oklahoma State University. Though he knew he wanted to play for Briles, it was advice from his uncle to consider what cities had the best job opportunities that helped to seal the deal for Kolb.

“That is something that an 18-year-old kid doesn’t think about,” Kolb said. “He said, ‘Where do you want to live when you graduate?’ Houston made the most sense. And once I got there, I understood what he was talking about. The networking that goes on within the campus, and the people that you get to meet – it can take you to endless possibilities.”

Much of that networking came as a student at the Cyvia and Melvin Wolff Center for Entrepreneurship, the top-ranked program where Kolb was a student.

“It was always something I was interested in,” he said of the entrepreneurship program. “I knew as a young kid I wanted to play football, or start my own business, and so that was just something that fit my personality. When I get done with football, I still want to go down that path.”

The classes he attended and the experiences he had in the entrepreneurship program will no doubt help him when he eventually makes that move to start his own business, Kolb said.

“The entrepreneurship program is totally different,” he said. “It is an open forum, and you can speak out when you want. We got to dissect a lot of different business plans. It was a good way to do hands-on learning that you don’t get to experience elsewhere.”

Kolb spent his first year living on campus at Cullen Oaks – an experience he loved because of the sense of community he felt on campus.

“When I got there, the thing I liked about UH is that it was in a big city, but it had a small-town atmosphere,” he said.

That first year, Kolb started as quarterback and continued to lead the team for the next four years, helping the university rebuild a winning tradition. Over the years, he broke countless school records in passing and total offense, and racked up numerous awards, including Conference USA Freshman of the Year in 2003 and Conference USA Offensive Player of the year in 2006.

In 2003, he helped lead the team to the Hawaii Bowl – the Cougar’s first trip to a bowl game since 1996. He would lead them to two more bowl games, and in 2006, he led the team to win its first Conference USA Championship in a decade – an amazing moment for Kolb and the rest of the team.

“I remember, I walked out of the tunnel – it was the first game that had been completely sold out – I walked out and got the chills,” Kolb said, describing the championship game. “Coach Briles, he hugged me around the neck, and said, ‘We earned this.’ To see that, your last home game, to see everybody out there and win the conference championship – that is something I will never forget.”

That season, Kolb said, he remembers a renewed sense of pride on campus, as students and alumni relished Houston’s time in the spotlight.

“Our main goal was to put Houston back on the map,” he said. “I think we were able to do that, and it was gratifying at the end of my career there.”

Though his schedule with the Philadelphia Eagles is busy, Kolb said he still keeps up with the Cougars, and often chats with Case Keenum, UH’s star quarterback. He said he expects great things from the team in the future.

“Those guys have done a great job of picking up where we left off,” Kolb said. “That is what makes an alumni feel really good – when you start something and the next group helps to continue with the successes.”

When he thinks back on his time at UH, Kolb said he feels nothing but pride in his school.

“It is such a hidden gem,” he said. “It is such a gift from God that I wound up going there. I met a ton of cool people, and it was such a cool program. I met friends there who I would have for the rest of my life.”


From Center Stage to the Big Screen

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

Actor Brett Cullen took his first audition on a dare. A senior at Houston’s James Madison High School, and better known as a baseball player and surfer than a serious actor, Cullen gave into his friends and tried out for the lead role in the school play. To everyone’s surprise, he was selected.

“It scared the daylights out of me,” Cullen said. “I didn’t want to do it, but I did … and it went on to win several awards.”

That first acting success was just one of many to come. Cullen, who graduated in 1979 from the University of Houston’s Theater department, has garnered many roles in movies and hit television shows, including recent stints on “Ugly Betty,” “Friday Night Lights,” and “Lost.”

Cullen, a great nephew of Hugh Roy Cullen, one of the university’s earliest and most generous donors, credits his time at the University of Houston as preparing him for years of steady work in Hollywood.

“The University of Houston enabled me to grow as a man, to grow as an artist,” he said. “And it gave me the ability to do what I do now.”

