The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

The independent student newspaper at the University of Illinois since 1871

The Daily Illini

IGSA holds candlelight vigil in memory of Akul Dhawan

James Hoeck
During a vigil on Friday, the campus community and loved ones of Akul Dhawan lay flowers and candles at the 1200 block of West Nevada Street where Dhawan’s remains were located.

The Indian Graduate Students Association organized a candlelight vigil on Friday to honor the life of 18-year-old Akul Dhawan, freshman in Engineering. The University community has been mourning his loss ever since he was found dead with signs of hypothermia on the morning of Jan. 20

The vigil began at Alma Mater, where a crowd of some 100 students and parents had gathered. After an initial speech, IGSA passed out flowers and candles to the attendees. 

From there, the procession walked down Green and Goodwin streets in silence before finally reaching the back porch of a building in the 1200 block of West Nevada Street, where his body was found.

“I’m here to pay respects to my friend that passed away,” said Jai Gupta, freshman in Engineering. “I hope the event brings closure to the people who were affected by his death, and I hope his parents can get something out of it as well.” 

Gupta and several more of Dhawan’s friends spoke at the site of the vigil after IGSA, sharing stories about their lost friend. They reminisced about his personality traits and quirks, what drew them to him initially and the time spent with him that they would cherish forever. 

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    Many of them expressed just how easy he was to connect with and talk to, the new perspectives he frequently brought to them and how unique he was.

    “Akul was part of the Indian community, and we are the Indian Graduate Student Association, so we would like to form a deeper connection there,” shared Derek Pinto, secretary for the IGSA. 

    While Pinto discussed the more lighthearted cultural impact that IGSA has on campus, he also stressed the importance of honoring Dhawan’s memory. 

    “We do a lot of fun events and celebrations like Diwali, but this is also an event where we need to play a role,” Pinto said. “We’ve lost a member of our community, so we are here to honor and cherish his memory so that a part of him continues to live on campus.

    “I think, first and foremost, this event highlights the life that Akul lived here on campus,” Pinto continued. “He came here with a lot of ambitions, he wanted to be an engineer. We have a message from his dad which also brings out his spirit, and this is a way to communicate with people what he could have been, or what he was; what his dream on campus was.”

    The vigil concluded with two minutes of silence and a triple chant of “Om Shanti Shanti Shanti” before those attending came forward to place flowers and candles under a picture of Dhawan with burning incense. Many students lingered for long after the ceremony, forming a half circle while they reflected on his life.

    “We didn’t know him, we’re just paying our respects,” said Rakshita Kunde, freshman in Business. “With the vigil, the community is working together to be able to share with other people what happened, to spread awareness of that and the dangers that come with being on campus.”

    “It reminds us of the value of our loved ones and the people that surround us, so we can cherish those memories,” added Akanksha Kashyap, freshman in Business. 

    The impact of Dhawan’s death stretches far beyond the University campus. The vigil attracted numerous parents who represented a broader community concerned about the welfare of Indian students in America. 

    “He was my daughter’s friend,” said Jishnu Nair, father of a University student. “So when this happened, she was pretty upset. Parents all over India have raised concerns with regards to multiple incidents that have happened in the last few weeks. Most are upset, and they’re pretty helpless. They’re taking it up with the government of India and the congresspeople to see what can be done. There are many state governments that are getting involved with the universities as well, not only this one but the other places this has happened.”

    “This is the fifth incident that has happened in the last four weeks,” Nair said. “There were two incidents at Purdue, and a couple more. Many of the incidents were something weather-related, is what the police are saying. So, this issue has been taken up by the media in India and was raised in the parliament, and there’s a lot of attention on it. A lot of parents are watching from India, and I and a few others are here representing that bigger group and their concerns.”

    Despite the broader context of the issue, Nair shifted focus to the community’s reaction to Dhawan’s death, expressing appreciation for the outpouring of support from the student body.

    “This is a very good thing that all the kids have come here to show respect, even though he was just a first-year student,” Nair said. “So within a short span of time, I believe he had a great impression here.” 

    Ish Dhawan, Akul’s father, also echoed Nair’s concerns about safety in the University community. 

    In late January, he and his wife decided to file a complaint against UIPD, claiming negligence in the search for their missing son. Dhawan had been missing for 10 hours when he was found by a school employee just 400 feet away from his last reported location.

    “The reason he went to UIUC is because he really liked the school,” Dhawan said. “He was enjoying it, he had a really good time in his first semester, he was really looking forward to his second semester until this tragic incident happened. There’s no doubt about it: He held the University’s engineering department in very high esteem. He had offers from UCs, but he insisted on going to UIUC.” 

    Reflecting on the distressing circumstances that led to the loss, Dhawan shared his grief and pointed out the preventability of this situation, stressing the need for vigilance in the community.

    “What happened over there is a tragedy, and I think that could and should have been avoided,” Dhawan said. “And a young, bubbly kid, who was so naive and gullible. He was only 18, he just turned 18 and lost his life, which is so tragic. Every student should be concerned about their safety. It’s not that kids don’t indulge in reckless behavior; they do. But it should not come at the expense of their life. The professionals should have easily prevented this tragedy, but the tragedy is that it happened.”

    Dhawan and his wife hope to use this platform to ensure that no other family has to go through what they did.

    “Our intent is that we do not want a similar incident to happen ever again,” Dhawan said. “We have lost our son. He is not coming back. Can we use this platform to make sure nothing like this event ever, ever happens again?”


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    About the Contributor
    James Hoeck, Photo Editor
    Heyo! I am James Hoeck, a third-year undergraduate student in photography with a minor in media. I have been a part of Illini Media for two years, starting back in fall 2021. I hold the position of Photo Editor here at The Daily Illini. I also work as Photo Editor for Illini Media’s Illio Yearbook. There is a good chance you will see me out and about on campus taking photos for my personal work or for The DI and/or Illio! If you want to check out more of my work, visit my socials linked below.
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