The son of a diplomat, Vignesh Rajagopal (EE 3rd year) learned from his father’s example the importance of having a service-oriented attitude in life. Born in Chennai, India, Rajagopal divided his childhood years between Switzerland and his birth continent, and his adolescent years between Sweden and Ethiopia. His experiences as a teen living in Mexico, however, may have been the most profoundly influential pathway to Illinois Tech and on to the 2016 United States Collegiate Athletic Association National Student-Athlete of the Year honor.
“When I was in Sweden I was that quiet kid who’d sit in class and all anyone knew about me was that I was good in math,” he recalls about his middle-school education in Stockholm. “I did not like doing community service at all because that meant really getting out of my comfort zone.”
When his father was transferred to Mexico City, Rajagopal entered Greengates School, which required its high school students to be active in volunteer activities. Rajagopal says that he was pleasantly surprised by how much he enjoyed doing what his parents told him from an early age—that giving back to people should be a fundamental part of daily living.
“I would get involved with as many community-service opportunities as I could, just to try to help people and make myself a part of their community,” he says. “I liked coaching Special Olympics swimming for kids under 10 with varied disabilities and visiting local libraries to teach English to people of all ages, especially older adults.”
During his school lunch hour, Rajagopal discovered basketball. He loved the physical exertion of the sport and the chance it gave him to develop team-building skills. Joe Aldus, former coach of the Greengates boys’ high school varsity basketball team, says that players looked up to the young Rajagopal.
“Vignesh was a model sportsman, demonstrating a quiet but powerful leadership amongst his teammates,” says Aldus. “He didn't look for glory, scoring, or highlight plays, instead displaying a determination and willingness to do all the little things for a team that wouldn't show up on a stats sheet but are essential for the win.”
The chance to play varsity basketball and further explore his mathematical and engineering interests in Chicago drew Rajagopal to Illinois Tech. In keeping with his spirit of giving, he has volunteered at the Museum of Science and Industry and mentored kids at the Mt. Carmel Missionary Baptist Church, and donated to charity his first check from his job tutoring students at Illinois Tech’s Academic Resource Center. And as a Scarlet Hawks basketball co-captain, Rajagopal continues to inspire on the court.
“He is one of the most enthusiastic and supportive teammates I have ever seen,” says Illinois Tech Athletic Director Joe Hakes, “and eternally cheerful and optimistic.”