Arriving on campus with hair down to his waist and sand in his flip flops after a summer spent surfing in California, Cullen says he probably didn’t look the part of a serious actor. But very quickly, under the direction of Theatre professor Cecil Pickett, he began to learn the skills that would serve him well in his career.

It was actually an early failure that first cemented his bond with Pickett. Cullen auditioned for the lead in a play on campus, and Pickett didn’t cast him. He eventually was granted a lesser role, but after the play’s run, he knocked on Pickett’s door and asked him how he could improve.

“He was one of those teachers that made you shake … his critiques could be brutal, but honest and real,” Cullen said. “So I was shaking when I went to his door.”

After Cullen explained that he wanted to learn, Pickett agreed to help.

“If you really want me to teach you, I’ll teach you. But you have to be the first kid to volunteer for every exercise. You have to be the first person to do the scene,” Cullen said Pickett told him. “I said, ‘I’m in.’ And he became my coach. At that point forward, he and I worked hand-in-hand, and fought like cats and dogs at times, but he was truly, honestly, one of the greatest influences in my life.”

While at UH, Cullen, who commuted to campus, spent the better part of his days at the theatre department, attending classes in the morning and rehearsals in the afternoons and evenings. The hectic schedule, and the dedication required by Pickett from his students, taught Cullen the discipline it takes to be a successful actor.

He remembers one particular rehearsal when he showed up two minutes late, after difficulty finding a place to park.

“He said, ‘You are not two minutes late, you are 42 minutes late,’” Cullen remembers Pickett telling him. “He said, ‘There are 21 people in this class, and you wasted two minutes of everyone’s time. Don’t ever do it again.’ It taught me about being responsible, about being part of the whole, and about understanding the discipline for theater.”

Other lessons learned from Pickett included a love of English – Cullen said he was three credits shy of a dual degree in English by the end of his time at the university – and a willingness to take risks.

“He taught me to never be afraid to try anything,” Cullen said. “He said, ‘If you don’t fail, how are you going to learn?’”

In addition to acting and directing classes, Cullen took advantage of another unique opportunity at the university – the UH Fencing Club. Led by Theatre professor Claude Caux, the Fencing Club competed at tournaments against other schools in the Southwest Conference. The skills he learned there ultimately helped Cullen win the role of fencing coach Danny Gallagher in the 1993 film “By the Sword.”

Development of acting and fencing skills was just one part of the education provided to Cullen by the University of Houston. Another aspect of his university career was the actual experience he was afforded, both in university productions and during his four seasons with the Houston Shakespeare Festival.

Cullen says it was that professional experience that gave him the advantage over other acting school graduates with little to no stage experience on their resumes.

“I had the opportunity to do so much, and have so many more experiences,” Cullen said. “When I left the University of Houston, what Cecil Pickett taught me, what Claude Caux taught me, what Sidney Berger taught me, was that I was ready to work professionally.”

After graduation, that experience paid off almost immediately, when Cullen moved to Hollywood and landed a part on a television series – “The Chisolms” – within the first few weeks. There, he reunited with another UH alum – Dennis Quaid. Since that first role, Cullen has worked steadily for 30 years, landing more than 100 roles in television and movies.

“When I’m working, I pinch myself,” he said. “I still get a thrill out of creating a character, and working with actors and young kids … I get paid to do what I love to do.”

Cullen credits the university and its professors for helping pave the way for his success.

“If it hadn’t been for the University of Houston drama department, if it hadn’t been for Cecil Pickett and Sidney Berger, I wouldn’t be where I am right now,” he said.


Dissolving Boundaries Through Writing

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

Before she was a writer, Chitra Divakaruni was a young woman in a new country, far from home. She was excited at the prospect of studying in America, but lonely – missing her family in Calcutta and the traditions of her culture.

That experience taught Divakaruni that she had stories to tell – stories that could bring people together and reveal the common humanity in everyone.

“In some ways, I think that immigration made me into a writer, because it gave me a subject to write about,” she said. “When I lived in India, I was so immersed in the culture that I didn’t really think about it. But when I moved halfway across the world, I began to think a lot about what it meant for me to be Indian, and also how immigration changes us.”

