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Mapping Your Life Path - Dr Kavita Pandit (Part 1) #WomenWILL005

by Laura Kuimba Yu
February 24th 2021

005. Dr. Kavita Pandit is a Professor of Geosciences and senior advisor to the Provost at Georgia State University. A distinguished academic and university leader, she is also the former president ... More

you're listening to the women will podcast in this series of women in leadership limelight. Successful women leaders share their stories of leadership growth and self discovery. If you're an ambitious woman who wants to live larger dream, bigger blaze trails and manifest your destiny. These conversations will inspire you with new insights and fresh perspectives from different segments of business and society and various countries all around the world and now your host, laura Queen ba. Today I'm joined by a distinguished leader in the world of academia. Dr Kavita Pandit is the professor of geosciences and senior advisor to the provost at Georgia State University, a distinguished academic and university leader. She is also the former president of the American Association of Geographers. She has received numerous awards for her achievements and contributions. In part one of this conversation, Dr Kavita shares about growing up in India moving to the US to chart her own path, the influence of role models in her life and ultimately defining her destiny and legacy.

How do you define what you really want by separating your assumed obligations, your shades from what you really want. What gives you a true sense of contentment. Don't forget to subscribe and rate the women will podcast and remember to listen in next week for part two of this conversation. For now, enjoy Dr Kavita Pandit. Hi Kavita for the benefit of some of the listeners who may not know your background. Could you tell us a little bit about yourself. I am a professor of geosciences, a professor of geography. Most of my career has been in higher education gone through the ranks at various universities as a geography Assistant, Associate full professor at some point I got into university administration versus the department chair and then more senior roles. And at this stage in my career I am still in the administration but slowly ramping down and currently returning partially returned to my faculty role as well.

There's definitely a lot to explore. I'm looking forward to unpacking what you've done a really good job summarizing. I was just thinking you're the second professor I'm speaking to this morning since it's seven a.m. And I had a zoom lecture at five a.m. Yes. It's an interesting start to my to my day. So what was life like for you growing up? I know you didn't grow up in the US where you are right now. Yes. I was born and raised in India in Mumbai. I was there through my undergraduate studies and I was one of four girls in our family. My parents had no sons. And it was interesting because we're talking about several decades ago in India in the fifties, sixties, seventies still with someone for patriarchal society. Being in a family with no sons. Made it interesting. I'm grateful for it because my father who was himself us educated and had his doctorate and was an engineer, I'm sure would have loved to have sons.

But since he didn't have any sons in many ways, he treated us like sons if if I may say so he didn't coddle us as girls. And all the years we were growing up I remember him very much encouraging us to study. And because his years in the United States had been so formative and so positive. I recall growing up with him always telling us that I want each of you to study in America you should have the opportunity which you can imagine was unusual in those days in a patriarchal society where educated and then got married and my mother was more of a traditional homemaker. Housewife supported her husband. Yet growing up she would also challenge us that as you get married you must be economically independent because as I look back I think as much as happy as she was in her role she saw that the power in the household came with the ability to bring in an income.

So between my father challenging us to get educated and aim high and my mother always said you must be economically independent. I have to thank those messages always within me as I grew up. Even though I grew up in a society where women often just aspired to a good marriage after their studies. So how did you end up finding your path to what you're doing now? I think it's a great question and like many surprisingly many people the route was not straightforward. So I started off studying in my undergraduate studies was an architecture and I said that's what I want to be an architect. And I came to the U. S. As a graduate student to study architecture. But farmer went to city planning which was just much more exciting to me at that time. And then eventually got my PhD in geography came into academia even though I was so sure I wanted to work for a nonprofit, maybe some kind of a global agency like World Bank or Forward Foundation or United Nations.

