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17-year-old college graduate from Northbrook celebrates achievement at home via video
At 17, Niam Abeysiriwardena of Northbrook became Lake Forest College’s youngest graduate.
Abeysiriwardena is also among Class of 2020 graduates who are the first in the Lake Forest school’s history to complete degrees via remote learning in an era of social distancing.
With the 2020 commencement ceremony postponed until fall because of COVID-19, Lake Forest College recognized graduates via a virtual Senior Celebration on May 9.
For the event, Abeysiriwardena wore his cap and gown, all dressed up with home as the only place to go during COVID-19 shelter-in-place orders.
“It’s just cool to graduate,” Abeysiriwardena said.
But Coronavirus has made it, “not so great at this time, but good to be home with family.”
On Saturday morning, Niam’s family sat around a dining room table where open laptops revealed relatives from around the world, including Sri Lanka, California, Texas and Canada.
Later, chocolate cake would be served.
“I believe in cakes for everything, that’s for sure,” his mother, Angela Anandappa said with a laugh.
Niam was 13 in 2016 when he began his freshman year at Lake Forest College.
“He had enough credits in high school,” said one of his college advisors, Shubhik K. DebBurman of Lake Bluff, biology department chair. “He arrived with a very strong record. He could have graduated in three years or less, but he chose four years,” DebBurman said.
At 15, Niam and a student colleague had a paper published in the Yale Journal of Biology and Medicine.
In May 2019, at 16, Niam became one of the college’s two Goldwater Scholarship recipients, holding the record as the school’s youngest Goldwater scholar.
“It was a rare opportunity and an absolute pleasure to teach and mentor Niam,” DebBurman said.
“To his full credit, he made it easy because he was so motivated and eager to maximize his college years.
“I’m looking forward to greatness from him.”
Niam ranked within the top 10 percent of collegians in North America in the 2018 William Lowell Putnam Mathematical Competition.
He was also a Richter Scholar during his first summer at the college working on Parkinson’s research. He pursued biomedical engineering research at Northwestern University in Chicago and continues this work.
“Niam’s signature strengths are his ability to think quickly and deeply, and synthesize information to find solutions to complex problems in the classroom and in research labs,” DebBurman said.
“He is intellectually fearless. I am so impressed with his parents,” DebBurman said of Nish Abeysiriwardena, an electrical engineer and Anandappa, a microbiologist in food safety. “They really raised them (their children) to be independent. As a parent myself, a lot of credit to them,” DebBurman said.
Niam’s sister, Nishela Abeysiriwardena, 11, is a home-schooled seventh-grader with a penchant for 3-D art and dance. His brother Anish Abeysiriwardena, 14, also attends Lake Forest College and was a freshman this year. Both brothers are graduates of Glenbrook South High School in Glenview. Niam was 13 and Anish was 14.
Anandappa calls it “an amazing school.”
That cool sunny morning, the family stepped outside to their wooded backyard for a keepsake graduation photo.
Nish Abeysiriwardena shared his pride in his children. “They surprise me every day,” he said.
“They’re very conscientious, they’re very good children,” Anandappa added. “I want them to be good human beings, right? It’s how you behave with other people that really says something.”
In addition to the cake, there would be a gift of homemade bread too, using yeast grown by Anish who started growing yeast last August as a science project. Yeast is now in short supply because of COVID-19.
“I want to make him some very nice bread in celebration of his accomplishments,” Anish said to his older brother. “I’m very proud of what he’s done and I hope I can use my yeast well to congratulate him.”
A neuroscience and computer science double major, the 17-year-old said he plans to pursue graduate studies that incorporate studies of math, biology and chemistry.
“There are times when it is really important to tell the truth and to make your voice heard. Sometimes, you can wield the truth strategically to the betterment of everyone,” he said. “At other times, you need to change perspective to make the most out of your voice, but there is never a time when truth can’t be kind.”
Amid COVID-19, he believes that’s especially important. He said he is trying to learn about epidemiology because it’s critically important now, but also because it includes sociology, psychology, immunology, physics and math.
“Be kind in these times,” he added. “It will be really important to not forget that by the time we come out of this.”