By Julia Morse
The most fulfilling experiences of University of Chicago alumna Isra Bhatty’s life have taken place in prisons.
“Every single time I’ve visited a prison, I’ve felt like I am in the right place, doing the right thing. I know I’m doing something meaningful, something important,” said Bhatty, AB’07 who graduated from the College with degrees in Economics and Near Eastern Languages & Literature. “They are the moments that fulfill me most in my life.”
Bhatty, one of 32 Rhodes Scholars for 2008 and a first-year student at Yale Law School, has made service a key component of her life—and plans to keep it that way.
“I think it’s important to talk about things that no one wants to talk about, and to do something about it,” she said. “If it’s just researching and discussing great ideas and nothing ever changes, what’s the point?”
In addition to visiting inmates in prisons, jails and juvenile detention centers, Bhatty serves as an interpreter for detainees at Guantanamo Bay. She also founded a tutoring program through the University of Chicago Community Service Center, was chair of the Chicago Inner-City Muslim Action Network and volunteered with the Arab-American Action Network.
“My mind really opened at the University of Chicago. The people, the academics—it was all just incredible, a very formative experience,” she said. “But as valuable as my academic experience was, so much of my personal growth and life realizations happened outside of the classroom. It was during my time as a student in the College that I really got the community service bug.”
At Guantanamo Bay, Bhatty’s tasks include interpreting letters and phone calls, trying to get the government or media involved with particular issues and keeping family members apprised of detainees’ situations.
Most recently she has been helping a detainee who asked for soccer headlines from around the world.
“Like everything else I’ve done, this has been eye-opening,” Bhatty said. “It’s a very sad thing and can be difficult, but it’s also rewarding, in a sense, because I’m working toward justice and contributing to making life a little easier for these people who are in very tough situations.”
Bhatty said that the inspiration for her first prison visit came from something she read in the Quran during her first year at the University of Chicago, a time when she was exploring her identity as a Muslim woman of Pakistani descent while delving into her faith. The passage loosely translates to, “You should care about those who can ask you for help, and those who are unable to ask for help.”
She said, “We live in this society where we put people away, forget about them and have no idea what is happening to them. It really shocking and just perpetuates the problem in the end.”
During her two years as a Rhodes scholar at the University of Oxford, Bhatty hopes to explore issues of criminal and juvenile justice in the United Kingdom while pursing an MPhil in evidence-based social intervention, focusing on programs for immigrants and minorities.
“We know that there are things that the United Kingdom just does better than the United States in terms of criminal justice,” she said. “I’m so excited about opening my mind even further. I want to know everything about everything. The idea of being ignorant about anything drives me absolutely crazy. I want to know.”
An innately private person, Bhatty said the initial attention she received after winning a Rhodes was a bit unnerving.
“I used to want to be invisible,” she said. “The attention has been very strange, but now I’ve become extremely grateful because I realized that this has given me an opportunity to get these issues out there. And that is reason enough for me to adjust to the spotlight for a bit.”
By Julia Morse
Originally published on April 21, 2008.