SJSU in the News: Qayoumi Remembers Mother’s Emphasis on Education

Mothers’ influence leads to success

Originally published in the San Jose Mercury News May 8, 2011

By Julia Prodis Sulek

Mothers always worry whether they’re doing the right things when raising their children. Will they provide a positive influence that heir children one day will look back and thank them for? Or will they become the scapegoat that surfaces in therapy years later? On this Mother’s Day, as we reflect on the women who raised us, we ask four Bay Area newsmakers to do the same — a San Jose Sharks hockey player making a run for the Stanley Cup and a rookie of the year trophy; a soprano at Opera San Jose who received rave reviews in “La Bohème”; the Santa Clara District Attorney who just made a gutsy move; and the incoming president of San Jose State University who defied many odds. They each credit their mothers with instilling core values — a sense of justice, the value of education, the importance of humility, the pure joy of song. On this Mother’s Day, what might you say about your own mother, and what might she say about you?

Logan Couture, Sharks player

When Logan Couture joined the San Jose Sharks last season, he gave his family a gift — something he knew his mother would appreciate perhaps more than anyone.

The gift was for the woman who roused him every morning before dawn to take him to the hockey rink; a physical education teacher in London, Ontario, who coached track and field instead of basketball or volleyball so she was free in winter months to devote herself to her son’s hockey schedule, driving him to games sometimes two hours away. When Logan was 15 and selected to play for one of Ottawa’s prestigious junior teams, his father, Chet, high-fived his buddies. But his mother, Lori, broke into tears because her boy would be moving six hours away.

The gift was for the woman who boosts him up when he gets down on himself. “She always tells me, ‘Keep your head up. Get ready for the next game and you’ll be better,’ ” said Logan, 22, who is a finalist for this year’s Calder Memorial Trophy recognizing the National Hockey League’s top rookie. She taught him to be humble in accepting praise.

The gift was for his parents who stay up till 1 a.m. watching the Sharks’ West Coast games on TV and who send him text messages afterward saying, “Great game. Love you.”

The gift was for the woman who prepares for his homecoming every summer, mot recently redecorating his bedroom and remodeling his bathroom.

His mom calls the gift “one or the nicest things he did for us.”The gift was a family membership for his parents and younger brother to the best golf club in town. But what it really means is time together to make up for all the years apart. Last summer, the whole family often played together. But it was his mother who could be counted on to play with him almost every afternoon.

They plan to spend this summer the same way.

Sandra Bengochea, Opera San Jose diva

Sandra Bengochea awoke every morning and went to sleep each night listening to her mother singing the old songs of Mexico. Watering the plants, cleaning their Modesto home, Raquel Rubalcava sang.

But the petite girl who would become a diva with Opera San Jose, who would be reviewed as having a “lustrous voice and vivacious sophistication” in her performance as Musetta in “La Bohème” last month, never joined in. Even when her father brought out his guitar and her mother would harmonize with friends from church, Sandra kept mum.

“I was always a shy girl,” said Sandra, 38. “I remember she was the loudest one in church. I would be so embarrassed, but secretly I was saying to myself, ‘Oh my God, that’s so pretty.’ ”

Sandra was in high school when she joined the choir, and then only because her best friend pulled her along. She began singing in her bedroom, with her door closed.

“She never said anything about it,” Sandra said of her mother. “She wanted me to find my way.”

Her mother barely had a sixth-grade education and worked in the tomato canneries in the Central Valley. Her father worked as a hair stylist. They didn’t have money for voice lessons, so “I joined every choir for free.” Sandra went on to study at San Jose State and earn a master’s degree from the Manhattan School of Music.

Her father, who was born during the Depression, didn’t approve. “They were dreams,” he would say. “You have to have a backup plan.” But her mother would shush him, saying, “look at Plácido Domingo! He’s making a living at it.”

