Holding Space

By Christopher Hann
Photography by Don Hamerman

Holding Space
Professor and Alumnus Alpesh Bhatt ’89, M.A. ’98

For 15 years, University of New Haven professor and alumnus Alpesh Bhatt ’89, M.A. ’98 has met monthly with current students and alumni from the University’s graduate program in industrial/organizational psychology, cultivating a community whose members remain loyal to him — and to each other.

Al Bhatt '88, M.A. '98
Al Bhatt '88, M.A. '98

On a sunny afternoon on the first Saturday in October, on a brick patio in a verdant suburb a half-hour drive from the University of New Haven’s main campus, a dozen people — most of them alumni of the University’s graduate program in industrial/organizational psychology (I/O psych) — sit in a circle talking about, well, whatever comes to mind. And what comes to mind next is the subject of failure.

It’s the first such meeting for Tanner Ross ’19, a first-year student in the program. Ross didn’t expect to contribute much to the conversation, but the topic of failure hit a nerve. When he was in high school, he tells the group, his teachers told him not to bother applying to college. Ross was a fine student; however, he was also something of a class clown. Apparently that meant he was not college material.

Nonetheless, Ross enrolled as an undergraduate at a university in his home state of Wisconsin. The first month of his sophomore year, a series of heartbreaking personal crises struck. Ross struggled and his grades sank. He should have been expelled, he says, but he was given a second chance. He made the most of it, finishing with three straight semesters with a GPA of 4.0.

Five years later, as he sits on the patio and recalls these memories aloud to the group, Ross is reliving his teachers’ admonition and the tough times that followed. The memories scrape open old wounds. The words catch in his throat. Soon his head is in his hands and he’s wiping away tears, unable to continue. It’s an awkward, lingering moment. All eyes are on Ross — or quite purposely cast away. No one steps forward to comfort him. No one picks up the conversation and carries it to another place. In fact, no one speaks at all.

"It’s creating space where students and alumni can all be in conversation with each other."Danielle Franke '10

Seated next to Ross is Alpesh Bhatt — known to everyone as Al — a practitioner in residence in the I/O pysch graduate program. The gathering is taking place behind Bhatt’s home in a quiet neighborhood in Monroe. Bhatt started the monthly meetings 15 years ago when some of his students asked if they could continue the conversations he had inspired during a course known as Psychology 6638, or "The Psychology of Opinion Change," which Bhatt has taught for nearly 20 years.

The one night a week the students could agree on was Tuesday. Bhatt, who harbors a happy addiction to caffeine, would serve tea. The gatherings came to be known as Tuesday Tea, though in time they were moved to the first Saturday of each month.

Holding Space
Tuesday Tea takes place on the first Saturday of each month.

As an undergraduate, Bhatt double-majored in engineering and world music — world music because it was his passion; engineering to please his parents — but he’s also a student of religion and philosophy, which might explain some of the language that permeates the conversation among Tuesday Tea members. They talk about "holding space" for one another, about "making a commitment." Bhatt refers to Tuesday Tea as a "century community," meaning he expects the group to continue meeting long after he’s no longer at the helm — yes, even 100 years after.


So what, exactly, is Tuesday Tea? Perhaps the best explanation is Bhatt’s own criteria for inclusion. He says two "core commitments" are required before he’ll extend an invitation. "One is that you’re dedicated to ongoing personal and interpersonal awareness," Bhatt says. "The second is that you’re interested in work that has some sort of impact on humanity."

The meetings, Bhatt says, are about "creating space where others can create their state of being." This is necessary because the participants — including many of the alumni — are still searching for their place, and their path, in the world. "The community holds them to the highest standard of that inquiry," Bhatt says, "and gives them unlimited space to explore."

Bhatt noticed a change in the group following the economic collapse of 2008. Members weren’t focused on high-paid careers. They wanted something more. "These guys have the same social awareness and consciousness that the baby boomers had in the 1960s," Bhatt says, "and they’re channeling that optimism and desire to change the world through their work."

A good example is Danielle Frankel ’10. At the University of New Haven, Frankel took most of Bhatt’s classes and once interned with his consulting firm, Koanetic Consulting International (Bhatt’s title: founder and chief paradox officer). These days, she sits on the faculty with him at the Graduate Institute in Bethany, Connecticut, where she leads courses on service and social impact. Two years ago, she left her job at PwC, the global accounting firm — she was a manager in the People and Change Practice — to start an online retailer, As We Rise, which empowers poor populations in third-world countries. Frankel traces the move directly to her experience with Tuesday Tea.

Holding Space

"Creating community in this space and time means it’s not just a question of being in conversation with Al," she says. "It’s creating space where students and alumni can all be in conversation with each other."


Bhatt, who is 51, says his work at the University of New Haven is in part about repaying his "karmic debt." Born in India, Bhatt came to the United States with his mother, Mina, in 1972, when he was 6 years old. His father, Madhusudan, had come three years earlier to study in the University’s graduate engineering program. For more than six years, Bhatt and his mother lived as illegal immigrants while his father stayed in school to maintain his student visa (eventually racking up three engineering degrees and an MBA). A handful of professors, Bhatt says, "knew what was going on and provided cover." One helped his father find a job and later qualify for legal residency and then citizenship. Bhatt became a U.S. citizen in 1980. "It was that handful of professors who truly cared about the human beings in the classroom," Bhatt says. "So I’m paying that back."

"That plant doesn’t derive anything from the pot. However, absent the pot, there isn’t a form in which it can exist."Al Bhatt

Bhatt spent most of his professional life consulting with businesses such as Facebook, Pfizer, and Deutsche Bank — "working with folks who are trying to create things that have never existed before," he says. These days, he also teaches at Chicago Theological Seminary and the Graduate Institute, where he designed the organizational leadership program. He began at the University of New Haven in 2001, where he previously completed his master’s degree in organizational psychology. "We get kids at the University of New Haven for whom life isn’t a given, for whom career isn’t a given," Bhatt says. "So they’re willing to lean in, to take accountability for themselves in a way that I don’t see at other institutions."

When Bhatt is asked how he perceives his role with Tuesday Tea, he points to a nearby potted plant atop a low wall along his brick patio. "That plant doesn’t derive anything from the pot," he says. "However, absent the pot, there isn’t a form in which it can exist."

Bhatt invokes the potted plant analogy to describe what happened to Tanner Ross at the October meeting. He says it was critical that the group not try to comfort Ross as he struggled with his composure. "I was really moved by how well the whole group held space for Tanner without trying to do anything," Bhatt says. "Some things just need to get experienced, and they need a place to be experienced."

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