Yet the paths that opened up to me, the doors that opened were in academia in many ways I was groomed to be an academic so if I had to summarize that path laura it was more of being ready to possibly give up. I really want to do this to sing where the opportunities open. And on the other hand my door's closed because I remember trying very hard to get into a nonprofit agency and applying around and at that time were a geographer. Now we're looking for an economist here from a public university. I was studying at Ohio State so we only hire Princeton and Harvard. So there was rightly or wrongly there was some doors that were just not opening yet. I found the academic approach I was excelling in that I had publications. It was just a natural for me to apply for professor positions and get one. It's a long answer to your question. But the route was not always what I thought it was.

If it does get into the right place? I think, I think it's fascinating that you pointed out this idea of just the routes to get to where you want to go. I think one of the things that's become more apparent as I'm having these conversations is for me, it's about showing that there are so many different parts to success in life and are finding whatever makes you happy. But also I think just even when we're talking about leadership and especially in the areas of maybe stem and some of these other parts that there is no, there's no conventional path into this career. So you find your way and then somehow you figure out what you like, what you don't like and then you end up where you find yourself. I totally agree and I advise graduate students all the time. In fact, somebody I'm advising right now, he's so paralyzed as he's is deciding his thesis topic and he says, I don't know if I choose this, there's a feeling when we are younger, say in our twenties or even thirties there are choices are going to lock us into a particular future and from my experience, what I share with my graduate students and others young professors is the worst thing you can do is be paralyzed.

So you're not moving, do something, move forward, you will get to where you need to be eventually don't overthink it. So did you find yourself doing that along your path? Were there any moments where you were paralyzed over thinking and just working through that for yourself? Well, there were times, for example, I was a late comer to geography and a discipline that has been wonderful to me and I came by it not so much that I want to do geography, but there was some personal consideration. I've met this lovely gentleman who I was dating at the time and I wanted to find a way to remain in the city. And I got admitted to geography. And there were times when I was saying, what am I doing Geography? How did I get here? And then at some point you say I'm here and let's suck it up, do our best and see what comes off it. And amazingly the rewards came in and I grew to love this discipline which I perhaps had accidentally got into.

Mm hmm You make a really great point. Just I think sometimes taking into account the different areas of your life, right? So it's not just this is because I'm so passionate about it that I want to do this. But it's also weighing across the different options that are you considering and even those personal decisions and how by pursuing that you somehow um ended up with the life that you like because you didn't sacrifice that in pursuit of something else. I think we we sometimes overlook that. But in our younger years, maybe personal goals and maybe relationships. In fact my entire coming to the United States for graduate studies and people say oh what did you want to study and the truth be known, I came to the United States to find my own independence to find who I was. Because I even in even in the late 70s early 80s in India I felt after I got my bachelor's degree that I'm in this holding pattern as to shift from being somebody's daughter to being somebody's wife.

And I said I wasn't quite ready to just slide and get my identity from a parent or a spouse. Coming to the U. S. Was actually a choice less as a career choice and more as finding who and what I was as an individual. Yet it opened many career wonderful career options. So I think your your observation there is spot on. So I recall that there was a point at which you went back to India along the way. So was that after you had found yourself and you're like oh let me now refined myself in India and you do the eat, pray live in your home country. I know you had quite an interesting experience there that is thank you for asking. Actually going back to India. So just for the listeners, I I came to the U. S. Did my masters of city planning and at that time I was in my mid twenties very idealistic about the world that I want to go back to India and work and support indian economic development.

There's a lot of brain drain and I don't want to be one of those indians who has come to America and they're settled in and they are just living the good life and that's all they want. I want to return and give back. And I think that trip back to India was part of the journey of finding who I was interestingly because I as I shared with you in an earlier conversation I did go back I found I work for a nonprofit. It was very exactly the kind of position a job I thought I wanted to do yet. I felt very lonely. It wasn't connecting. How was that? It was realizing that I had changed irrevocably and in some ways what I was looking for was not exactly what I wanted or and to cut to the chase. I said the drive to do good to others seems very idealistic. But if you're not happy and you're not doing it with a full heart, it probably is not where you need to be.