A soprano, Sandra has played Susanna in “The Marriage of Figaro,” Rosina in “The Barber of Seville,” Gilda in “Rigoletto.” In 2009, she directed “Carmen,” and she teaches music at West Valley College. She and her husband, tenor Christopher Bengochea, have two young sons.

Sandra’s mother often baby-sits while the couple are performing. She sings the children to sleep just as she did for her daughter. Sandra learned in school how to sing in all the languages and hit the proper tone with each vowel. She was taught to sing with intensity and emotion. But it is her mother’s untrained voice that chokes her up and brings her to tears.

“It’s a beautiful voice,” Sandra said, “in its purest form.”

Jeff Rosen, Santa Clara County district attorney

Harlene Rosen plays mahjong, volunteers at senior centers and never misses her aqua fitness class. And she’s a fighter. She fought for herself and fought for her family, and she taught her two boys how to fight for themselves.

“She’s been the biggest impact on me without question,” Rosen said from his office as Santa Clara County District Attorney. “I wouldn’t be who I am without her.”

Jeff was an earnest, sensitive kid growing up in Southern California. When he ran for school office in junior high school and his campaign sign was burned and a swastika scribbled on it, his mother insisted he speak to the principal. When a classmate called him antisemitic names, his mother made sure his father drove him to the boy’s house and Jeff confronted him. “You can’t go away and cower,” his mother told him. “If you don’t stand up for yourself, no one will.”

Still, he was nervous about approaching the boy. Jeff knocked on the door anyway. The father and his son answered.

“Don’t call me that again. If you do, we’re going to have a problem,” Jeff told him. The boy “just stood there and stared at me. Nonetheless, he didn’t say anything to me after that.”

His mother didn’t just teach him how to stand up for himself, however. “She and my dad both said if I thought something was wrong, to not just complain about it, but try to make it right.”

Last week, he took the bold step of reassigning a prosecutor who was holding back evidence from defense lawyers in a gang case. And in the midst of the troubled tenure of his predecessor, Dolores Carr, Rosen was the only deputy district attorney to step forward to oppose her.

He was calm on election night last fall, regardless of the outcome, he said, knowing he ran a good campaign. He won with a slim victory.

“I needed to stand up and make a change in how things were being done here, and that definitely comes from my mom,” he said. “If something is screwed up, she rallies people to change things. That’s absolutely her.”

Mohammad Qayoumi, incoming president of San Jose State University

With four engineering degrees and an MBA, Mohammad Qayoumi easily could have pursued a lucrative career in Silicon Valley’s high-tech world. But he chose a path in education — in public education — because of his mother.

She grew up in Afghanistan and never learned to read or write. But Habiba Qayoumi and her husband, a carpenter with an elementary-school education, were determined their children would have every opportunity. Mohammad and his five siblings were forgiven household chores so they could focus on their schoolwork.

“Even though the book might have been upside down and she might not have noticed, she wanted to make sure we sat down and did our reading and homework and make sure we knew that was the only way we could have a better life,” said the 59-year-old, who will move to San Jose in July to start his new role as president of San Jose State University.

He came to the United States in 1978 to pursue graduate degrees at the University of Cincinnati. His family followed in the early 1980s, fleeing the Soviet invasion, leaving even family photos behind.

Still, his mother, who lives in Sacramento — thousands of miles away from relatives who stayed behind — continues to serve as the matriarch of the extended family. She and her late husband “were quite fierce” in arguing with relatives who were denying their daughters the chance to pursue an education.

“I’m carrying that same mantle, helping others to go to school and get an education,” Mohammad said.

His entire career has been in public universities, “because so many have been institutions that have created opportunities for those who otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity for college.”

When he was appointed as president of Cal State East Bay in 2007, many people from the local Afghan community congratulated his mother. His mother is living proof, he says, of how one person can have such a big impact, “regardless of their socioeconomics or education. If we have the passion and the right attitude, we can make a difference.”

She is nearly 80 now. He calls her every week. Each time, she tells him how blessed she feels, and how proud.