Prema Samhat

by ELYSIAN Magazine

Wofford’s first lady reflects on cultural and professional transformations

You have three daughters?

Yes, we are biased and think they’re fabulous. Our daughters are Alia, Jehan, and Leila. Our oldest (Alia) lives in Chicago and is 29. Our second daughter (Jehan) lives in Washington, D.C., and she’s 27, and our youngest (Leila) just graduated from college. She’s 22, and she is taking a gap year in Germany working for a Department of Defense resort that serves our military personnel in Europe and in Afghanistan. When our military have R & R, they go to this beautiful place in Bavaria where she works.

I am most interested in you and want to begin by describing your upbringing. Your parents lived in New Delhi?

They did. My parents were both academics. If you think that you don’t marry your father, you may want to think again. My father was a college president. So I grew up on a college campus. I did not think I would ever be living back on a campus. Yet three years ago, when we came to Wofford, that’s exactly what I did. My father was a professor of English who went into administration. My mother was a professor of education, and she continued that until she retired. So I grew up on a college campus, and I loved it because it provided a great sense of community. In India, we have many religious backgrounds, and even though the college where I grew up Episcopalian, I lived among and shared relationships with people who were Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, Buddhists and sects of Hindus. It was a very rich and friendly time. I have fond memories of that. Plus, living in Delhi in an open area with green space and fresh air was sort of a treat because it is one of the world’s most crowded cities.

And the academic world is very political, more political than politics actually. Did you experience that in India?

Yes. You know there are always agendas. I think my father navigated them very well. A lesson that he taught us, and we have tried to pass along to our children, is do what you believe is best for the institution or the organization and the people you work with. Whether your decisions are popular or not is irrelevant. If you follow that as your guiding principle, he said, you’ll never have a hard time defending or explaining what you’re doing.

What are the parallels and differences between India and the US?

Coming from a developing country to a first-world country, I didn’t realize how much poverty there would be here in the States. In a way it’s almost more startling here than it is growing up where I did. In India you have wealthy mansions right next to slums and hovels. So I think, visually, it has affected me more here than it did in India.

You were originally in the hospitality industry, and then you changed careers to health care. I am wondering if that was largely because of your husband’s career choice.

It was more situational than that because I was working in the hospitality industry, and I loved it. The hours and the pace, though, were not conducive to family life. Plus, we moved to Kentucky, and at that time there was nothing comparable close by. I took a hiatus for a good five years, which I think was essential for me and worked well for our children. Nayef was doing his Ph.D. at that time. When I re-entered the workforce, a lot had happened. The whole PC revolution had taken place while I was on break. I came back to a whole new work environment. That’s when I entered the health care sector. In the early 1990s, health care went to a model of hospitality for the patient experience. It was a perfect transition for me and for our children. I was very fortunate that I could work two miles from my home. Seeing health care from the inside, and understanding the labyrinth that it is, was a fascinating experience for me, and I still miss it. Three years ago when we came here, I left that industry, but I constantly read about it. I want to know more because there are so many layers and intricacies that you’re not aware of when you’re on the outside.

Do you envision yourself going back to health care at some point?

I would like to, but I think, realistically, at this stage of my life, my time is well spent at Wofford and involved in the Spartanburg community. I need to do a good job wherever I am and whatever I do, and I think if I stretch myself too thin, that won’t be possible.

So let’s talk about your decision to come to the United States to study. How did that come about, and how did you end up at Bradford College?

My mother taught at Bradford College in 1957. It was very rare that an Indian woman held a professional position in the United States. My parents were both mavericks in a time when people didn’t travel overseas as much unless you were a scientist or an engineer. My mother went to the Boston area and taught at a variety of places, but her longest stint was at Bradford, a college was founded in 1803. Bradford began as a junior college for women. It became a four-year college for women, and then became coed. One of the traits my parents passed along to my sister and me was the power of connecting and networking. I saw this with them as they made true connections with people that turned into strong friendships. Through these relationships, we were exposed to so many opportunities. My mother, after teaching, kept her Bradford ties. I wasn’t born when she taught at Bradford, but my sister was. Indian women were such a rarity that someone who saw her in a sari in September said, “I thought you were dressed up for Halloween but thought you didn’t understand that Halloween wasn’t until October.” In the 1970s, when I was considering college, India wasn’t undergoing the ec e States, I should take advantage of it. I applied to Bradford, and they awarded me an endowed scholarship designated for a foreign student. It all came down to timing, luck and power of networking. That is how I found myself in the States. Later my mother came back and taught again in the ’70s in the Boston area. After I graduated, I went back to India, and that’s when I started a career in the hospitality industry. When I came back to the States, I stayed in the same line of work.

I’m curious about your parents now. Was theirs a traditional or arranged marriage?

We laugh and say it was a hybrid because my parents, by Indian standards in 1949, were older. My father was maybe 28, and my mother was 24, and they had not yet married. My mother, having acquired several degrees, was busy doing other things, and her father didn’t push her to get married. Eventually, a marriage was arranged, but they had the opportunity to meet and check each other out first, which was actually quite rare. They got engaged within a few months of that first meeting, but they really didn’t “date.” Once, I asked them, “How did you decide to marry?” They said, “Well, we talked about it.” My father said he didn’t want to marry a very tall woman because he didn’t want to have children who were super tall. And he wore glasses, so he wanted to marry a woman who didn’t wear glasses so that his children wouldn’t have bad eyesight. He said he wanted to marry a smart woman so that he could pass that trait along. He was very thoughtful about his decision. As a teenager, when I heard this, I thought it was very mercenary. But now it does make sense. He was very practical but yet, they got along. They were intellectually very compatible.

