Interview by Bhawna Rawat
Ms. Neha Bhatt is currently working as the Dean, academics of Anant National University, Ahmedabad. She has her bachelor degree in Biology from the College of New Jersey. She holds her master degree in Community Planning from the University of Maryland. She has spent almost 2 years in total as a fellow in Harvard University Graduate School of Design and CEPT University.
She has 20 years of experience in the public and nonprofit sectors developing urban policy solutions, building programs, and organizing community voices. Neha has expertise in the sustainable urban development and specializes in supporting local leaders who are champions of affordable, green cities.
She has worked as a founding director in Local Leaders Council and Deputy Director in the Policy Development and Implementation in America. She has also worked as a policy advisor in Washington and Urban Planning Fellow in VA.
Ms. Bhatt on her variegated experience from her diversified career
After my undergraduate degree in molecular biology, I was volunteering with an affordable, green home building organization. I wanted to explore the non-profit organizations in Washington, D.C. I lobbied Congress to increase funding for buses and trains, trained activists in other parts of the U.S. on sustainable urban infrastructure issues and produced reports and case studies to highlight the value of building communities not focused on the automobile-oriented lifestyle. After a few years, I returned to graduate school for my masters in community planning, and when I finished my degree, I entered the world of local government.
The last ten years of my career have been focused on working with the government. While working for a city council member in Washington, D.C., I helped with writing policies to increase public parking fees to manage demand and traffic; implement a fee on disposable plastic bags to reduce pollution and reduce overuse; establish secure bicycle parking standards for residential multifamily buildings; and launch the region’s first car-free day. I went on to work as an advocate for smarter public policies in city development and eventually expanded to work in many cities on these issues. I spent the last couple of years as a Loeb Fellow at Harvard University and Fellow at CEPT University to explore these topics further.
Ms. Bhatt’s leadership philosophy
I think leaders are very simple people who know how to organize other people and resources in order to make things happen. When this is scaled up, you get leaders of movements, like Martin Luther King, and other folks at the very highest. But I also see leaders in classrooms, who are an internal part of the system, who organize their peers through whatever assets and resources they have around them; they see a vision of what opportunities and people they can take to make an event out of it. This is just an example at the micro level, but ultimately it all boils down to organizing people and resources to make something happen. Also, I believe quiet leadership is a very powerful kind of leadership. Quiet leaders are people who don't necessarily need to be the ones making all the decisions but are very proactively supporting a structure that they build.
It's not easy to become someone who really knows how to tap into the potential of the people around, but I strive to try to get better at that. Hopefully, as a leader, I'm someone who can ask the right questions at the right time and involve the right people and help me get those questions answered and make things happen.
Ms. Bhatt’s idea of an Ideal college environment for students to flourish
In an ideal college environment, I think structure is very important because through it students gain a lot of clarity on what is expected from them; ‘what am I supposed to wear’, ‘what am I supposed to be ready for’, ‘what time am I supposed to show up’, ‘what are we going to study in class tomorrow’, ‘what is the academic plan for the next week, next month’.
Another important aspect that needs to be there is safe and open communication. Students should feel comfortable in asking questions and having open interactions with their professors and peers. And in turn, students should also be aware of the expectations of college, professors and team members, which they have from the students, so they’re able to perform at par.
Changes in the education industry noticed by Ms. Neha Bhatt over the years
It hasn’t been quite a matter of time but one thing I could say is since I was in school, significant changes have taken place in terms of technology. Research has become way easier than it was 25 years ago, or harder in other ways; it requires a different kind of thinking now, of asking questions. In that sense, the introduction of a system of mentorship in the current education system has been a blessing for all students. At an early age, there is a lot these young minds want to inquire about, get clarity on, or just discover; mentors, as elders they can trust, benefit this cause. Mentors can guide students on what kind of internship they could take up, job profiles they could consider, and other such important aspects of post-school life.
The most optimum path for a student wanting to excel in the field of Architecture and Planning, according to Ms. Neha Bhatt
For students who want to excel in Architecture and Planning, it is really important to have a comprehensive point of view. As a planner, you look at a building, then a row of buildings, the streets they’re built on and what surrounds these constructions; you consider what amenities are available and what amenities are missing, and who will avail what kind of services. A good planner needs to develop solution-oriented mindset and negotiation abilities to put their vision to practice. Skills and expertise required can be availed by taking courses in housing and transportation, sustainability, and cultural sensitivity, and practising everything they’ve learned in these classes.
Neha Bhatt on how her background and past experiences have helped her strengthen the academic department at Anant National University
One of the things that I would like to bring to the good work we are doing here at Anant is polished business standards in our functioning – punctuality, timeliness and sincerity in every activity that takes place in the university. This is a creative field, so constrictions of any manner will not blend well, but if we all respect each other’s time and stick to a formalised plan – students and faculty alike – we can boost our productivity and produce better results. In academic environments, these things often slip, but if we want to nurture our students to become their best selves, we have to institute in them professionalism and manners of courteous communication.
And because I’m from overseas, apart from these ideas, I can introduce students to new case studies and examples of what is possible in their field, new set of ideas on how their projects can be funded, how things can be implemented in different ways and more global perspectives.
Ms. Bhatt on her relationship with the students at Anant National University
When I teach workshops, I interact with all the students; and once I’ve taught them, they have an open invitation to set up a time to interact with me, one-on-one or in small groups, about their projects, assignments, or anything else they want to discuss. Going further, I would also like to get more involved with any clubs students have formed or are interested in, and if it’s something I can help them with, I will definitely support them in getting it running.
Once I start taking classes, students can drop by anytime for interactions about their course or work. At Anant National University, students will have access to their professors throughout the college hours.
Ms. Bhatt on how does she prepare students to face challenges of modern organizations and global standards successfully
Practising professionalism and timeliness is the key; not being late, showing up prepared, proactively participating and consistently improvising on communication skills, written and verbal, are very important while competing at national and global standards. For this purpose, all students will undertake foundation courses in their first year that will help them develop their soft skills.
Ms. Bhatt’s suggestions to the current youth and the aspiring students
The first thing any student should do to get better in whichever field they’re in is to start reading. They should be able to draw in references from works they’ve studied and establish bridges between literature lessons and present-day scenarios. Students should not just stick to books, but read articles, research papers, newspapers, and more beyond assigned reading in classes. Great minds who have changed the world, like Bill Gates and Warren Buffett, spend a considerable amount of their time reading. Students will have to push themselves and make the most of their current time by reading more and more.