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Atul Nakhasi standing on the steps of Old Capitol.
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ATUL NAKHASI The pre-med major’s work to rally the student vote catches the eye of national political campaigns.

Atul Nakhasi had big plans for his college years, but he didn’t expect to be dubbed “Iowa’s campus kingmaker” by the Wall Street Journal and the “most sought-after young man in Iowa” by ABC News, or to receive handwritten notes from former President Bill Clinton.

Presidential candidates have been targeting college campuses across Iowa, which is known for its first-in-the-nation caucuses that determine the state’s preferred presidential candidates. The candidates and their representatives are especially keen on winning endorsements from student leaders like Nakhasi.

Atul Nakhasi revving up the crowd at a campaign rally.
Atul Nakhasi speaking at a rally outside the Iowa Memorial Union.  

The 20-year-old pre-med student jumped into campus politics soon after arriving at the University, running for University of Iowa Student Government (UISG) president as a first-year student. He also got involved with University Democrats. Now president of the organization, he’s wooed by national campaign managers looking to capitalize on his proven ability to galvanize students.

“What motivates me is that through politics there is an opportunity to effect change, positive change,” he says.

Nakhasi believes the youth vote can have an impact, and that after a student votes once, there’s a 75 percent chance he or she will vote again. That’s why he rallies peers to the voting booths, whether they’re helping to choose the fate of a local ordinance or of a presidential candidate.

John Edwards and Atul Nakhasi.
  John Edwards and Atul Nakhasi at a campaign rally.
   

Nakhasi recently played a key role in the campaign against a ballot initiative that would have boosted the entry age for Iowa City bars from 19 to 21. He co-founded a student organization that joined College Republicans, University Democrats, UI Libertarians, and UISG in rounding up 2,900 students at satellite voting stations across campus. High student turnout helped defeat the measure on Nov. 6.

“Sometimes, I don’t think I’m a student,” jokes Nakhasi, noting that he spends more time on politics than studying, even though school is his first priority. In spite of this, the junior maintains a 3.96 grade-point average.

Nakhasi first became interested in politics during his junior year of high school. He hoped to run for student body president in his senior year, but never got around to it. So, in his first year at the University, he started Big Awesome Party, running against upperclassmen.

That run and a second UISG presidential bid both ended in losses, but undeterred, Nakhasi is planning another campaign in 2008. “I’m getting ready to continue my fight on behalf of students and give it everything I have in my last opportunity to run for the position,” he says.

In some ways, Nakhasi is following in the footsteps of his parents, who in the 1980s left the conflict-ridden region of Kashmir, India, to pursue opportunities in the United States. Today their son looks to politics for the opportunity to make a difference.

Roommate John Mulrooney describes Nakhasi as driven, diligent and extremely ambitious. “He looks at things and systems and is not governed by the constraints, but by the outcomes,” Mulrooney says.

Nakhasi’s passion for politics hasn’t diminished his goal of becoming a neurologist. He sees both politics and medicine as ways to improve the community around him, and he combines both passions through work with the American College Health Association. Nakhasi is one of two students on the group’s board of directors, influencing ACHA positions on health care policies.

Coming to The University of Iowa, Nakhasi knew he would jump onto the pre-med track, but he didn’t realize he’d play such a pivotal role in rallying students on campus.

“Choosing to come to Iowa was the best decision of my life,” he says.

Story by Po Li Loo; Portrait by Tim Schoon

Dec. 17, 2007