And it was at that point I decided let me come back to the United States and continue my studies and ultimately find what is a niche where I can give most fully and be make a contribution. There are multiple ways to make contributions. I think that's so fascinating right? Like the idea of pursuing something and then realizing it's not what you want. I'm wondering like how did you know that wasn't what you wanted if someone's listening and they're like, is this really what I want? I spent my life pursuing this dream and now I'm here. So how did you make that decision? Because it's saying goodbye to something that you've always wanted and then saying I'm pursuing something new. That's a big change. Yes. I'll give you a little story that I remember clearly won day when I was out in this rural area. It was in the it was in the foothills of the Himalayan mountains where our nonprofit team had been sent to do these integrated area development plans for the United UNICEF was what a lovely project Yet here I am in the boonies.

We are hiking to this remote village And one of the team members was an american student who who's an anthropologist who was spending some time in India on working on her own research project. I remember hiking through and the entire hike I am talking to her about my trip to Chicago and what we did and how we had spent time and at some point I asked myself what am I doing? I'm in here doing this job that I really enjoy. But my head my heart is in a different world and and it allowed me to recognize to myself that I in some ways that returned to India because of thinking I should do this rather than this is really what I want to do. So being becoming aware of what am I doing as a sort of obligation that that I've assumed I have versus what is it that my that is giving me the greatest excitement, pleasure and a true sense of contentment.

And I was able to separate that that I should versus I want. And for a long time they have been conflated. I think that's definitely something that I can resonate with working through and understanding how much of the external have I internalized and what what do I actually want and actually getting clear on that? Sometimes it can be surprisingly tricky to find this is what I want, laura you and I share that. I mean, we grew up in a particular society, we've moved to another place. It takes a little while to say which is my home and where is my future and especially when your family in both places. So I know it resonates with you. And it took a little it took some deep thinking and perhaps moments of lost almost. But once you find it coming back to the U. S. I embraced, this is my home, this is where my contributions are going to be. And I was able to approach it with a full heart if I can put it that way, wow, I love how that detour almost brought you back home and just even the bravery to make the decision first to leave the U.

S. And go back and then to come back and start again. So I think just even that ability to adapt to those different circumstances and to shift your life and your perspective in the direction that you feel like this is where I need to go, I think that's amazing and as we are on this topic I wouldn't want people to think that you know, it was just like a one time thing, okay, I made this decision and now I'm good, I've got this sorted, I know what I want, I know you had quite a bit of a journey in terms of doing your own inner work in terms of discovering who you were even professionally as you went through your career. Could you tell us a little bit about that? Yes, having good mentors was a big key. I had a really amazing major professor, the university I was at Ohio State. They really pressed the students to excel and of course the lessons I learned then went with me when I became an assistant professor as women, all of us or many of us questions sometimes do we have it in ourselves and as you've correctly recognized, imposing your question, you kind of, even in academia which just seems like a really cerebral place where everybody says there's a little bit of elbowing, you have to do a little bit of self marketing and that wasn't always easy for me, particularly at a time when there were not too many women academics.

I have to say. When I'm in my graduate school, there were no women full professors, all the role models for men. So you don't really see yourself and the people who are teaching you yet having good mentors. For me, it was my major professor. There were other colleagues at University of Georgia, which is, which were my first faculty appointment, was who really said, hey, you should go for that. And I may have shared with you the story of this one of the senior professors when I was young in a junior professor in my first appointment and I don't know where he came, where he, what he saw. But when I was still in my first or second year, he says, you're going to be department chair someday. And this was the time. And I was wondering when I'm gonna get my next publication accepted. He just made that observation. And a few years later I was still probably three or four years out of grad school. He said, I see you're going to be the president of the American Association of Geographers one day, as it turns out, both of his predictions came true, but in many ways what he did was put a seed in my head that wasn't there, You can't come here at once.

