Over the centuries, The Banyan tree has taken on significance as a symbol of fertility, life and resurrection. It is a fitting symbol for ‘DesiStoriesAshaUSA’ which presents the stories of South Asians who have wandered far and wide from their ancestral homes, traversing new frontiers and setting down roots and networks in the US. Our goal is to connect and establish closer ties within the diasporas of the South Asian community and facilitate a dialogue with our readers, one story at a time. We will showcase stories of achievement and success and also resiliency and hope during the COVID pandemic.
Our story today features the talented and versatile Akhil Kollengode, an 18 year old at the University of Minnesota, Rochester (UMR).
As the University of Minnesota (UMR) prepared to welcome its first batch of students in the Fall of 2022, to its: NXT GEN MED: (https://r.umn.edu/academics-research/undergraduate-programs/bshs/nxt-gen-med), a new accelerated Health Sciences program in collaboration with the Mayo Clinic and Google Cloud, Akhil Kollengode was one of 10 freshmen enrolled in the program.
A program that will wrap up his Bachelor of Science degree in 21/2 years instead of 4 years!
Growing up, Akhil’s futuristic mindset continually drove him to think about ‘What’s Next’. His mother was keen on a Technology and IT future, but Akhil was interested in Medicine. His goal was to be a Cardio Thoracic surgeon, but the prospect of 8+ years of Medical school was daunting, and he did not know if he had the determination and strive for that length of time. He wanted to apply himself to the workforce as soon as possible.
There was pressure from friends and family: “In the Indian culture everybody has an opinion. All Asians want to be a doctor. But, your life, is your life! It’s your responsibility! It’s your choice! You have to take initiative and take action”. So, he chose an unconventional and trail blazing program that will allow him to contribute to the world of medicine in a unique and different way: in the high demand fields of digital health, data and analytics, human-centered design and project management.
His peers, Akhil says are often ‘amazed’ when he tells them about the unorthodox college path he is taking. His motivation is to go ‘straight into the work field within the shortest amount of time possible’. Like many High School graduates, Akhil was tempted to leave Rochester, MN where he grew up, and explore a higher educational climate away from home. But in the end, he opted to attend the University in his hometown, for the prospect of graduating early (saving a semester’s worth of costs from his college price tag: about $15,000), a paid internship at the Mayo Clinic and opportunities for significant scholarship dollars.
Participating in NXT GEN MED’s ‘Summer Quest’ program, while still in High School, he toured and stayed at the University (UMR) campus in downtown Rochester, met professors, and heard from experts at the Mayo Clinic. “It was super interactive and hands-on, which I am a big fan of. It also opened my eyes to some fields in health care that are not patient facing and yet highly rewarding” (ranging from figuring out how to deploy a vaccine in a global pandemic to looking at how patients interact with physicians through telemedicine).
Thus, if all goes according to plan, Akhil will be handed his college degree in December 2024, while his peers following the traditional college path will still be working hard, a year and a half away from graduation.
Photo Courtesy: Post Bulletin
Akhil was born in Chalakudy, Kerala and adopted soon after his birth, by his parents Anantha (Andy) Kollengode and Ganga Gopalkrishnan. The family which includes his younger sister Anushka, also adopted as a baby from the same facility in Chalakudy, moved to Rochester, MN when he was two years old, because his parents had jobs at the Mayo Clinic: His father is an Operations Manager, Radiation Oncology and is the Assistant Professor of Health Care Systems Engineering, and his mother is an Information Security Manager and Unit Head – IT. His younger sister Anushka is a RISE scholar (RISE Up and RISE High programs that connect underrepresented kids with potential, to successful mentors) and has used a $500 scholarship from the Ann Bancroft Foundation to develop an App to reduce litter.
The family traveled widely when Akhil was growing up, exposing the children to new cultures and experiences, and grounded Akhil and Anushka in their heritage with frequent visits home to Kerala and Tamil Nadu in India.
