Future changer

Honored BC student aims for a life in public service

By Kathy McCabe
Globe Staff / May 15, 2011

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NASHUA — Aditya Ashok entered Boston College two years ago as a presidential scholar, one of the school’s top honors and which offers a full academic scholarship plus special cultural and service learning opportunities.

Ashok, 21, now has received a new presidential nod. He has been selected for a 2011 Harry S. Truman Scholarship, an honor afforded to only 60 US college juniors this year who plan a career in public service. The scholarship, which provides $30,000 for graduate school, is the nation’s official memorial to the 33d president.

“It was President Truman’s desire not to have a bricks-and-mortar memorial,’’ said Tara Yglesias, deputy executive secretary of the Harry S. Truman Scholarship Foundation in Washington, D.C. “He wanted something that would encourage bright, talented kids to go into public service.’’

Starting Tuesday, Ashok will attend Truman Scholars Leadership Week in Missouri, the late president’s home state. He will receive the scholarship on May 22 during a ceremony at the Harry S. Truman Library & Museum in Independence, Mo. He is the only New Hampshire resident chosen this year as a Truman scholar.

A history and biology major at BC, Ashok aspires to a career in public health, with a particular interest in working to prevent the spread of HIV/AIDS. He has been accepted to Tufts University Medical School and may also pursue a master’s degree in public policy or business administration.

The son of immigrants from India, Ashok already has set an ambitious goal for his future.

“I want to change American health care from a reactionary system to one where people are more actively involved,’’ Ashok said on a visit home to Nashua. “Right now, it’s very reactionary. . . . There is a general tendency to ignore health until you can’t ignore [an ailment] anymore. That has to change.’’

In addition to receiving scholarship money, Truman scholars are eligible to take part in federal government internships after their senior year of college. They are also given preference for admission to some graduate schools and federal government jobs, according to the foundation.

The foundation this year received 602 nominations and awarded 60 scholarships to students across the United States. The class also includes Brooks Payette, 29, of Maine, a student at the University of New Hampshire, who also serves in the New Hampshire Air Force National Guard.

Scholars are chosen on a number of criteria, including the ability to be a “change agent’’ for the public good. Academic achievement, leadership potential, and community service are also factors.

“Typically, Truman scholars are students who are actively engaged in a particular issue that brings out passion in them,’’ Yglesias said.

Some say Ashok embodies Truman’s public spirit.

“He truly believes in service,’’ said the Rev. James Keenan, a theology professor at BC, who oversees its presidential scholars program. “Adi doesn’t feel entitled, he feels indebted. . . . He genuinely cares about people with HIV. He wants to make their lives better.’’

JoAnne Principe, a guidance counselor at Bishop Guertin High School in Nashua, recalled Ashok as a mature teenager.

“He was a very passionate and compassionate young man,’’ said Principe, who was his guidance counselor for four years. “He had a wide world view, which is something you don’t often see in a kid that age. He was a tremendous go-getter.’’

At Bishop Guertin, Ashok took his first steps toward HIV/AIDS activism. He worked one summer at a camp in New York for children whose families had been touched by HIV. “Until then, I wasn’t aware how someone’s life could be torn asunder by HIV,’’ said Ashok, whose sister, Soumya, now 23, also worked there.

He soon started to volunteer with the TeenAIDS Peer Corps, which educates youth around the world about HIV prevention.

Before his senior year, Ashok traveled to Ghana to witness the effects of AIDS in Africa. Ashok was an honors student, but he also endured personal loss. His parents divorced, and his maternal grandparents in India were both killed during a home invasion.

“It was a tough time for him,’’ Principe said. “But I think that played a big role in his ability to be compassionate and empathetic to others.’’

At BC, Ashok has continued to use his mind, and follow his heart. He is the science editor of Elements, a student research journal, and a member of the Student Humanities Council. He volunteers at Rosie’s Place, a nonprofit that assists homeless women in Boston, and was an intern at the Harvard Stem Cell Institute. He is also copresident of the AIDS Action Committee at BC, helping to spread its message on and off campus.

“I’m very passionate about AIDS,’’ he said. “I really believe we need more training and education about its prevention, especially among young people.’’

That passion was the basis for a policy paper he had to write to apply for a Truman scholarship. He proposed modifying New York City’s needle exchange program. Instead of locating clinics in poor neighborhoods, he advocated for a mobile clinic, operating after hours, in the city’s financial district.

“My research found that people are less likely to visit a needle exchange clinic if it is in their own neighborhood,’’ Ashok said. “There is a stigma attached to it. . . . There is also a stigma attached to a neighborhood. . . . A mobile clinic in the financial district would help remove that stigma.’’

His mother, Sumathi Madhure, said her son has long had a desire to help others.

“When we would visit India, he would see children begging,’’ said Madhure. “He would want to give money to every single one of them. . . . He even wanted to feed the dogs we saw. He would say ‘Who else will feed the dogs?’ ’’

Ashok said his family taught him to be a good citizen.

As a preteen, he was more interested in his Pokemon cards than in school grades. But he also saw his mother earn a graduate degree in physical therapy from UMass Lowell. “I remember her staying up very, very late, the light on in her bedroom, while she studied,’’ he recalled. “That left a very big impression on me.’’

And there was his maternal grandfather in India, who grew up an orphan and came to the United States to study engineering. He was inspired by President John F. Kennedy’s appeal to young people to enter public service. He returned home to India to work as a civil engineer for the government. His memory remains a guiding light for his grandson.

“He was a brilliant guy,’’ Ashok said admiringly. “He was very idealistic. . . . He came from a very hard background. He was raised pretty much by his sisters. But he got an education. He made a difference.’’

Kathy McCabe can be reached at