A Life of Service: The incredible career and busy retirement of Dr. Gargi Roysicar
Dr. Gargi Roysicar may be retired. But her work is far from done.
A History of Care
As a respected professional in clinical psychology and a long-time member of the Antioch community, an aura of respect and affection lace the voices of those who speak about Gargi Roysicar. She is well-known and well-respected, both as an academic and a woman who cares deeply about her family and her community.
When it comes to her professional life and the field of clinical psychology, Gargi is all business. Firm and tough, her conversation is crisp and to the point when discussing her work but her voice shines with reserved fervor as she describes the things she has accomplished.
“My work started almost 35 years ago, with people who are underserved and who underutilize mental health services.” She begins, as a teaser for the summary of her long professional career and the many communities that have benefited from her research.
Since her retirement from Antioch University New England in July 2018, she has been immersed in her writing, carefully crafting work ranging from a book about her decades of research to the APA multicultural guidelines for psychologists that will support professionals in psychology for years to come.
An Immigrant’s Journey to AUNE
As one might expect from someone so interested in the plight of immigrants, Gargi herself is a first-generation immigrant to the United States. Raised and educated in India, her father’s position in the Indian government meant that her family moved between some of the country’s major cities. She received much of her high school education in Bombay, her undergraduate degrees in Chennai, and completed her first Master’s degree in Calcutta.
As a young professional, she had the opportunity to teach in 3 different countries across three different continents: India, Nigeria, and the United States. Such an education in her diverse home country and her teaching experiences gave her a deep appreciation for different cultures.
“I was exposed to different attitudes and paradigms of creating education. My education was also heavily influenced by the British system of education.”
In the 1970s, her family made the move to the United States, settling in New England. Now 27, Gargi was faced with the new educational challenge of being an immigrant in a new country.
But it was here that she found her focus. In a nation of immigrants, she wanted to understand how they coped with the same transition she had just undertaken. What were their support networks? How did they adjust to a new culture? What issues did their children face that they did not?
These questions guided her research for decades to come.
“Because I came here as an immigrant, I became interested in immigrant psychology…especially immigrant adaptation to the ‘second culture’ — the new culture that they enter.”
In the1980’s, Gargi began her doctoral work at Texas Tech University, where she examined her newfound interest intently. To enter the program, she composed a preliminary research paper on how to provide adequate mental health services to immigrants from India. From there, she jumped right into working with a diverse group of students on their mental health challenges.
“It started from the get-go,” Gargi recalls. “My clinical work was in university counseling centers, where my supervisors gave me lots of exposure to working with international students.” Gargi developed workshops and psycho-educational programs to educate her fellow immigrants and international students on mental health services available to them. Her doctoral dissertation was in that same area; she conceptualized an immigrant student’s mental health issues and developed suggestions for how to persuade such a student to reach out for proper treatment.
After earning her doctorate, Gargi moved to an assistant professor position at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln where she honed her research focus and skills. In 1994, upon attaining tenure and promotion to Associate Professor, she became the Program Director of their Counseling Psychology Program where she conducted a renewal of their APA accreditation. She remained at UN-L until the year 2000 when opportunity and the desire to work closer to her New England-based family brought her to Antioch as a full professor.
The Mental Health Side of Social Justice
Gargi arrived at AUNE as the new millennium began. Her primary concern was the establishment of a new organization to continue her work with immigrants and international communities. Part of the agreement made for her transfer to AUNE was the founding of the Antioch Multicultural Center for Research and Practice. James Craiglow was the president of Antioch Graduate School (New England) at the time and he was seeking a way to bring awareness of other cultures’ practices and traditions into Antioch’s social justice mission. The resulting Antioch Multicultural Center became the first community outreach and research center in the nation that engaged in international work domestically and globally.
For Gargi, the real delight of this was the opportunities it opened for her to continue her local community work but also to expand her research into an international field.
One of Gargi’s longest-running programs is her international Disaster Shakti team. Since 2005, Gargi has led teams of clinical psychology doctoral students into areas impacted by disasters to complete a kind of work often forgotten during relief efforts — mental health counseling. “Shakti” means empowerment in several Indian languages; a word that properly encompasses not only the work Gargi’s students are doing but the impact they plan it will leave behind.
Their first trip was in 2005 to Tamil Nadu in Southern India to serve communities impacted by a tsunami. Prior to engaging with the community, Gargi and her students prepared by considering the specific and unique needs of the people they were to be working with. For many of the students, this would be their first experience working with a southern Indian community or a community recently hit by such devastation. The team considered the people they were to work with: what were the values of their culture? The social classes? The languages? The religions? What kind of support networks did they already have? Additionally, a consideration of the resources available was important, since the area had lost access to some of their infrastructure and resources after the tsunami hit.
With this planning and training, the team made their trip to Tamil Nadu and worked closely with the survivors. They led workshops to assist their clients and the greater community with understanding their own resilience. Through careful monitoring and culturally-sensitive methods, the volunteers gave the survivors tools and confidence to take care of their own well-being while they restored their community.
This trip became the model for many future trips and future doctoral students.