Akhil and his sister had an idyllic and busy childhood growing up. The family was highly cultured with Akhil’s father playing the Mridangam (a percussion instrument also known as a tabla), and his mother performing and teaching Mohiniyattam (originated in Kerala) and Bharatanatyam (originated in Tamil Nadu) Indian Classical dance. Akhil specialized in Carnatic music but is not able to perform as much as he would like, due to his focus on college and the time constraints that come with it.
The family celebrated all the festivals with gusto, with Diwali being a favorite. Akhil and his sister enjoyed the preparations that went into celebrating Diwali, such as making the colorful sand paintings called Rangoli.
In 2018, for the first time, the Minnesota Children’s Museum of Rochester celebrated Diwali. Akhil’s mother Ganga is quoted as saying “It’s a joy to share our culture and also our celebration with the newer generations here in Rochester”. Ganga is a member of the Rochester Vidhyalaya, a nonprofit organization promoting music, arts, culture and education. Akhil, a 14 year old at the time, performed the song ‘Azhage Azhage’ in Tamil, which is about “noticing the beauty of nature like in the rain or in a peacock”.
Akhil was on the Mayo School Boys Swim and Dive team since 2014, and was swimming since he was 5 years old. In explaining his commitment to the team “I choose to continue with the Mayo Boys Swim and Dive team because it is such a fun sport and the boys are like a second family to me”.
Photo Courtesy: Med City Beat
Given his aptitude for music, Akhil sang the National Anthem at every Swim and Dive Team Home Meet.
Photo Courtesy: Med Beat
He also was a part of school-based singing groups and was with the Honors Choir group for many years.
Akhil was a finalist for the 2017 Next Generation Storytellers contest, presented by Bolder Options Rochester and The Med City Beat. The subject matter of his story, related to his interest in music, was his Honor Choir director. His respect for Mr. Johnson stemmed from many reasons, particularly Mr. Johnson’s advice on ‘the recipe to a happy and good life is to find your talent and use it to help other people’. This advice has stayed with Akhil since 7th grade, and he uses it as a beacon every day.
This year, Akhil was one of 10 South Asians of all ages, who was chosen to represent his age group in recording a video to promote civic engagement: encouraging youth that had just turned of voting age to vote. The video was sponsored through ICAM (Indian Cultural Association of Minnesota: icamn.org) in partnership with United Ways and Minnesota Council of Nonprofits (MCN). The video can be seen below:
Video Courtesy: ICAM and You Tube
A Bright Future
Akhil has been described as “a compassionate youth, interested in art, community services, a competitive swimmer and a musician specializing in Carnatic Music”. He is multilingual, speaking both Malayalam and Tamil reflecting the origin of his parents hailing from Kerala (mother) and Tamil Nadu (father). He was a first time voter, and did his bit to encourage others of his generation to vote. He has embarked on his freshman year at University of Minnesota, Rochester (UMR), determined to get his Health Science degree in 21/2 years and join the workforce as soon as possible. At just 18, the world is his oyster, and he is determined to fulfill his dream of living in Colorado or wherever life takes him.
Family Vacations to India are still highly anticipated and enjoyed. It enables Akhil to connect with his roots and re-establish where he came from.
As he so poignantly puts it, it allows him to “relive life but starting from Day One”
DISCUSSION : Our goal is to start a dialogue through the stories we present here. Please send us your thoughts and comments, either by posting a comment at the bottom of this blog, and/or sending an email to ’email@example.com’. We will collate all the feedback we receive and share back with you. (And let us know if you wish to remain anonymous).
A. What insights have you gleaned from Akhil’s story?
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AshaUSA’s mission is to provide culturally specific programs to the South Asian community to foster health and harmony in their lives. Please visit our website ‘ashausa.org’ for more information on our programs, volunteer opportunities and resources.
Congratulations Akhil! May God bless you to fulfill your dreams.
Thank you for featuring Akhil’s story. We are so proud of him being the versatile and hardworking boy that he is.
Wow, wow wow… Congratulations Akhil. You are one impressive young man!
Hi Ruby, thanks for sharing the story of this accomplished and inspiring young man. I think it might be helpful to many young people who may have considered the medical field, but are worried about the commitment it requires in both time and finances.
My best to Akhil in attaining his goal.