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Parents say student found dead on University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus was an “energetic, happy-go-lucky kid”

Akul Dhawan (right) with his sister, father and mother. Dhawan, 18, was found dead on the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign campus on Saturday, Jan. 20.

URBANA — University of Illinois student Akul Dhawan didn’t make it home from a back-to-school party during the subzero weather on Saturday, January 20.  

A friend called campus police Dhawan, about an hour after midnight that night. It wasn’t until 10 hours later that someone — not the police — found the 18-year-old dead on a nearby porch. 

His parents, Ish and Ritu Dhawan from California, have filed a complaint against the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign police department for negligence. 

Illinois Public Media education reporter Emily Hays spoke with Akul Dhawan’s parents. 

Akul Dhawan as a child.

[Hays]: Would you tell us more about your son? What was he like as a little one? What were his aspirations?

[Ish Dhawan]: He was a very bubbly, energetic, happy-go-lucky kid who was always interested in building things. From a very young age, he was passionate about building Legos. As he grew up in middle school and high school, he was more into robotics. One of the reasons he chose UIUC is because he wanted to do his undergraduate at the College of Engineering.

He was always always interested in high-tech gadgets. And he was very passionate about doing something that would make lives better for people.

[Hays]: What were some ideas he had? 

[Ish Dhawan]: One of his projects during the COVID was to to write a program where people impacted by COVID could seek help, and he would find volunteers who could help people who had no means or who did not have relatives, so that the volunteers could could help people who were impacted by COVID. That was his high school project.

[Hays]: When was the last time you spoke with your son?

[Ish Dhawan]: This is one of the regrets my wife had that she did not talk to him on Friday.

[Ritu Dhawan]: I never called him. I’m never gonna see my son again. I can’t believe that I didn’t talk to him on Friday. 

[Ish Dhawan]: We did not speak with him on Friday. I think I spoke with him on Thursday. I texted him I think that day or a day before saying, “Do not go outside, don’t wander outside. It is very cold.” And look what happened.

[Hays]: When did you first realize something was wrong?

[Ish Dhawan]: A friend of his called our daughter in the morning and said, “The police are looking for him. We don’t know where Akul is.” 

I got so scared. I immediately went online and found the UIUC police number. It was Saturday morning in California, around I believe 10 o’clock Pacific Time. 

I called the police. And the police transferred me after a few minutes of waiting to the coroner’s office, and they told me Akul is deceased. Imagine that. 

We never heard anything from the university. I called the police. I found out. Nobody told us anything that was going on. Nobody told us what happened.

[Hays]:Do you have any sense of what he was up to that evening?

[Ish Dhawan]: He went to a back-to-school night party. He got separated from his friends about 1:23 am. His friends called the police and they said they can’t find their friend and his friend gave the location to the police, which was just outside the Canopy Club. The friend waited for half an hour. The police never came. 

Around 3 am, the police called the same friend and asked him, “Have you seen your friend? Did you find your friend?” 

Then they said, “Do you know what he was wearing?” So the police never looked for him. They never searched for him. 

He was found just 400 feet from where he was reported missing. 

[Hays]: The university said that the police checked the area, that they checked the path to his residence hall, and checked whether his ID was swiped anywhere.

[Ish Dhawan]: I need answers from the police. Where did you go to find him? When did you go?

[Ritu Dhawan]: What kind of search did they perform in that area? He was right there.

University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign spokesperson Robin Kaler declined a radio interview. 

Champaign County Coroner Stephen Thuney found hypothermic changes on Dhawan’s skin but said he doesn’t know his cause of death yet. He said it seems to be an accident.

Emily Hays is a reporter for Illinois Public Media.

Picture of Emily Hays

Emily Hays

Emily Hays started at WILL in October 2021 after three-plus years in local newsrooms in Virginia and Connecticut. She has won state awards for her housing coverage at Charlottesville Tomorrow and her education reporting at the New Haven Independent. Emily graduated from Yale University where she majored in History and South Asian Studies.

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