diaspora
A Winner in Spirit

By: Trans World Features (TWF)

A Winner in Spirit
Renu Khator is the first Indian American to head a comprehensive research university in USA. California-based SPAN writer Steve Fox reports

Renu Khator’s life journey has been an inspiring one. Born in Farrukhabad, Uttar Pradesh, in 1955, she had an arranged marriage in 1974 and moved to the United States with her husband a year later, with hardly any knowledge of the English language. In 2008, Khator became the chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of the University of Houston, the first Indian American to head a comprehensive research university in the United States.

 

“From the very first day, Americans have opened their homes and hearts to me,” says  Khator. “They have helped me and mentored me. How else can one explain how a small-city teenage girl like me could arrive in the US with barely any knowledge of English and succeed? I find that diversity is accepted and merit is respected here.”

 

Khator is also quick to credit her husband, Suresh Khator, associate dean at the University of Houston Cullen College of Engineering, who, she says, has been the “dreamer and architect” of her career.

 

The Khators received their doctorates from Purdue University; she in political science and public administration, and her husband in industrial engineering. Before joining the University of Houston, Khator spent 22 years at the University of South Florida, where she started in a temporary position and later became a senior vice president.

 

“American universities are ranked among the best and an American university degree is still the most valued learning experience,” she says. “Learning is more about gaining practical experience than about memorising theories. American universities encourage students to think independently and be entrepreneurial,” she says.

 

She points out that students in the US have many choices—they can change their discipline many times and even begin their degree at any age. Research and discovery are valued as important elements of learning.

 

Although Khator credits her family and the new country as a whole for her success, there is little doubt that her innate determination has served her well. For example, on reaching the US, she taught herself English by watching endless hours of television.

 

“Anytime I’ve faced a barrier, I challenged myself to work harder and overcome it, rather than sit back and feel victimised,” says Khator. “Everyone falls, but winners get up and walk again, and again, and again. My life’s philosophy is that when life gives you lemons and everybody is busy making lemonade, you should make margaritas.”

 

The University of Houston had always been well respected locally and in Texas, but Khator set bigger goals when she assumed its leadership.

 

“After requesting advice and suggestions from the community when I first arrived in 2008, I undertook an ambitious initiative to transform the [University of Houston] into a Tier One public research university,” she says. “We estimated it to be a seven-year project, but it took us less than half that time.”

 

Khator says that it is gratifying to see how the city supported the University of Houston to become “a nationally competitive university in every field—from research to education and innovation to athletics.”

 

Khator has a demanding professional schedule, but always finds time for her family. “As important as work is, it can never be more than my family,” she says. “Fortunately, my family has chosen to encourage and support me all along the way. My daughters, Pooja and Parul, who are both ophthalmologists, have been a big part of my life, both personally and professionally. It has always felt like we were all part of a team pushing each other to achieve our maximum potential. To stay balanced, I practice yoga and believe strongly in my faith.”

 

“Life has a way of taking you to places you do not even know exist,” Khator adds. “So, just find your passion, work hard and enjoy the journey.”

 

(Renu Khator pix credit : University of Houston).