Renu Khator launched an inspiring career after studying in the United States. You can, too.
Renu Khator has served as the chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of its flagship University of Houston campus since January 2008. She is the first Indian American to lead a comprehensive research university in the United States. (Photograph courtesy University of Houston)
When Renu Khator was 18, she received less than two weeks’ notice that she would soon be married to a stranger, disrupt her education and move to the United States. Without being able to speak a single sentence of English.
Given such a sudden transition, it’s all the more remarkable that, today, Khator is a hugely successful academic leader and administrator. She has served as the chancellor of the University of Houston System and president of its flagship University of Houston campus since January 2008. Khator is the first female chancellor in the state of Texas and the first Indian American to lead a comprehensive research university in the United States.
Khator attributes her success to perseverance, hard work and an unshakable commitment to pursuing her education and dreams—all of which are principles that can help today’s Indian students launch stellar careers of their own.
India to Indiana
Khator grew up in a small town near Agra in Uttar Pradesh, in what she describes as a “very protected environment.” The daughter and granddaughter of lawyers, Khator attended strict all-girls schools and traveled extensively with her family during summers. “My dream was to get the highest degree possible,” she says. “I absolutely loved education and knew I wanted to study political science.”
After earning her bachelor’s degree in liberal arts from Kanpur University in 1973, Khator was getting ready to continue to a master’s program when she learned that she was about to be married to a young Indian engineer who was pursuing a Ph.D. at Purdue University in Indiana. Within 10 days, Khator was living in the United States—and heartbroken. “My husband asked me why I was so sad,” she says. “I told him it was because my dream of getting an education was dead.”
Together, Khator and her husband brought it back to life. She began attending graduate-level classes at Purdue University, even though she spoke no English and couldn’t understand anything being said in the lectures. Khator could read English “but comprehension was literally zero,” she says.
Her husband suggested she could work on English comprehension by watching television. So she began to watch shows like “I Love Lucy” and the news. “I was very stubborn,” Khator says, laughing, “and even though I cried my heart out because it was so frustrating and hard, I kept going.”
At the university, there were written assignments every week. Her papers used to come back marked heavily in red ink because “there was so much wrong in them, but I started to learn,” she says.
Khator says she was good at writing even though in India she always wrote in Hindi. “So, the thought process was there,” she says. She wrote draft after draft of papers for her classes. “My husband took me out to buy ice cream and helped me feel better after difficult days, and he took a second job to help pay my tuition.”
Over time, she understood her professors wanted to read her own views on the topics assigned instead of papers based on views attributed to scholars and experts. And it helped that she had a solid foundation of theoretical concepts, thanks to her education in India.
Khator’s hard work paid off. By the end of the semester, she had gained proficiency in spoken English, and received the highest marks in both of the classes she had enrolled in. “Once I figured out they were looking for more pragmatic and practical knowledge, I think I just flourished then because I just knew exactly what to do,” she says.
Renu Khator (right) moved to Indiana after marrying Suresh Khator (left), who was pursuing a Ph.D. at Purdue University at the time. (Photograph courtesy University of Houston)
Khator went on to complete her master’s studies at Purdue, become a mother to two girls, travel between India and the United States and earn her Ph.D. in political science and public administration, also from Purdue.
Prior to her appointment at the University of Houston, Renu Khator was provost and senior vice president at the University of South Florida.
She has received many honors for her groundbreaking leadership, including the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman Award, the highest award given to overseas Indians, in 2014.
Khator says her success required sacrifices from both her and her husband, and that their grit and teamwork played a key role. She shares her hard-earned experiences with her university community. “Here at the University of Houston, there’s a large population of first-generation students who have faced adversity,” says Khator. “I tell them all that they should have passion behind their dreams, and not to let them go. The U.S. is a land of opportunities. Things may become difficult, but if you have the guts and determination, paths will open before you.”
Belief and action
It’s easy to feel intimidated by Khator’s against-the-odds journey and incredible accomplishments. But she emphasizes that every young person has the potential to achieve amazing things. “All of us have talent and are special, and remember that I’m just an average person!” she says, laughing. “You have to believe that life will provide opportunities. There will be doors that open for you. And if not doors, windows. There’s a long life ahead. You will have chances to make your own path, and to be inspired by mentors.”
Khator describes the United States as a generous and accepting place for Indian students, and says that learning in America is a great opportunity. Students should make their choices about whether or not to study abroad based not only on reading, research and school reputations, she advises, but on “what your gut tells you. If I could come to the U.S. without speaking English, and achieve what I have achieved as an average person, just imagine what you can achieve with the possibilities and technological tools you have today. I believe in you and I wish you the best. If I can support you in any way, I’m here to help.”
Michael Gallant is a New York City-based writer, musician and entrepreneur.