Education, Philanthropy

2 Indian American families in Texas help build $51 million research facility on University of Texas

The Mehta and Agrawal families have deep ties to the university.

By The American Bazaar Staff

WASHINGTON, DC: Two prominent Indian American families in Texas have provided “crucial financial support” for a new research and engineering building on the University of Houston (UH) campus.

The Mehta Family - Back row from left to right: Siblings Dharmesh, Jay, Rahul and Nisha; Front row: Parents Jyoti and Bhupat.
The Mehta Family – Back row from left to right: Siblings Dharmesh, Jay, Rahul and Nisha; Front row: Parents Jyoti and Bhupat. Photo courtesy of University of Houston.

Construction on the $51 million Multidisciplinary Research and Engineering Building began this fall, with occupancy scheduled for 2016, according to a press release. The new building is designed to encourage collaboration and will house core facilities shared by researchers from departments around the campus, including high-performance computing facilities, a nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer lab and imaging facilities.

With four siblings who all are alumni of the UH Cullen College of Engineering, the Mehta family, together with UH engineering graduate Durga Agrawal and his wife, Sushila, have made significant contributions to the building. Each family will have a floor dedicated in honor of their gifts.

The ground floor will be named the Mehta Family Engineering Research Center and will house a High Performance Computational Center, five state-of-the-art wet labs, a new Mass Spectrometry Lab, a large multipurpose room, conference room and student lab. The second floor will be the Durga and Sushila Agrawal Floor and will include offices for the Division of Research’s High Performance Computational Center, engineering wet labs, a conference room, and a lounge area and break room.

Sushila and Durga Agrawal. Photo courtesy of University of Houston.
Sushila and Durga Agrawal. Photo courtesy of University of Houston.

UH President Renu Khator said the gifts highlight the University’s global student body.

“We continue to take pride in the University of Houston’s international stature, serving students, scholars and researchers from around the world who are working to address global problems,” she said, in a statement. “The enlightened generosity of the Mehta and Agrawal families is helping to build a world-class facility that allows UH to remain a welcoming and innovative place for this important work.”

Both families have ties to the University that reach back for decades.

In 1980, 18-year-old Rahul Mehta arrived on his own at UH, far from his family who remained in what was then known as Bombay, India. Then the family, curious to learn more about the foreign land where their eldest son had traveled for his education, entered a movie theater to see “Texas Detour,” not realizing the 1978 film was heavy on exploitation and light on reality.

“No one slept that night,” brother Jainesh “Jay” Mehta said. “My mother was crying all night.”

Bhupat and Jyoti Mehta quickly left to bring their son home. But after arriving in Houston and meeting people on campus, they became believers. Not only did Rahul Mehta stay in Houston, Jay Mehta left the Indian Institute of Technology and enrolled at UH, as well. Ultimately their sister, Nisha Mehta, and younger brother, Dharmesh Mehta, also earned degrees from the Cullen College of Engineering. All four still live in Houston. Their parents now live here, too, and the family formed the Bhupat and Jyoti Mehta Family Foundation in 1998.

“UH gave us the environment, our parents gave us the values and we just happened to be in the right place at the right time,” Jay Mehta said. “My dad never had a chance for an education. He said, all his life, he had a dream, he wanted to provide the opportunity for the best education for his children. He determined that was UH, and he spent his last penny to send his four children here.”

By the time Jay Mehta earned his mechanical engineering degree from UH, he and Rahul Mehta were skilled computer programmers with a knack for using programming to create solutions. They already had started one tech company, Software Interfaces.

Rahul Mehta started at UH as a chemical engineering major but branched out into taking classes in computer science and business. He quickly found a mentor in Richard Scamell, then a professor in the Department of Decision and Information Sciences in the C.T. Bauer College of Business and now associate dean. Scamell offered early connections and advice to guide Rahul Mehta’s talent for technology and entrepreneurship; when Rahul Mehta later founded NuView Inc. as an undergraduate, Scamell offered invaluable help.

Jay Mehta, Nisha Mehta and Dharmesh Mehta earned engineering degrees, but they, too, were passionate about technology and ways to integrate the two fields. Jay Mehta founded Case Services, a production automation firm. It was acquired by Weatherford International in 2005.

Scamell wasn’t the only professor to lend a helping hand. “All four of us, we knew teachers who were passionate about teaching,” Jay Mehta said. “It influenced us, and it gave us the ability to adjust to the United States. And it wasn’t just us. They were dedicated to every international student.”

Agrawal says his own story of encouragement from passionate teachers and supportive family underlies his own gift for the new building.

He earned both a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in industrial engineering from UH but says he had no idea Houston would become his home when he arrived from India in 1968 with a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from Delhi College of Engineering.

“I am very thankful to my parents for their vision in sending me abroad for studies,” Agrawal said. “The University of Houston was unique, because I was able to continue working on my education and also my life. I was newly married to Sushila with a growing family and could support them, as well as complete my education at the same time. UH creates hardworking, critical thinkers with a ‘can do’ attitude.”

Agrawal, who has a long record of involvement as a UH benefactor, multiple accolades for his entrepreneurial talents and founded Piping Technology & Products Inc. – one of the leading companies in manufacturing for the energy industry – says his life’s philosophy is to always be optimistic.

“I believe one can achieve any goal with hard work, persistence and determination,” he said.

He gives special credit to his wife, Sushila Agrawal.

“I could not have completed my degree, started our business and raised our children without her incredible hard work, patience and support,” he said.

But he said he also had remarkable professors, who were truly dedicated to teaching.

“They put their hearts and souls into educating every student, including foreign students with strong language barriers,” Agrawal said. “I attribute my success to my education at UH and the opportunities I was given during my time at the University. The professors and the education impacted me greatly and were vital in preparing me for starting my business. We simply want to give back to the university that has given us so much.”

The Agrawal’s eldest daughter, Anu, continued the family legacy and also received her engineering degree from UH and is now on the Engineering Leadership Board at the Cullen College of Engineering.

“UH has a very special place in my heart, and I have been providing endowments, scholarships and internships for new generations of UH students for many years,” Agrawal said. “I take pride in my commitment to UH and to STEM education and training. As alumni, we must keep the torch of knowledge, excellence and innovation growing and glowing.”

The new building will be constructed in the footprint of the historic Y-Building, a 1950s-era airplane hangar that was originally intended to be a temporary structure. The Y-Building was demolished in 2012, after decades of use as an engineering laboratory and then as a study and socialization space for engineering students.

Agrawal, who is now a member of the UH System Board of Regents, was serving on the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board when the new building was approved. He and Sushila, in fact, were the first to donate to the building before it was officially sanctioned. He said he hopes their gift, and the new building, will encourage both additional donors and more high-caliber students.

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