Now, an award-winning author and poet whose works have been translated into 20 languages, Divakaruni thinks a lot about her early days in America. As a creative writing professor at the University of Houston, she tries to use her experiences to help international students feel comfortable in their new environment.

“I am very concerned with their well-being. In order to be able to write, or to perform well in college, you have to be able to feel at home. You have to have a sense of well-being,” she said. “I try to create that for them as best as I can.”

For Divakaruni, it was a struggle just to make it to the U.S., because her very traditional family didn’t understand why she would want to leave home. Eventually, she was able to convince them to let her go.

In 1976, she moved to Dayton, Ohio, to attend Wright State University. From there, she went to the University of California-Berkeley, where she earned her Ph.D. in English.

To support herself while pursuing her education, Divakaruni took on a number of odd jobs, from baby-sitting and washing lab instruments to slicing Jell-O at a college dormitory. Initially, she was very lonely in her new life.

“There was no family support anymore – I had to do everything on my own, so that was a big challenge,” she said. “I think on Indian holidays particularly, I felt very disconnected, very cut off.”

But the loneliness forced her to make friends, and she soon found a community of people who were willing to open up their homes to her.

“What had been a problem really became a great strength, ” Divakaruni said. “Because I didn’t have a supportive family structure around me, I was forced to make new friends with people who were very different, and that has been a really positive part of my American experience.”

The experience led her to write, first poetry, and then fiction.

Divakaruni garnered wide critical acclaim with the publication of her first collection of short stories, “Arranged Marriage,” which focused on women from India caught between two worlds. That book went on to win the 1996 American Book Award.

“I think the stories in ‘Arranged Marriage,’ which are largely immigrant stories, did touch people because we are a country of immigrants,” she said. “We are a country of people always changing, always growing.”

Many of the stories in her more than 15 books relate to the experience of women or immigrants in a new country. Though she said her books are not autobiographical, many of her characters share similar concerns.

“I am concerned with how you make a new home for yourself in a place that is so far away and so different from your home culture,” she said. “I am concerned about how we as immigrants transform the places in which we find ourselves. I am very interested in ways women’s roles have changed as we move into different cultures.”

Ultimately, Divakaruni said she hopes her words challenge readers to think about what it means to be an immigrant, and about larger issues such as family and home.

“What I hope people get out of my books is that it will encourage them to think about important issues,” she said. “I also hope that they see that although we come from many different places, what we have in common is the humanity – we want the same things, we desire the same things. … I hope my books will dissolve boundaries and bring people together.”

In her writing, Divakaruni continues to be inspired by her students at the University of Houston, many of whom are immigrants themselves.

“I have just loved my students,” she said. “I learn so much from them. We learn about writing together.”

Divakaruni came to Houston in 1998, in part because her husband was looking for work in the oil and gas industry, and in part because of the reputation of the university’s Creative Writing program.

“It was just a wonderful opportunity to come and work with great colleagues and especially great students,” she said.

In her time at UH, Divakaruni said she has been pleased to see increasing diversity among faculty, particularly at the highest level with President Renu Khator, who is also from India.

“Her having come from a different background and really having overcome many difficulties in her own personal background makes her an inspiring role model,” she said. “She can also understand the struggles of some of our students who maybe come from different backgrounds where they haven’t been given the kind of support they need for college success.”

As the university’s reputation improves, Divakaruni said she is happy that UH has remained true to its mission of serving everyone with a desire for higher education.

“One of the things I love about UH is as it is striving to become more and more highly ranked in the country, it wants to still remain inclusive … particularly for students who maybe their family hasn’t been to college before,” she said. “I think it is so important to reach out to those students and make sure they feel at home here.”


Erica Fletcher picked up a camcorder and documented the experiences of Latina women with HIV/AIDS

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

When they signed him up for piano lessons at age eight, Keith Grimwood’s parents never could have imagined the result – development of a lifelong passion and a 30-plus year musical career that includes four Grammy nominations and countless other awards.