He voted the immediate reaction that's not gonna happen. I don't know where you're coming from, but now it's in there and that was I'm so grateful for that. It's also a lesson to us as we see talent. The small observations we can drop could have immense implications for people's career paths. That's beautiful. So what do you think that did for you? So you mentioned it planted a seed of an idea that wasn't there? But what else did that do for you in hearing the this idea of you could be department chair, you could be the president of this association. What did that do for you? It made me say it made me think that he's saying something in me that I am not able to see, I'm too close to it. And because I trusted him, I said, no, he's not just saying it. He is picking up on something. And let me assume that he's seeing something that I'm not able to see. I can show it, I'm changing my posture, it changes how you see yourself, how you hold yourself.

It may not have all happened immediately. But these small messages do shift our view of ourselves and our futures. So as his predictions came true, I know you had some really amazing successes along the way. What were some of those in terms of your career? I mentioned that he just adopted that I think you're going to be president of the american Association of geographers and that as I said, came about and that I have to say was one of the very high points career wise because the american association of Geographers at that time I had about 10,000 members. It probably may be much larger than that now it is the premier american. But I would say international organization, Professional Society for geographers and looking back on the past presidents, I see these giants in the discipline and when I was nominated and I was running against another someone who I saw as a giant.

I part of me just said I'm not ready for this and I asked the same mentor and I said they've asked me to put my name forward, but this is too early. I'm not ready for this. And he just said, Kavita, these chances don't come every day and they nominated you accepted and put your name in. And I did. And his instinct was right because I had earned a reputation more than I thought I had and I got elected. And that was an amazing feeling of validation, especially since I was a late for geography. And this was like a discipline accepting me even though I felt like interloper in a way. So it was a powerful shot of adrenaline to put it mildly congratulations belatedly that I congratulations. One was some other key milestones that came your way and how did you, how did you embrace or navigate those? Around the same time? A lot of doors opened very quickly for me.

So I had moved through the ranks within the university, I was a full professor. An opportunity came, I actually got a job offer at another university to become a department chair. My own university said no, we don't want to let you go, we are appointing you as a department chair next year. And that's what happened. And soon after that there was a position in the dean's office which is the next level and they hired me to be the associate dean. Around this time I got elected to be the american Association of Geographers Presidents. It was just a heavy time And another, I think what I see as a major milestone was around this time while I was associate dean, I was hired by the State University of New York, which is not a particular university, but the system office which oversaw 60 for universities. They hired me into the Chancellor's office, which is a very high level position. And for me it represented an enormous promotion, if you will call it from a university college level position to a system level position.

So there was a period of time there that things were doors were opening very rapidly and my confidence was growing and I found myself playing in bigger and bigger arenas. You mentioned your confidence was growing up. What contributed to that. It might be a little bit of a chicken and egg question. It was a chicken and egg, I think, yeah, that's such a great question because confidence can come from within, it can also come from the outside where others are recognizing you and I suppose it was a bit of a combination, but perhaps more externally provided. So the fact that I was being invited to do this and apply here, wow, I'm hot stuff right now and that can overcome to some extent your own self evaluation. So I'm sure at some point when that state University of new york position came up, I asked myself, wow, I that's a big job, I haven't done that before, but there's a part of me just saying, yeah, you can nail it, you'll get it, you'll figure it out.

And I think that is wonderful when we have that there's a sort of self confidence in going for that. I think many of the seeds that were planted early on as well as being recognized in a particular way, can fuel the sense of confidence that you can take care of whatever adversity comes and excel. The reason I'm asking that is what came to mind is how a lot of women do struggle with imposter syndrome, lack of confidence and not owning or recognizing their achievements. And so that's why I was thinking, having gone through this journey, I think you really do give that perspective of it sounds like on the one hand you were excelling at your work, you were putting yourself out there, getting published, almost taking risk in a way and really creating that credibility and track record and so that became almost reinforced by the feedback that you began to get as well. So it was like you were putting yourself out there which was like internally motivated like overcoming those inner inner hurdles and then getting that positive feedback that supported that journey.

