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Innovative engineering and business graduate Ankur Luthra named University Medalist

– Last December, after Ankur Luthra was awarded a coveted Rhodes Scholarship and then graduated from the University of California, Berkeley, with two bachelor's degrees, he could have taken a well-earned break.

Instead, the 21-year-old began conducting workshops to encourage other top students to compete for prestigious scholarships and jobs, while continuing his mission to provide hundreds of underprivileged and at-risk youth with computers, software and training.

Many who know Luthra were not surprised, then, to learn that he will end his tenure at UC Berkeley as University Medalist, receiving the honor on May 15 at the campus's Commencement Convocation.

The University Medal is awarded each year to an exemplary graduating senior with a minimum grade point average (GPA) of 3.96. It has been considered the top honor for a graduating senior since it was established in 1871.

Ankur Luthra
Ankur Luthra. (Bart Nagel photo)

Not only did Luthra maintain a 4.0 GPA, including 16 A+ marks, he did so in an abbreviated three and a half years in two challenging majors: electrical engineering and computer sciences (EECS) and business administration.

Luthra's scholarship workshops are an example of his efforts to encourage other students to become more active. In 2001, he co-founded the Berkeley EECS Research Journal to help students connect with professors and become more involved in undergraduate research.

"He was chosen from a pool of absurdly talented candidates," said William Nazaroff, professor of environmental engineering and chair of the Committee on Prizes. "On top of his impressive academic achievements, he demonstrated a visionary entrepreneurial bent."

Combining his interests in computer science and business, Luthra founded Computer Literacy 4 Kids (CL4K), a Berkeley-based non-profit, after noticing a troubling digital divide among low-income students.

"Because of CL4K, villages in Rajasthani, India, now have access to the latest computer technology," said Ravi Bhandari, a visiting assistant professor of economics who has known Luthra for years. "It is refreshing to see a business student be able to think critically and carefully about difficult world issues such as global poverty and economic development."

University Medal coverage

Believing in yourself may offer hidden powers, says Sara Davis-Eisenman - she's living proof

Anosheh Afghahi says her real education took place outside the classroom

Full graduation coverage:
The Commencement 2003 site includes schedules, speakers, FAQs and a look back to Commencement 1903.

Luthra, who remains president of the 17-member non-profit organization, said he is battling an ongoing disparity in education resources. "I see people who are perfectly motivated, who are incredibly sharp, but who don't have adequate resources," he said. "I think education is the safest and surest route out of poverty. To me, it's depressing to find people who have the drive, diligence and intelligence to take that route, but who don't have the books and equipment. It's wasted potential, and that is a big deal."

Luthra insists that he was rather shy in high school and "not that energetic," qualities that seem far removed from the driven entrepreneur he is today. An only child, Luthra lived in San Jose until he was 12, when his family moved to Saratoga. He credits the diversity of the UC Berkeley campus for nudging him out of his shell.

"The more diverse your peers are, the more you're going to learn from them, and the more you're going to grow as a person," he said. "Here, there's a cutting-edge culture. People are challenging the status quo rather than perfecting the knowledge of it. It's such an alive, active campus."

The importance Luthra places on diversity also comes from his religious background. "I'm Hindu, and Hinduism is a very open-minded religion in which respect for others and other religions is important," said Luthra. "It has influenced me to respect and understand differences between people, to learn from our unique values and character."

Luthra said such values were instilled in him through his parents, Ravi and Tripta Luthra, who immigrated to the United States from Punjab, India. "They would regularly do volunteer and charity work, like cook food for seniors and the homeless as part of going to temple," he said. "Their selflessness has been a big inspiration for me."

Among the numerous scholarships and awards Luthra has garnered over the past few years are the Regents, Barry M. Goldwater and Bechtel scholarships. He is also a member of several honor societies, including Phi Beta Kappa and Mensa.

He plans to pursue a master's degree in computer science when he attends Oxford University this fall as a Rhodes Scholar. After Oxford, he will study for his JD and MBA in a four-year joint program at Harvard Business School and Harvard Law School, where he has already been accepted.

In the future, Luthra plans to pursue projects in assistive robotics, such as improving prosthetics for the disabled. "I have much to be thankful for in my life," he said, "so it's important for me to give back to society."