Dr. Gira Bhatt is an instructor in Kwantlen Polytechnic University’s department of psychology who specializes in studying youth behaviour, prejudice, and gang violence. Her interest in this subset of human behaviour spans many years, and focuses on the factors that can help prevent vulnerable youth from falling into a life of crime.
She received the Distinguished Contributions to Public or Community Service award from the Canadian Psychological Association for her work in quelling gang violence in Metro Vancouver, and she recently received a grant to help fund a community project that steers youth away from joining gangs.
When did you join the KPU community, and why?
I joined KPU in 2003. I was in Victoria, and KPU was starting its applied psychology degree, and I always wanted to do applied work. I enjoy being an academic, but I felt that something was missing, especially because of the area that I’m interested in which is social psychology.
We talk about people, we talk about social interactions, we talk about group connections and not [having] connections at all. There’s a vibrant society around us. I always wanted to bridge the two. So I got super excited that KPU was starting its applied psychology degree, so that’s when I decided to jump the ship and come to Vancouver and join KPU.
What is your favourite story of your time at KPU?
There’s been quite a few actually, and they’re all student-related. I really like when I see the shine on a students face, I always remember that. There was a student writing a comment in my evaluation that said, ‘You did have to work hard to get an A+ in her class,’ and I kind of took it as a positive compliment! All kinds of comments come my way, but I liked that a lot.
I do get onto my students’ case. ‘You’re capable,’ I always tell them. ‘You’re so capable, so don’t be an underachiever.’ Don’t be, ‘I just want a B+ and that’s it,’ just bring out the best in you. So that comment always stays in my mind.
What is something you’d like to say to people new to the community?
KPU is a great place. It really is. We are very community-focused, we are very student-focused, and that’s something very valuable about KPU. In a face-to-face environment, I know my students by their first names, for example, and like to be able to make that connection. And also, the focus on teaching, KPU is really putting a priority on that.
So as instructors, we are all very dedicated, all my colleagues. I look around, we are at KPU, and we choose to be at KPU because we like teaching. And sometimes, at big universities, that focus is missing, you know. Some very famous researchers are not so committed to in-class teaching — not all of them, but at KPU, the norm is that we are here because we love teaching. We are very interested in helping our students with their career, so that’s the message I would like to convey.
What are you working on right now?
We are at the tail end of a big project where we are applying our findings into our community programs.
What we found was that the community groups, including the police, including the City of Surrey, they have all kinds of programs for youth. But most of them — very well meaning, very well intended, a lot of passion — they create these programs, and get funding for that, but they’re not necessarily research-based. They’re not drawn from the actual research evidence, but now they’re all excited because they’re a part of our big project, so they all know how we did the research.
Our next step is that we will work with our community groups and train the leaders there in coming up with a youth program, which would be very structured. And we’ll just help them because they are the program experts, we are the academics.
So the current program, which the Ministry of Public Safety has funded, in which we have a few organizations on board, so Sikh Gurdwaras for example, four of them have come on board with us […] and it was great.
We go into the gurdwaras — the temple which is a social hub of people — and we train the program managers, the young 20 to 22-year-olds, in how to plan a one-hour activity once a week for the youth. And we recorded it, so it was all very rigorous. We did the workshop, and we ran it for eight weeks, so once a week, and then our research assistants would go and take notes And the kids, all the way from six-years-old and up to teenage years would come once a week and they would have very structured programs.
We did that in two gurdwaras, then we did one at a school in Surrey, which is a Sikh academy. One of the programs currently underway which we had to shelve for the time being was very exciting, where we had vulnerable parents and their children simultaneously doing this program. So the parents and their teenage kids would come, we would have separate sessions for them, and then we bring them together. So that was halfway through when the pandemic happened.
We’re looking forward to completing this, and so more and more groups are coming forward now that they want evidence-based, research-based programming for the youth, where we planned the activities. ‘Why are we doing this particular activity? What are the benefits of it? What are the psychological advantages? How does it link with protective factors?’ So that’s the exciting part, working with our community partners.
My friends are always teasing me, ‘Gira, you don’t have hobbies! Everything you do is school-related.’ Because when I read I find it exciting, any research that comes up, and I said ‘I read!’ and they said ‘Well that doesn’t really count as a “hobby” hobby, you know?’” I’m happiest when I’m working, but then I did think about it.
A few years ago, I took up hummingbirds as a hobby. I had a friend with some beautiful hummingbirds on her balcony patio, so I got excited about it. It somehow appealed to me. And then she taught me how to create those little artificial flowers. So I just love it, and I got carried away, and I have some fancy hanging stuff for the hummingbirds, and now my friends say, ‘You do have a hobby.’
What is something you would like people to know about you?
Something I’ve not shared with people is that I’m a certified yoga instructor actually, from India, but not many people know that. And lately, I’ve gone back to my roots because I’m home all the time.
So I’m more interested in yoga philosophy in general and yoga practice, that’s something that has come back to me.