They had a bond called love?

Yes. Well, my father always said that it grew, and the attachment grew on a daily basis.

Wofford College first lady Prema Samhat with her dogs, Ava and Zoe.

Don’t you think that is how love works?

It is. It is. There is a respect and a love and also an expectation in an arranged marriage that you will make this work. If you take out the variables, and that’s what arranged marriages do, you can make them work. Socioeconomically, you are on par. Family experience, you’re on par. You’ve taken the same kind of vacations. You eat the same kind of food. You’ve gotten rid of some of those adjustment factors. I think they got rid of a lot of the housekeeping issues by virtue of being in the same place, and the Christian population in India is very small. It’s only 3 percent of the population. My parents both knew that they would marry an Anglican because they wanted to be within their faith, and it worked out. Actually, my father was first matched with my mother’s sister, but he found her too headstrong. He knew it wouldn’t work. She told him about her younger sister, my mother. So that’s how it worked.

Very different from you meeting this young exchange student who was right in front of you the whole time.

Right. Well, he was mistaken for an exchange student but he’s actually from Detroit. For some reason, maybe because of his name, Nayef Samhat, he was on the international student list. I was a senior, and he was coming onboard, and my task was to greet every international student. I had met everybody except this Nayef Samhat, because he wasn’t hanging out with the other international students. I was frustrated because I couldn’t turn my list in. So someone asked me one day why I was looking down in the mouth, and I said because I couldn’t complete my exchange student list. He said, “Who are you missing?” I said, “Nayef Samhat.” He said, “Oh, he’s right here.” This person, who was a very tall, blonde gentleman, moved out of the way, and Nayef was behind him. I was greatly relieved that I found him. He wasn’t international, so that’s why he wasn’t hanging out with other foreign students.

Did you know immediately that this would be your husband?

No. We liked each other’s company, and we had a tennis class together, which, as you know, walking to the tennis courts allows you to learn a lot about somebody. I noticed immediately that he had traits I found appealing. I could tell right away, and I’m happy to say that he still embodies those traits today.

What is a typical day in your life?

I don’t know whether I have a typical day. A lot of planning, meetings and dog walking. Days are often full attending events or hosting events on campus or away. A lot of the time, especially September through May, I wear black and gold. Nayef and I both spend a lot of time focused on Wofford.

Do you enjoy it?

I love it. Love it. To me, nothing is more fun than meeting a stranger.

Do you consider yourself an introvert or an extrovert?

Oh, a complete extrovert. My energies are completely recharged by other people.

Is Nayef an extrovert or an introvert?

He says he’s an introvert. I think, over the years, his extroverted side has definitely come to the fore. He is very interested in people. He is a very civil conversant. He likes to take time with people. I move faster and can cover a lot of ground in five minutes. He likes far more in-depth, meaningful conversations. We’re a good match that way because when we have a crowd, I can zip around, and he has time to engage with individuals more thoroughly.

Do you think through the years you have influenced his comfort level of being more extroverted?

I think we have both influenced each other. I think so. He’s still a deep thinker.

Let’s talk about the path to citizenship in the United States. I don’t think the lay person has any idea how expensive, cumbersome and hard it is.

Also, to me, it’s a huge privilege. I did not seek citizenship until after my mother passed away because my sister was a (U.S.) citizen, and I needed to be able to retain Indian citizenship because of my mother’s estate and assets. My mother passed away in 2008. A local Wofford graduate helped me navigate the paperwork for my citizenship.

It’s a labyrinth.

It is. It is. And the test – taking the civics exam was nerve racking. I think I knew facts that nobody else did. I think, all told, it may have taken me four or five months to get my citizenship from start to finish. In May of 2014 I was sworn in. It was a very emotional event — I did not realize it would be so emotional. I mean, I thought about it, but then it became a reality, when I was at the swearing in and having to renounce my Indian citizenship and give up any ties to my foreign-birth country. Still, it’s a privilege. This is home. My family is here. This is my home, so becoming a U.S. citizen makes complete sense for me. I was sworn in at a private ceremony by a Wofford graduate, so that was very special as well.

What brings you the most joy?

Being with my family, being with Nayef and our daughters, and our next circle of family brings me the most joy. Hanging around in the kitchen with my family and friends.

This idea of paying it forward, what does that mean to you?

We all are here today, whatever we do, because of the efforts of someone put before us. I believe that. Many students attend Wofford because of the generosity of others who preceded them, so I see the power of giving back and helping someone else in whatever way, shape or form. You don’t have to give a lot of money. Give through your interests or give your time or expertise. That’s how we strengthen a society and make it better.

If you had one question to ask of God, what would that be?

Why do certain groups of people suffer so much?

What lesson would you want others to know without having to learn it that way?

Oh, wow. What lesson? You know what? I think, when we focus too much on ourselves, we can become pained and isolated. We don’t know it until it’s too late. So I would say, live your life with a filter of thinking of others. You don’t have to be totally selfless and deny yourself things that make you happy, but I think you have to have a certain balance of being aware of others and their needs.

What do you want to be remembered for? What is your legacy?

I think to bring people together. I’m very fortunate that I have friends who come from very different backgrounds, both socioeconomically and professionally. Their paths wouldn’t necessarily have crossed, but, hopefully, through our introduction, that makes them become friends. I would like that to be my legacy to be able to help create an environment where people come together and enjoy being together.

Your life, 20 years from now, at this precise moment, where are you?

In the Pacific Northwest with Nayef. If we are able hiking, or sitting and watching the most spectacular view of the Pacific with mountains in the background, boats in the foreground, on a day that’s about 68 degrees. No humidity. Bright sunshine. Hopefully with good food and a glass of wine.

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