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Spring 2018 Download Cover
Prema Samhat walking dogs on campus

Wofford's "chief hospitality officer"

Getting comfortable with Prema Samhat.

Prema Samhat spent the afternoon of Aug. 10 shopping for a dinner party. She and President Nayef Samhat donated a home-cooked meal at the Wofford President’s Home as an auction item at the Terrier Ball. They did it to raise money for scholarships for Wofford student-athletes and to show another group of friends the type of hospitality that they’ve become famous for over the past three years.

That’s Prema in a nutshell, Wofford’s “chief hospitality officer,” promoting Wofford and making people feel comfortable.

“Both Nayef and I come from cultures that are very hospitable. Having people in your home and overfeeding them is how we’re wired,” says Prema. “I love all aspects of entertaining. It’s not so much about everything being perfect, but about making people feel comfortable. If it’s comfortable, then I think it’s perfect.”

In a sense Prema hasn’t known anything else. Her father was a college president in India, so her family entertained often. After graduating from Bradford College in Massachusetts, where she met Nayef, Prema took a job in the hospitality industry and found her niche. 

“I absolutely loved the hospitality industry — enhancing the guest experience, the pace, the variation in daily activities. I had a chance to meet people from all over the world,” she says. The industry also gave her the opportunity to work in New York while Nayef was in graduate school at Columbia University. 

People often ask Prema to tell the story of how she and Nayef met. As a student from India, she was working as an ambassador to international students for the Office of Admission at Bradford and was charged with connecting with incoming students from other countries. 

“I had scratched every name off my list but some guy named Nayef Samhat.” She laughs as she describes wandering around asking other international students whether they knew Nayef with no luck. Later she was venting with a friend about this impossible-to-find guy, when her friend said, “Oh, Nayef, he’s right here.” 

“There he was sitting on the steps,” says Prema, who expected to find him hanging out with the international students.

When she asked him why he wasn’t, he said, “I’m not an international student. I’m from Detroit.” The rest is history.

The Samhats’ oldest daughter, Alia, was born in 1987, Jehan in 1989 (the year Nayef entered a Ph.D. program in political science at Northwestern) and Leila in 1994. Prema also switched from the hospitality industry to marketing and development in the health care field. Parenting and family life remained the priority.

“Our daughters will tell you I was on them 24/7,” says Prema. “I wanted them to put their best foot forward, no matter what career path they chose. Nayef and I both stressed the importance of them having a good work ethic and becoming responsible, appreciative, independent and kind individuals.”

Nayef was a college professor while the girls were young. “He was a very hands-on father,” says Prema. “Diapers, feeding ... all the good stuff. Our daughters definitely saw a two-parent system.”

The Samhats created boundaries for their daughters then expanded them as the young women grew more mature. Alia, Jehan and Leila each began volunteering at the age of 12. Now they are living and working in Chicago; Washington, D.C.; and Germany (respectively), with scattered holidays and vacations on Wofford’s campus.

“We encouraged them to speak their mind, but politely and respectfully,” says Prema. “As parents we think we have all this control. Looking back I realize how little control we actually had. I’ve come to realize that parts of good parenting are just luck. We’re lucky to have three smart, independent and kind daughters, and they’re a lot of fun. The best part is how much we all enjoy getting together.”

Although Prema says she does not shop for entertainment or as a hobby, she passed on her appreciation of a good bargain to her daughters — that and a love of shoes. 

“Back in the 1960s, my mother would wear a sari with Italian sling-backs. She passed her love of shoes to me, and I passed it on to my daughters,” says Prema, smiling and shaking her head at the memory.

For Prema, the past three years living and entertaining in the President’s Home on Wofford’s campus have flown, which is probably a factor of her tireless commitment to the college community.

“When Nayef chose to move into higher education administration and long before being a college president became a reality, we both knew that our partnership and the energy we brought to this role were very important,” says Prema. “I chose not to work once I came here because I wanted to be available to either host or attend as many Wofford events as possible, both on campus and away.”

Just as Prema continues to add to her gold and black wardrobe, complete with incredible shoes, of course, she also continues to enhance the spirit of community that defines the Wofford experience.

Almost immediately she and Nayef started monthly Thursday afternoon gatherings designed to bring Wofford employees together from every department to build community and collaboration. She and Nayef invite 12 randomly selected students to their home once a month for pizza and conversation. She and Dean of Students Roberta Bigger ’81 co-founded a program for young women on campus to give them resources as they prepare to transition to life after graduation, and she serves on the board of the United Way of the Piedmont, the Chapman Cultural Center and the South Carolina State Museum Foundation.

“Service in the community has been a great way for me to get to know people off campus and become closely connected with Spartanburg,” says Prema, who says that being “enthusiastic participants” in Spartanburg’s food and beverage scene also has helped. “I think we’ve eaten at every restaurant in Spartanburg.”

The Samhats also initiated an annual employee recognition event.

“Thanking people is very important,” says Prema. “No one does it alone, so it’s essential to recognize the contributions that we all make.”

Regardless of the event, Prema believes in making it special and improving each year. “There’s such a culture of community here,” she says. “Growing that is a priority.”

by Jo Ann Mitchell Brasington ’89, Fall 2016