March marks the beginning of Women’s History Month, which celebrates the role women play in creating history. At Southern Miss, you don’t have to look far to find influential women creating change. Dr. Monika Gehlawat, associate professor of English, has impacted the lives of Southern Miss students for ten years.
Dr. Gehlawat was born in New York but moved to California around the age of three. She obtained an undergraduate degree at Stanford, then took a year off of school, living and working in New York City. During this time, she taught elementary school in Harlem. Later, she got a master’s degree at the University of Chicago and, as a hobby, went to art museums. This turned into an occupation, and Dr. Gehlawat worked as a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago. There, she met people who were influential to her life, “older, benefactor type of people.”
“I think every young person should have that, if they can, at some point in life-to meet older people who have means to help us go along in our path,” Dr. Gehlawat said.
In addition to being passionate about English, Dr. Gehlawat is also very passionate about art.
“My dream job would be to be a curator if I had a do-over, but in some ways, I get to do that through teaching. I do really love looking at art; I love talking to people who are artists who live and breathe that world because they have a way of thinking about reality that is so much more in-tune or sensitive. Just being around them makes me feel more alive, in a way,” Gehlawat said.
After her time in Chicago, Dr. Gehlawat attended UC Berkeley and earned her Ph.D., where she met her husband.
“That’s part of the reason why I ended up here. When I was on the job market, I had a couple of other offers, but the University of Southern Mississippi gave both of us a job offer. In academia, that’s very hard to get. We felt very fortunate that we were going to get to be together and do what we love and not have to have a difficult decision to make down the road,” Dr. Gehlawat said.
As an English professor, Dr. Gehlawat teaches world literature and analysis of literature.
“Dr. Gehlawat is one of our superstar teachers in the English program and is a past winner of the extremely competitive Junior Faculty Outstanding Teaching Award, conferred by the Office of the President and the Faculty Senate,” Dr. Linda Allen, associate professor of English, said.
Jessica Dunn, sophomore English major, has taken both World Literature and analysis of literature with Dr. Gehlawat. Dunn said that Dr. Gehlawat’s classes have transformed her as a person.
“She’s really good at relating to students. She could probably find something to relate to with any student on campus. I remember in my analysis of literature class, we had a bunch of different people and anytime someone had some kind of input, she would always know exactly what to say,” Dunn said.
Dr. Gehlawat said that in her classroom, she tries to create open conversations about diversity in an organic way.
“I think that it’s healthier for students, especially those who are not diverse, to feel like we can talk about that stuff at the level of humans. What’s great about literature is that we can talk about these issues through characters – characters who are everybody’s right to engage with, and so it can be a really natural and even funny way to talk about stuff that might feel harder to talk about in everyday life,” Dr. Gehlawat said.
Having a class where you can openly talk about things like diversity can make for a positive learning experience.
“Everything she says is so profound and eloquent. In every class, my mind was always blown. I always felt like I learned something new that was applicable to academics but also to everyday life. I would talk about it after class; that’s how good she was,” Dunn said.
“I don’t think all professors enjoy teaching as much as I do. It’s also a personality thing; I’m fairly extroverted, and so I like to just interact with people and teaching is a way of doing that. It also reminds me that how many times I might teach something, there’s still more to say and you have perspectives that I haven’t thought of, and so it’s really fun for me. It’s fun to be in a group like that, to see everybody kind of getting it together,” Gehlawat said.
Gehlawat said that in her classroom, she tries to create an environment that feels copacetic, while also letting her students know that she expects effort.
“I’m trying to help people imagine what kind of grown-ups they want to be, what maturing can be. For some people, it’s about becoming more confident and apologizing less for your ideas and for some people, it’s for taking yourself seriously to do as well as you really can do. For some people, it’s about taking risk. What that means for each student differs, but I just want to feel like in my classroom maybe students are thinking creatively about themselves through the stuff we learn,” Gehlawat said.
Through her classes, Dr. Gehlawat has inspired and motivated some of her students to not only be more critical readers, but to also make Southern Miss feel like home for them.
“If there’s one professor that has really shaped my experience at Southern Miss, it would probably be Dr. Gehlawat just because she will talk to you and she’ll be there for you, whether it’s inside or outside of the classroom. To have that kind of relationship with a professor, it makes Southern Miss feel more like home. She’s a professor who’s professional and who’ll tell you what you need to know, but also is someone who’ll joke around with you. It’s kind of like family, almost. If there was Southern Miss in a person, it would be Dr. Gehlawat,” Dunn said.
Through Dr. Gehlawat’s ten years of teaching at Southern Miss, she has made an impact inside and outside of the classroom.
“Thus far, her ten-year career at USM has been distinguished by outstanding teaching, innovative research, and extraordinary service, and I know we in English are excited to see what the next ten years have in store,” Allen said.