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‘Keep a fire in your belly’: Khator addresses students on leadership

UH President Renu Khator has been with the University for more than 10 years, but her path to leadership wasn’t easy. In a Friday address to students as part of the Grand Challenges Forum lecture series, Khator lamented the importance of following your dreams, no matter what may be standing in the way. | Billion Tekleab/The Cougar

T-shirts catapulted into the audience in the nearly full Cemo Hall Friday afternoon as President Renu Khator began her address at the Grand Challenges Forum lecture series. The t-shirts read “Keep a fire in your belly and a dream in your eye,” correlating with the overarching themes of leadership and dream fulfillment that Khator presented in her speech.

Khator has presided over the UH System for more than 10 years. In that time, the University gained Tier One status and embarked on a billion dollar fundraising campaign, in addition to other accomplishments. She began her address by encouraging those in the audience to own their dreams.

“Everybody should have a dream,” Khator said. “Everybody has a right to have a dream, everybody should have a dream. Without that dream, without the power of the dream, I would never be where I am.”

Long before she was the president and chancellor of the University of Houston System, Khator grew up in a community in rural India, where she attended school through her undergraduate studies, despite a lack of perceived value for education in her community.

“I knew one dream: I knew that I wanted to have the highest degree possible,” she said.

This dream experienced a potential setback when she was set up for an arranged marriage, Khator explained. It was not common for a woman to return to school or to receive a higher education degree after she had been married, she said. Her newlywed husband, however, promised that she could continue her education after they were married.

Just 23 days after discovering that her parents were searching for her groom, Khator moved to the United States with her husband, to whom she is still married. One month later, she began taking steps to continue her education.

Despite having a limited understanding of the English language, she desired to further her education. She watched hours of TV each day to better her English, she said. It was this effort that gained her admission to Purdue University’s Masters in Political Science program.

After completing her Master’s and taking a short hiatus from school, Khator went on to receive her doctorate from Purdue University.

“Dreams have power of their own,” Khator said. “Have a dream, but own your dream. People who dream without doing something about it are just daydreaming. If you have a dream, you will not quit. You’re going to find somewhere in your heart that passion, that fuel that you’re going to need to continue this obsession.”

A dream that may seem unreachable is still worth working for, she said, but it’s important to leave one’s comfort zone in order to achieve those dreams.

“You need to learn how to walk outside of your comfort zone. If you stay in your comfort zone, you are always going to stay within your boundaries,” Khator said. “In order for you to grow, you need to get out of your comfort zone, you need to feel that discomfort, because that’s what will help you grow.”

She leaned into this discomfort and took a job at the University of South Florida shortly before finishing her Ph.D, Khator said.

“I knew that I have two strikes against me,” she said.

Being a woman, in addition to being international, necessitated she do 120 percent to make it equal, she said.

“You can’t be victimized. You can’t control what people do to you. You do not have control (over others), but you do have control over how you internalize those things,” Khator said.

She concluded her speech with a twist on a classic lemonade quote.

“When life gives you lemons, everyone is thinking about making lemonade. You make margaritas.”

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