Grimwood, one half of the musical duo Trout Fishing in America, and a proud University of Houston graduate, hasn’t stopped performing since those early piano lessons.

“My parents felt that everybody should have one year of piano lessons to be a well-rounded human being,” he said. “When it came time to end that first year, my parents said, ‘It’s time to quit.’ I couldn’t quit. I just kept playing.”

Grimwood moved onto the string bass at age 11 or 12, when a teacher at Houston’s Johnston Junior High School asked for volunteers. By age 15, Grimwood was playing at clubs and bars throughout the Houston region, sitting in with jazz orchestras at places like the Moody Center or the Balinese Room in Galveston.

By 1970, Grimwood enrolled at the University of Houston, determined to give up music. It was there, on campus, that he met Keith Robinson, then the string-bass instructor at the university, and the person Grimwood credits as most influencing his later path in life.

“He saw me walking around campus and he said, ‘I didn’t see you signed up for any of my classes. What are you doing?’” Grimwood said. “I said, ‘Well, I have decided to give up the bass.’ He said, ‘You are a bass player. Don’t ever let anybody tell you you are not a bass player.’ There is nothing like having somebody believe in you to make you start believing in yourself.”

At UH, Grimwood thrived. He took classes of every sort, exploring musical theory, and a variety of different musical genres that still are reflected in his work today. Between classes, he would explore the UH campus, hanging out at the student union, or spending hours in the practice rooms at the Moores School of Music.

“I took any [class] I wanted and I had a great time,” he said. “I could have spent my whole life there. I could have just stayed in college forever.”

Like many UH students, Grimwood put himself through school by working. He played six nights a week at clubs throughout the Houston region, reveling in the opportunity to gain real-world experience while attending college.

“Houston was a great city. You can go to another university out in some little, tiny town, and not get what you can in a city like Houston,” Grimwood said. “In Houston, I was able to work, I was able to experience the arts … that is all part of attending college there.”

By 1975, the University of Houston trained him so well, he landed a position playing bass for the Houston Symphony Orchestra. Though thrilled with the opportunity to perform with such high caliber musicians, Grimwood was determined to finish his degree. He was amused when the registrar told him he only needed one more class to graduate- a semester of P.E.

“The only time I could go, they offered two classes, basketball – remember, I’m 5’5” – and weightlifting,” Grimwood said. “I’m going to tell you, that weightlifting class was one of the best classes I ever took out there. It got me used to carrying heavy amplifiers, and really trained me for my career as a musician.”

After two years with the symphony, a union lockout opened up a new opportunity for Grimwood. He went on tour with the Houston rock band, St. Elmo’s Fire, where he met Ezra Idlet. In 1979, when St. Elmo’s Fire broke up in the middle of a tour in California, the two began playing on the streets in Santa Cruz, California, under the name Trout Fishing in America.

“I went from a major symphony orchestra to a street corner in one year’s time, and I was having a blast,” Grimwood said.

The duo has continued to play together for 33 years, becoming one of the first bands to own their own record label and successfully record and market their own music.

“With St. Elmo’s Fire, we kept thinking the record company – this great hand from the sky – would reach down and take us to the studio and record us, and send us on to this big national tour and stuff. It never happened,” Grimwood said. “So once that band broke up, Ezra and I looked at each other and said, ‘How hard could it be?’”

In 1980, they released their first album, and sold it off the stage. They made enough money from that album to make another album, and their popularity continued to grow. Today their unique blend of folk, pop and kids music has garnered critical recognition, including three national indie awards, numerous Parents’ Choice Awards, and four Grammy nominations.

In addition to their albums, Trout Fishing in America also hosts songwriting workshops to teach children how to write their own music. In 2009, the duo released their first children’s book, “My Name is Chicken Joe,” based on one of their songs.

Much of Grimwood’s success can be traced back to those dedicated hours spent in UH practice rooms, and the determination he learned while a student at the university.

“There was a quote written on a lot of my music – set a higher standard for yourself,” he said. “That was the whole deal.”


