Graduating senior from India makes mark by connecting others on campus.

The day after he arrived at the University of Iowa from his home more than 8,000 miles away, Akash Bhalerao took a tour of campus. As he and Tom Paulsen, senior associate director in the UI Office of Admissions, drove by the president’s residence, Bhalerao asked whether it would be appropriate to stop and introduce himself to then-President Sally Mason.

“I told him, ‘Maybe you should call her office and set up an appointment,’” Paulsen recalls. 

Akash Bhalerao

Hometown: Pune, India

Area of study: Sustainability

Graduation: May 2018

Plans after graduation: Bhalerao has been accepted into a master’s program in strategic leadership toward sustainability at the Blekinge Institute of Technologyin Karlskrona, Sweden. 


  • Involved in nearly 20 student organizations, from the UISG to Homecoming Council
  • Leads various sustainability efforts on campus, including Clothing Closet at Iowa
  • Worked in research labs with associate professor of chemistry Betsy Stone

Bhalerao, a senior who will graduate in May, says he was only joking about the unannounced introduction. But he was serious about meeting as many people as possible, and eventually scheduled a meeting with Mason. 

“I was very aware that I didn’t know anyone when I got here,” Bhalerao says. “Yes, I could sit in my room and wait for people to talk to me, but I wanted to make the most of my time at Iowa, so I didn’t want to waste that opportunity.”

Bhalerao made good on his pledge since landing on campus four years ago from Pune, India, by establishing connections and getting himself and others involved in causes that have bettered the university. He joined nearly 20 student organizations, from the UI Student Government to Homecoming Council. He led various sustainability efforts on campus—including his most recent initiative called Clothing Closet at Iowa, expected to debut this fall, which will collect business attire students can wear and keep for professional occasions. 

As a two-year resident assistant in the Green Adventures Living Learning Community at Petersen Hall, he urged the student residents he supervised to get involved nearly the moment they stepped on campus. He learned about their interests and connected them with groups that matched those interests. 

“This is like a very core piece of his personality,” says Hira Mustafa, a junior from West Des Moines, Iowa, who says Bhalerao encouraged her to get involved in Homecoming as parade director. “He makes friends and helps people around him. No matter who you are, he wants to help you reach your potential. He helps you push yourself and to spend all your time in college wisely.”

Bhalerao immersed himself in university life. During his first semester, he worked in research labs with associate professor of chemistry Betsy Stone and associate professor of biology Andrew Forbes. He joined campus groups such as the UI Environmental Coalition and the UI Gardener’s Club. His involvement on campus grew, as did the number of students he met and persuaded to join campus activities.

“He’s so connected,” says Paulsen, who first met Bhalerao on an admissions recruiting visit to Bishop’s School Camp in Pune, India. “I’ve worked here for more than 20 years and I’ve met a lot of students. But you walk across campus with him and he knows more people than I do.”

Bhalerao says part of the reason he got so involved was to search for what he wanted to dedicate himself to academically and socially. He had an inkling, though: When he was 12, he founded an organization called EcoFriends Community that helped remediate a blighted space next to a residential area of Pune and transform it into a clean, urban forest where birds and butterflies find refuge.

“My thing was I just cared about people and the planet. I really found myself connecting with nature,” Bhalerao says.

His interest in the environment and sustainability led to him crafting his own major, social entrepreneurship and environmental restoration.

“The purpose of my life is to help people and the planet. That’s how I would do it, through connections,” Bhalerao says. “Whether it’s through a company or a nonprofit, it’s encouraging collaboration. No matter what I’m doing, I want to make sure I help make a difference, a positive difference.”

Dozens of UI students attest to the difference Bhalerao has made in their lives. 

“It’s so intuitive for him to create connections. He thinks about campus partners before I even know they exist. That’s his greatest strength, connecting residents with campus partners.”

Katherine Mersch
Staff and resident assistant supervisor at Petersen Hall

One of them, Lauren Jackson, says she was reluctant to get involved in campus activities her first year. But Bhalerao, her resident adviser at Petersen Hall, persuaded Jackson to join Dance Marathon as a dancer, then convinced her to apply for a leadership position as a morale captain assistant. In that role, she was charged with recruiting dancers and reaching fundraising goals for the annual event that raises millions of dollars for the UI Stead Family Children’s Hospital.

“If I hadn’t signed up for Dance Marathon, I would not have met the friends I have today or have found my passion for working in sales someday,” says Jackson, a sophomore marketing major from Peoria, Illinois.

“It’s so intuitive for him to create connections,” says Katherine Mersch, who supervises resident assistants and staff at Petersen Hall. “He thinks about campus partners before I even know they exist. That’s his greatest strength, connecting residents with campus partners.”

Bhalerao says the mentorship aspect of being a resident assistant has been his most meaningful experience at the UI.

“It’s so much more purposeful when a resident of mine gets a position that he or she applied for or gets involved in something and wants me to help,” he says. “It’s so overwhelmingly gratifying when you encourage someone to apply for something or do something, and they really find their passion in it.”

Now it’s time to consider the next step. Bhalerao has been accepted into a master’s program in strategic leadership toward sustainability at the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Karlskrona, Sweden. 

But he’ll always have a special place in his heart for the UI.

“I love the time that I’ve had at the University of Iowa,” Bhalerao says. “In fact, I joke with my parents that if they kick me out of the house, I’ll settle in Iowa City.”

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