When Atharva Kharkar, former Business sophomore at the University of Michigan, was told he had leukemia last June, he rolled his eyes and said with a smile on his face: “Honestly, life is so dramatic.”
In East Lansing five years prior, Alex Powell was preparing to begin his undergraduate career at Michigan State University when he found out he was diagnosed with a rare bone cancer. Though they have both since passed away, both these students legacies’ live on and will be honored by students and staff of both universities during Alex’s Great State Race on November 15.
Every year since 2013 on the eve of the Michigan vs. Michigan State football game, Reserve Officer Training Corps students from both colleges gear up to partake in a 64-mile relay race to deliver the ceremonious game ball. From 3 a.m. to 3 p.m., flights will trek through the almost freezing weather, blustering winds and pitch-black sky to honor Alex’s legacy. Though originally set up by Powell’s parents, this year, LSA senior and Army ROTC student Alex Zhang decided to make it more personal and run in honor of Kharkar.
According to Akshata Kharkar, Atharva’s sister, every morning Atharva would wake up at 5 a.m. to finish all his work by 8 a.m, and simply continue on with his day. As an accomplished filmmaker, photographer and drawer, it seemed there was nothing he couldn’t do.
“If he had a goal in mind, he would accomplish it — no matter what,” Akshata Kharkar said. And this tenacity did not go unnoticed.
“So many people from U-M are telling me that they knew him — he was really compassionate, he would as much as he could, try to get to know someone,” Kharkar said. “He had the best memory … he would always remember their name and know exactly where he met them, what they did; he was just really good at talking. He would start up a conversation with anyone, like we went to Florida one year and homeboy just talked to this person sitting next to him for the whole flight. He had no idea who they were, they just started up a conversation and went for it for a couple hours.”
For Zhang, it was that effortless, personable quality that drew him to Atharva in the first place. At a networking event for the Alpha Kappa Psi business fraternity, Zhang and Atharva immediately clicked. They bonded over apertures, or as Zhang says “technical nerd stuff.” But, because he was stationed in El Paso this summer, Zhang didn’t hear about Kharkar’s diagnosis until after his passing. This feels like the right way for him to help, he said, as he couldn’t be there for him before.
“I can’t pretend I was too close with him,” Zhang said. “But I felt like I was touched enough in those limited interactions and I felt like I should do this in his honor.”
However, due to a torn hamstring Zhang is not able to run in Alex’s Great State Race. Instead, he will be marching from East Lansing to Ann Arbor with 35 pounds on his back, a task commonly known as rucking. Though he’s walking, Zhang assures this journey is not easy.
“Giving up comes across my mind a little bit, but then you remember the bigger picture and why you’re there for and that’s motivation enough to just keep going,” Zhang said. “The pain that you feel reminds you that you’re alive — in this case, it’s a privilege to feel pain.”
Business sophomore Sriram Papolu, who considered Atharva one of his closest friends and mentors, wanted to emphasize that “Atharva means more than the running.”
“He had all this — but its unfinished,” Papolu said. “So, in our time here, as long as we get a chance, we owe it to people like him to finish. Like we have to do this because we only have limited time, we have to grow and get better because somebody else didn’t get the chance to.”
This sentiment was echoed by Akshata Kharkar, who hopes the ambition and compassion that Atharva possessed is not only remembered, but used as a guide on how to live a successful and full life.
“I hope that people think about their actions and what they do now,” Kharkar said. “Because my brother lived such a great life, in a way that he did things that made him better and made decisions that made his life better. He put himself on a path that a lot of people can be on and I hope that people understand that and believe it themselves.”
After his diagnosis, Powell received treatment from MSU’s Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities, with collaborative support from U-M’s Services for Students with Disabilities and Michigan Medicine, effectively helping him remain in East Lansing and begin his freshman year. Similarly to Powell, throughout his treatment, Atharva was frequently visited by SSD workers in the hospital. All proceeds from the event will go toward these organizations in order to support higher education for students with disabilities. The proceeds will also allow students dealing with chronic and terminal illnesses to remain enrolled in school and get both the financial and mental support they need.
Jill Rice, coordinator of services for deaf and hard of hearing students at SSD, said though the service has been operating for almost 40 years, many students don’t even know it exists.
“I think this is partly stigma,” Rice said. “People don’t want to say ‘oh, I have a disability.” They think, “I’m at the University of Michigan, I don’t want to be less than my peers.” But we are there to help, even for temporary disabilities … we want to support our students.”
In addition to his walk, Zhang has started a GoFundMe for Atharva, with all proceeds going to the University of Michigan Rogel Cancer Center. In total, Zhang hopes this race — or walk — can bring awareness to these sometimes invisible illnesses.
“It’s a really great way to bring together and support and honor the fallen ones and do what we can do to prevent this from happening in the future,” Zhang said.