UH Student Lets Curiosity Guide Her to New Experience

Posted on: November 20th, 2013

With no prior filmmaking experience, University of Houston Honors College student Erica Fletcher picked up a camcorder and documented the experiences of Latina women with HIV/AIDS.

And when there were no international volunteer opportunities on campus, Fletcher founded her own group – the UH chapter of the World Aid Organization.

For Fletcher, who is triple majoring in anthropology, sociology and psychology on top of her Honors College coursework, there are no closed doors, only opportunities to learn or try something new.

“I’m just really interested in learning about a whole range of fields. I think that interdisciplinary research is something that is going to be a growing trend in academia,” she said. “If you don’t know how to adapt to different modes of learning and research, then you are going to be left behind.”

The love of learning is something instilled in Fletcher at an early age by her parents, who homeschooled her through her sophomore year in high school in League City.

As a child, she spent hours in the library, reading and exploring a wide variety of subjects at her own pace.

“I really enjoyed that about homeschooling. I think it gave me a different perspective on society and about reading and learning,” Fletcher said. “I think just having that time to think about the possibilities and just be imaginative and creative really helped me.”

After graduating from Clear Creek High School in Clear Lake, Fletcher and her sister both came to the University of Houston, grateful for scholarship assistance and the opportunity to receive a great education near home.

“My sister is in the same year in school that I am, so going to college with two students was tough for my family,” Fletcher said. “We didn’t know how we were going to do it. When the university stepped up and gave us scholarships … that helped.”

Fletcher said she has loved her experience at UH, particularly with all of the opportunities that are available because of its location in the nation’s fourth largest city.

“I really like the diversity on campus. I think that is one of the most important things that UH has to offer,” she said. “I also like the ability to network with different companies and nonprofits in Houston. I think that is extremely important.”

For instance, when Fletcher was producing her documentary as part of her summer research project with Janis Hutchison, a UH anthropology professor, she was able to work closely with AIDS Foundation Houston – an opportunity she says she would not have had elsewhere.

The end result, a documentary titled “Marianismo,” which explores the cultural factors that contribute to the disproportionate spread of HIV/AIDS among Latina women, has been very well-received. It was screened on campus at UH, at the Museum of Fine Arts Houston and as part of the Voices Breaking Boundaries series “La Voz Femenina.”

“My main goal was to raise awareness that HIV is still a huge problem in the U.S., particularly among Latinos, but also among a broad range of people,” she said. “There is still a lot of stigma and a lot of confusion over how to get it, and I think because there is still so much information, I think that people are still scared to talk about it.”

The desire to change people’s perspectives about HIV/AIDS in this particular documentary, and Fletcher’s broader goal to make a difference in people’s lives is something the Honors College has helped instill in her.

“The Honors College got me thinking – I think that is the most important thing I got out of it,” she said. “It just got me thinking about what is really important and what do I want to change in the world and how best to do that.”

But as valuable as her coursework has been, Fletcher said the key to her success has been to look beyond the coursework, to be open to the many different opportunities available on campus, and to create new ones.

“As much as academics has to offer, I don’t think there is any substitute for practical experience and application of the knowledge that you have learned,” she said. “I think that just going to class and going home is not the full university experience. It is not why we are here.”

That is why Fletcher is so involved in so many organizations on campus, including serving as president of the Anthropology Student Association, and founding the World Aid Organization, which has successfully completed three international service projects in Brazil, Peru and the Philippines.

“To get that holistic experience, you really have to participate in student organizations, you have to talk to professors and you have to make an effort to stay on campus longer than just for your coursework,” she said.

Living on campus is one easy way to get involved, she said.

“Living on campus was fun. I got involved in a lot of different organizations, like Club Theater,” she said. “I tried to explore different possibilities, to do some art and photography. It has been really fun. I really enjoy meeting people here on campus.”

Ultimately, Fletcher said she believes her experience at UH has prepared her well for her future.

“I think I got real-world experience here,” she said. “[UH] is a very student-centered organization. This university and professors really care about their students, and they want them to succeed.”