Your Gifts at Work

UH Alums Devote Lives to Public Service

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