Disaster Shakti has also taken student volunteers to Haiti in the wake of the 2010 earthquake, to Mexican communities impacted by flooding in 2008, to women and children affected by HIV/AIDS in South Africa and Botswana (2007), and to the US communities hit by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The group has continued their work in Haiti, setting up a mental health clinic in communities around Port-au-Prince that students have returned to multiple times since the earthquake. The sheer devastation and long-term repercussions of the earthquake keep their intervention work necessary in the community. Students have led classes explaining the effects of stress on health and provided resources and outlets to help the community express their fears and concerns. More recently, the team has also joined Global Trauma Research Inc. to educate community leaders (teachers, ministers, etc.) in how to recognize trauma and perform suicide intervention to better help their constituents.
Now that Disaster Shakti has been working in the area for so long, they have become a vital part of the community. The research that Gargi and her team conduct and publish is provided to the people they counsel so that they can continue the work of recovery with a better understanding of what is happening with their neighbors and family.
Gargi sees the work of providing services for mothers and children as particularly important. “The kids and women are suffering all the time; they really have a great faith in God so that helps them cope. I think my heart belongs to Haiti.” When working with the children, Gargi uses a culturally-adapted measure she developed to analyze drawings that the children complete to understand their reactions to their trauma and the relief efforts. “They are so artistic and the kids love to draw. I just feel so much at home with them.”
While engaging with communities impacted by disaster has captured her research focus, Gargi still found time to work on mental health with local New England communities, particularly issues impacting immigrants.
Gargi is a part of a cultural association in Boston focused on community outreach among the local parents who are foreign-born immigrants and their US-born children. Since 2000, she has served as a mental health consultant to the community. In addition to joining in their events, she provides educational resources on how they may benefit from mental health services and collects data on the members. Some of her publications are born from data collected through this partnership.
“I collect data to understand my populations better, so that I can improve my method of service.” Gargi explains, “I’m really interested in US-born, 2nd generation Asian-Indian immigrants. I try to understand their occupational interests; they’re all high-achieving, and attend all the fine liberal arts universities and colleges in the Boston Area.”
Gargi wants to understand their career goals and the influence their parents have on their academics and their mental health. Despite their high academic achievement and ability to function from day to day, the children do not necessarily have good mental health. They have quite a few stressful reactions, including anxiety and depression.
“They have issues of anxiety about reciprocating all the great opportunities their parents have provided for them,” Gargi describes, a hint of concern in her voice, “and they tend to be a little compulsive and perfectionistic.” The goal is to figure out how to better encourage them to reach out for beneficial mental health services.
Gargi has recently finished a mixed-methods mental study (utilizing both surveys and open-ended questions) on these high-achieving 2nd generation immigrants. Since they were born and raised in the US, they have acculturated to the US society. But they clearly also endorse a strong cultural identity because they go to the cultural association for its cultural events. She has examined how their bi-cultural outlook informs their mental health and how the cultural stigmas they carry impact their recognition of the necessity for mental health services.
“Many societies have cultural stigmas about depression and anxiety and the most serious mental health issues. And they’ve also been structurally stigmatized by larger society. They are expected not to be so healthy and strong by the mainstream society.”
But throughout her years of work with students at the cultural association, Gargi has been continually surprised by how much respect they have for mental health services and how interested they are in utilizing them. The main barriers seem to be a lack of access to necessary services and the limited cultural awareness of the mental health professionals.
“People are not usually informed about the cultural perspective and preferences of a society when they are providing mental health services. The cultural perspective is not included in the treatment plan, so services are less helpful. [The people] really appreciate mental health services but they’re just not getting it tailored to their needs or having it respond to their upbringing and issues and conflicts. Psychologists are pretty clueless about them.”
This is where Gargi’s development of the APA multicultural guidelines and community approach have proven effective. Much like with her work in Haiti, keeping such a long-term project moving involves a lot of relationship building. At this point, Gargi and the cultural association have been collaborating for 15 years. By sharing her research results, Gargi keeps them involved in the findings and helps them reevaluate how they can provide better services to their people.
“[The cultural association] are very much my partners in data collection.” She acknowledges. “I don’t do it by myself. I have the whole community engaged in it.” Keeping the immediate community — the patients’ support network and cultural background — involved in the process allows for a complex flow of information between the people involved and a better control of unconscious biases that the mental health providers may bring. There is a clear understanding between the cultural organization’s leadership and the community surrounding the evolution of the research.
“Some are my student research team but some are just volunteers who want to help. The entire research is conducted by the local people and they approve of it.”
A Legacy of Change
Her multicultural work and long-term collaboration with communities has brought universal acclaim to Gargi’s body of work. In January of this year, the American Psychological Association presented her with their 2019 International Humanitarian Award in recognition of her legacy of work with underserved populations.
“I don’t just provide the services;” Gargi emphasizes, “I collect data to understand my populations better so that I can improve my method of service. That’s why the APA has given me this award, because I’m able to integrate practice with research.”
Gargi’s multicultural approach to clinical psychology was the topic of her recent keynote presentation at the APA National Multicultural Conference and Summit (NMCS) in Denver, Colorado. Using her work with the cultural association in Boston and her outreach with the people in Haiti she outlined her methods for how to cultivate a long-term relationship with communities. One thing that she emphasized was the nature of the relationship between her and these communities — it works both ways.