And laura there have been times when there were serious doubts, especially early on and I'd love to tell you a short story and advice that was given to me early on. I don't use about imposter syndrome, but it could be seen as that way, there's self doubt. So when I was first appointment department chair, this is relatively early in my career, I was the first female department chair of this large geography department, I was probably the first, I think nonwhite department chair and I was sure I was ready for it, but once I moved into the position I recall that I was planning a departmental retreat where for the first time I was going to act like a chair and be there and I remember talking to a close friend, another mentor of the week before and telling him this is coming up, I'm really nervous about it because I'm trying to figure out how to act like a chair that remember those weren't exactly, I'm trying to make sure I act like a chair and he looked at me very quizzically and mrs Kavita, you are the department chair.

So what however you act is how department chairs act. And I just thought that was the most profound statement. So once you're in that position as women, we sometimes say, okay, now, how do I behave to act like the position I'm in, not recognizing that position is defined by us, not the other way around, what we do defines what that position is that I've carried with me in many places as I wondered, how do I act that way? And I said, no, you're there and you act the way you are. It's like you're reading my mind as I'm going into, I am in a similar position with being the chair of a of a board that I'm on at the moment in the nonprofit and working out some of these details of like how does the board, how does the board behave? So I think there are like the due diligence, you're, you're learning about governance structures and all of that. And at the same time, it's, as you said, it's okay, you're the chair.

Now, what flavor do you bring? And also, again, being the youngest there being like the first woman, it's okay, what does this look like seeing the track record of people who have done amazing things and not letting that intimidate me. So I can totally relate. I mean, as you said, there's some skills, you have to learn how to run a meeting and what are robert's rules and those are easily learn. But what persona do I bring, especially if everybody that preceded you look different, they behave differently. They may have had a different communication styles doesn't matter if you're in that role and you demonstrate what that communication style is and I think that's so powerful, especially as our women begin to take more positions of leadership. The reason why we need more women leaders is to show that it's not just about one way of doing things, at least that's my passion is while I work it out myself. And the reason why we need more women is men may have may do it a certain way and some women may do it another way, but I think every single individual can bring their own flavor and like you said once you've been entrusted with the role, it's because of who you are and it's now it's your responsibility to embody that role and to do it to the best of your ability and trust that you can absolutely, and the guys never have second thoughts about it.

Why should you and women in leadership? I really appreciate what you're doing because I know again, when I was a young scholar young academic, there were not too many women and I may have told you this story in an earlier conversation, laura, but I remember when I was sort of final year of my PhD, I was invited to a reception that was given because I want some fellowship and there was a reception and they live for the first time I saw this woman Dean, she wasn't from our college, from another college. All the mentors I've had were male and this woman and I just saw her at a social gathering. I remember just standing on the corner but watching her every move, almost like I'm stalking card. How does she move? How is she talking? How is she stand? You know, it was at that moment it hit me how hungry I was for a role model, even though it's not necessary that every woman has the same studies, every other woman women and leadership provide a breath of models that allow us to see ourselves in that role in a way several decades ago.

That was just not there. It's incredible. Right? The power of role models? Like you said, seeing someone who looks a little bit more like you, I think that has just been so powerful in my own life, seeing what's possible, expanding the possibilities, having those seeds planted. And then it's like, wow, I think I could do that. And then in certain instances then looking back and saying, wow, I became whatever seed that was thanks for listening to the woman Will podcast where ambitious women get to the next level. We'd love for you to subscribe rate and give us a review on ITunes. Thank you. It's very much appreciated. That's this week's episode of The Women Will podcast with Laura Quinn ba. Join us again next week for another episode. Thanks for listening, visit. Women will dot World to access the show notes and fantastic bonus content. Subscribe to our podcast for updates and join us to chart the way forward for women in leadership.


Mapping Your Life Path - Dr Kavita Pandit (Part 1) #WomenWILL005
Mapping Your Life Path - Dr Kavita Pandit (Part 1) #WomenWILL005
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