Kakali Bhattacharya, professor in the School of Human Development and Organizational Studies in Education, was recently recognized by the University of Georgia Mary Frances Early College of Education with the prestigious Distinguished Alumni Award for her research. One of eight selected for their research, service, and contributions to the field of education, Bhattacharya received the Mid-Career Alumni Award for her impact as a researcher.

With more than 15 years of experience, Bhattacharya has dedicated her life and career to unearthing ways in which methodologies of inquiry can become more equitable and de/colonizing.

“On the topical side of things, my work has been very much grounded in issues of race, class, gender and international students and the challenges international students face in higher education,” she said.

With a particular focus on the inequities in higher education encountered by students from South Asia, who are considered to have high invisibility, Bhattacharya explores their experiences to paint a clearer picture of the depth of oppression underrepresented populations face.

“The group that I work with are not under the kind of severe oppression that perhaps some other groups face because we have different histories,” she said. “But it’s this group that can identify some of the more subtle, other ways of oppression and can work to disrupt it.”

Kakali Bhattacharya

Kakali Bhattacharya

Investigating these subtleties, Bhattacharya strives to uncover how to disrupt systems of oppression early — before lives are lost.

“I think that is the most pressing concern, because until we offer dignity to everybody and not until we offer freedom to everybody, we’re perpetually going to be locked in these oppressor/oppressed relationships,” she said.

Much of Bhattacharya’s work is driven by examining the dominant narrative of settler-colonialism, postcolonialism and imperialism within academia and beyond.  This work not only shapes our history but our perceptions and understanding of history and our relationship with one another. It informs what we deem to be ‘good’ or ‘bad’ and has legitimized and normalized feelings that exacerbate oppression.

“There’s a group of people that have done atrocious acts on underrepresented communities, and we want to sort of make that look like it’s isolated,” she said. “It was then, it’s not now, and I think that there’s this, this wishful thinking to erase or push things to the past, which it isn’t.”

These beliefs and practices are still ever present and shaping our society. Until we offer dignity and freedom to everyone, they will continue to define our societal narrative and cause harm and suffering to many people.

“It’s not like any of us are free — some of us are enjoying the freedom a little bit more than the other folks, but we’re still entangled with each other regardless of whether we address it or look away from it,” she said. …”So my work has been to chase all of these interconnected ways in which we are entangled so that we can understand that this is not just the responsibility of those who are underrepresented and appressed to disrupt these structures of inequity — it’s all of our responsibility.”  

Bhattacharya realized her affinity for qualitative inquiry while working on her Ph.D. at the University of Georgia. In reading powerful ethnographic accounts of research, she became captivated by and immersed in the work. She found herself asking, “How is this research?”.

“Then I paused, and I thought, ‘It just shifted my thinking,’” she said. “It really shifted my thinking — in ways that it would have never shifted if I had read a statistical report. It shifted in a way that touched my heart, it moved me as a human being.”

These moments led her to pursue a path in qualitative research and to use creative modes of inquiry in her work with hopes of moving others.

“Ideally I really wanted to create knowledge in such a way where people would be inspired and compelled to look at an issue, whatever the issue was, in ways that they haven’t before,” she said.

This vision and spirit can be found within Bhattacharya’s teaching as well. A professor in the Research, Evaluation, and Methodology doctorate program, she has transformed the structure and dynamics of her courses to keep learning and personal growth the priority.

Implementing a structure with no interim grades, she provides each student a breadth of feedback on assignments without the weight of points taken off. Instead, she emphasizes focusing on the learning, encouraging her students to take risks on their projects and to push the boundaries of their thinking without fear of penalty.

“When you have these expectations that your students are incredibly capable beings with infinite potential and you treat them with that kind of dignity and respect, they rise to it anyway,” she said.   

The goal in her courses is to be a thought partner alongside her students and to foster their development as future agents of change.

“If they have a position of power, then can they call out inequities,” she said. “If they are in a position of power, then they can advocate for somebody who cannot do self-advocacy without a lot of significant harm to them.”

While Bhattacharya understands this may not resonate with every student, even reaching a few can make all the difference.

In receiving the Distinguished Alumni Award for research, she found herself reflecting on the span of her career and the body of research she is committed to serving.

Although her field of study may be considered niche, the acknowledgement she has received from students who thank her for creating space and representing them in research makes this honor, those before it and those that will come after it, all the more meaningful.

“It’s moments like this, like that, that I feel so assured that it was OK to follow the calling, even though at that time, or ever, the work we do is not for the promise of a reward,” she said.

Bhattacharya is honored that the University of Georgia has recognized her among so many other incredible, worthy alumni and she is excited for the reach this award will give to her work.

“It just energizes me to continue doing that work,” she said. … “It’s not just valuable to the group that I particularly work with. It crosses boundaries, it crosses borders and that’s when I know that even if you do culturally situated work — if you do good work — it’s not contained in the boundaries of the people with whom you work because it’s inspiring in ways that you didn’t even imagine.”