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Tales of Inspiration: Cougars Remember Special UH Moments

by Michelle Kump

From the young woman born in Calcutta, who draws people together through the power of story, to the twins from Baytown, who inspire their students to love math, success comes in many forms at the University of Houston. Each person’s unique story of struggle and triumph, of unexpected victory and determination tells something about the university and its strengths. Pride at the University of Houston stems from the achievements of the students, faculty, staff and alumni who have made UH home throughout the years. Their successes provide the foundation and inspiration for future success. Their stories are your stories, because You Are the Pride.

Chitra Divakaruni

Chitra DivakaruniChitra Divakaruni, an award-winning author and poet whose works have been translated into 20 languages, thinks a lot about her early days in America — learning how to cope with missing her family in Calcutta and the traditions of her culture.

Her experience taught her that she had stories to tell — stories that could bring people together and reveal the common humanity in everyone.

As a UH creative writing professor, she’s also inspired by her students and tries to use her experiences to help international students feel comfortable in their new environment.

“One of the things I love about UH is that while 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 says.

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Hakeem Olajuwon

Hakeem OlajuwonGrowing up in Nigeria, Hakeem Olajuwon saw his first athletic success on the soccer field, using his fancy footwork to fend off points as a goalie.

But after picking up that first basketball in high school, he found his true passion — one that would lead him first to a stellar career with UH’s “Phi Slama Jama,” which made it to three Final Fours and two national championship games, and eventually to the Basketball Hall of Fame.

One of Olajuwon’s fond memories of UH includes living in Moody Towers.

“It was just a wonderful life for a student to experience,” he says. “When you live on campus, you don’t worry about the outside world.”

He also enjoyed his classes, especially business law, which he says gave him “exposure to the real world.”

Reflecting back on his career, Olajuwon says he is thrilled at the opportunities he found at UH, and couldn’t imagine having gone anywhere else.

“To be here at the University of Houston, to be drafted by the Rockets in Houston ... that is something that is part of a dream situation,” he says.


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Barbara Padilla

Barbara PadillaBorn in Guadalajara, Barbara Padilla (M.A. ’04) remembers being touched by opera at a young age. Now she is an opera sensation herself and runner-up in the 2009 season of “America’s Got Talent.”

Diagnosed with cancer in 1996, Padilla underwent chemotherapy and radiotherapy near her vocal chords and was even told she wouldn’t be able to sing again. But that didn’t stop her.

While in Houston for treatment, she managed to audition for Peter Jacoby, then music director at the Edythe Bates Old Moores Opera Center, who offered her a full scholarship.

“I just wanted to suck everything in ... like a sponge. Whatever you learn, you learn for life, and I really wanted to seize the moment and learn from all of these people,” she says of her time at UH. “It’s like working with the greatest opera company.”


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Brett Cullen

Brett CullenActor Brett Cullen (’79) has garnered many roles in more than 100 movies and hit television shows, including recent stints on “Ugly Betty,” “Friday Night Lights” and “Lost.”

“The University of Houston enabled me to grow as a man, to grow as an artist,” he says. “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 professors Cecil Pickett, Sidney Berger and Claude Caux, he learned the skills that would serve him well in his career.

That experience paid off almost immediately, when Cullen moved to Hollywood and landed a part on a television series, “The Chisolms.”


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Binh Vu

Binh VuInspired by the death of a brother he never had a chance to meet, Binh Vu is pursuing a career in medicine, hoping to help others with limited access to health care.

Born in Vietnam, the senior biology major was drawn to UH. Because of UH’s connection and nearness to the Texas Medical Center, he now works in the pharmacy department at the UT Health Science Center and is a researcher at The Methodist Hospital.

Vu, a recipient of several scholarships, including a Houston Livestock Show and Rodeo scholarship, still finds time to enjoy the college experience. “The university has a lot of events where you can have a chance to experience school pride,” he says. After graduation, he says he wants “to stay in Houston, close to family and close to UH. I want to give back.”

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Marisa and Larisa Coy

Marisa and Larisa CoyTwin cheerleaders and middle school math teachers Marisa (’08) and Larisa Coy (’08) have learned to shine on the sidelines and in the classroom.

“Our mom has this saying — anytime we do anything, whether it is performing or teaching, she always says — ‘You have one shot to do your very best,’” says Marisa Coy.

The twins apply that theory as cheerleaders for the Houston Texans and as math teachers in Baytown. They use skills they learned as education majors at the University of Houston to inspire students to learn.

“I love math, and I just want to instill that same passion in my students,” says Larisa Coy.

One way they do that is by incorporating the technology they learned while students at UH — something that impresses other teachers.

“They are like, ‘Wow, they really taught you a lot,’” Larisa says. “I am really proud to say I learned it here [at UH].”

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