“In my presentation, I talked about…how I work with the stakeholders and the community people to offer services and then how I return to them and give them the results about my community outreach work. That kind of long-term relationship allows for the development of a network for support and research.”
Several of her anecdotes from her work in Haiti demonstrate the strong bond her Disaster Shakti team has built with the people there. Through their partnership, volunteers translate all of her forms, flyers, and research results into Haitian Créole so that patients can understand the reason the team is there and why it is important. The necessity of this simple service cannot be understated — many of the people they provide services to are illiterate.
“But they love that I am writing about them.” Gargi says, “[They love] that I am talking about their strengths and how they are managing life and that I want to pass this information on to other psychologists and students.”
Gargi’s continued presence has been a major driver of the success of this work. But she is confident that the relationship can continue without her. “I’m always present, but it’s a long-term relationship that I’ve had in Haiti. I’ve been working with the same or similar people for years.” The work that she has started will provide a model for future working relationships between communities and psychologists. In many ways, it already is.
After a long career in clinical psychology, Gargi’s name can be found far and wide across the literature of the field. She is the author of over 100 academic journal articles, 8 books, and an APA fellow. Gargi’s clinical instrument, the Multicultural Counseling Inventory, is the most frequently cited instrument among published multicultural competency scales and her article applying this instrument (Sodowsky et al., 1998) was ranked the 13th most cited article of the Journal of Counseling Psychology.
Her prestige and experience in this field has also given her a unique opportunity to help shape it. In 2015, she was chosen as part of a task force of respected psychologists from all over the country to re-envision the APA’s multicultural guidelines for the 21st Century. These guidelines have not been revised since 2002.
“We worked very conscientiously for 2 years to produce this document.” Gargi recalls. She pauses briefly in contemplation before continuing: “I’m extremely proud of it.”
The document itself is over 200 pages long and was adopted by the APA in August of 2017. The executive summary of the Multicultural Guidelines was only just released in February of this year in the American Psychologist.
Back to the Garden
When she finishes discussing her lifetime of work and her legacy, the newly-retired professor finds a chance for humor. “I’ve taught for 44 years, I don’t want to step back into a classroom ever again.” She chuckles. “I love retirement.”
She prefers to keep her own needs front and center now that she is retired and un-beholden to any schedule. She adamantly refuses to meet with her doctoral students a second before 12:45 pm — which is understandable if she has been writing until 4 in the morning the same day. Her late-night writing sessions are balanced out with getting a late start to her day.
While she may be enjoying the freedom granted to her by retirement, Gargi still remains on a self-imposed tight schedule. She has deadlines for all of her projects that she has firmly set her sights upon and a dwindling swath of PsyD students wrapping up their projects. Her last commitments to AUNE are chairing a few doctoral dissertation committees; a commitment she is eager to see completed. “I don’t want to work with anyone past May of this year.” She insists, in that same tone that she uses when discussing the multicultural guidelines. “It’s a very tight schedule. [But] I’m going to love it; I’m going to be deeply involved in writing my studies [after May].”
The end of her teaching obligations has found her with a collection of unpublished data and old projects that Gargi has set her sights on making something of. She has recently submitted articles on her research team’s work with second-generation Asian-Indian immigrants at the Boston cultural association as well as a record of her observations on how Haitian mothers influence their children’s response to trauma. Her upcoming deadlines include an article on the resilience of Haitian children after a disaster and a review article on the advances in multicultural counseling training in the US. As if that weren’t enough, she is also under contract to write a book for the APA.
The night may be spent writing but as the days grow longer, Gargi is finding more time to spend on her other lifetime legacy.
“I am a gardener. I grow lots of flowers: both perennials and annuals.” Her voice lifts with pride as she describes her yard: her flowers are all different colors and varieties, some in the ground and some on trees, all of them carefully planted and tended by her hands. All of that dedication has given her a floral claim to fame. Her neighbors and complete strangers walk by her house and pause at her front rock wall, which she built one rock at a time, just to admire her flowers and the work she puts into them.
“I like the artistic part of life.” She admits. If her decades of mental health work and her dedication to her yard are any indication, she certainly has the foresight and patience to work towards a desired, beautiful outcome.
Last fall, she transplanted some fruit and flowering trees that were not getting enough sunshine where she had had them previously. Now, she is waiting for spring to see if the transplanted trees survived the move to their new home.
Gargi has never shied away from places torn apart by disaster or violence. She took her experiences as an immigrant in this country and used them to help shape multicultural psychology. Her academic record shines with dedication to her research and an iron will to go where help is needed. But her gentleness really comes out when she talks both of her students and of these flowering trees. Both are beings she is cultivating and she watches their growth with curiosity and anticipation. Will her trees survive their transplant? How will the students she has mentored conquer their own biases and cultural isolation? Both may flower beautifully. But only time will tell.
*Portions of this story were adapted from the Disaster Shakti feature article by Karen Hamilton and Malia Gaffney that appeared in the Spring/Summer 2018 Antioch Alumni Magazine.*