A family academic affair

Patel family members

Four members of the Patel family (from left, Vikram Patel, Jennifer Patel, Veena Patel, and Elizabeth Shores) will walk across the stage to participate in commencement ceremonies. Another family member, Kiran Patel, is nearing completion of a master’s degree. Photo by Tom Jorgensen.

This May’s University of Iowa commencement ceremonies will be an especially major milestone for one family.

That’s because four members of the Patel family will walk across the stage to participate in commencement ceremonies, and another family member is nearing completion of a master’s degree.

In some ways, coming to the University to study was a reunion of sorts for a family that had been living hundreds of miles apart for a number of years. Ranging in age from 51 to 22, the family members are obtaining degrees in diverse disciplines from the arts to the sciences.

Let’s make some introductions…

The matriarch: Jennifer Patel, 51. Jennifer will receive a master’s degree in the College of Education’s Rehabilitation and Mental Health Counseling Program from the UI Graduate College.

The elder daughter: Kiran Patel, 25. Kiran is working toward a master’s degree from the UI College of Public Health.

The younger daughter: Veena Patel, 22. Veena will receive a bachelor’s degree in geography in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences (CLAS).

The son: Vikram, 27. Vikram will receive a master’s degree in physics from the UI Graduate College.

The son’s wife: Elizabeth Shores, 26. Elizabeth, who married Vikram in 2009, will receive a bachelor of fine arts degree through CLAS.

The family connections to the University don’t stop with the aforementioned five. Hemant Patel, father of Vikram, Kiran, and Veena, is a UI alumnus with an MBA from the Tippie College of Business. Elizabeth’s parents, Diana Shores and the late William Stanley, also attended UI—Stanley received a bachelor’s degree in physics. And Elizabeth’s half-sister, Ann Stanley, received a law degree from UI.

How did so many members of one family end up as Hawkeyes—sheer serendipity or a deliberate decision?

“It was definitely not planned,” says Jennifer.

Belin-Blank Center creates the spark
Kiran first got hooked on being a Hawkeye in seventh grade, when she attended a summer program offered by the College of Education’s Belin-Blank Center for Talent Development and Gifted Education.

“That’s when she said, ‘I’m definitely going to The University of Iowa,’” Jennifer says.

After Kiran graduated from Kennedy High School in Cedar Rapids in 2004, she started her undergraduate studies in anthropology at UI. Jennifer had been working at Taco Bell as a shift manager and wanted to pursue a new career. The idea formed: Why not come to campus together?

Jennifer already had a Bachelor of Science in chemistry with a minor in biology from Wayne State College in Nebraska, but she was interested in a career in counseling. Upon her enrollment at UI, she pursued a second bachelor’s degree (psychology), and then moved on to the nationally ranked rehabilitation counseling graduate program in the UI College of Education.

Kiran completed her undergraduate degree in two years, and moved into the master’s program in public health. She is finishing her final project and keeping her future options open.

Commencement ceremonies
The University of Iowa will confer degrees to spring semester graduates in a series of commencement exercises Thursday–Sunday, May 12–15. Read more at fyi.uiowa.edu/05/05/

Vikram started his graduate program in 2006; Elizabeth started her program at UI one year later. They met as fifth graders in Cedar Rapids, before the Patel children moved to Texas with their father in 2000 after their parents had divorced. Their relationship started during their time at UI.

Vikram’s field of study is plasma physics; he was drawn to UI because of its high ranking in the field. “It’s been a very challenging and productive program that has some of the most brilliant minds in plasma physics in the world,” Vikram says.

The younger daughter Veena was the last to come to UI, transferring after one year at the University of Texas. She first came to Iowa City in 2008 when her older sister got her a summer job with the Iowa Democratic Party. She stayed to work with the Obama campaign and formally transferred to UI in the summer of 2009. Veena was able to earn her undergraduate degree in geography in two years.

The Patels say there are advantages to having five family members on one campus. They never lack for a study buddy, a business partner, or just a sympathetic and supportive ear.

“Whenever we have some sort of major essay, we all act as editors for each other, or we always bounce ideas off of each other,” Vikram says. “For us, going to school as a family has been very productive and very supportive.”

An abundance of achievement
To say their résumés are impressive is an understatement.

During their collective tenures, they’ve touched about every facet of campus and community life possible, ranging from business and politics to international education, the arts, media, and civic and community involvement.

Elizabeth has worked and studied abroad in both China and India, and helped develop the fund-raising and philanthropy communication undergraduate certificate in the UI School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Veena and Vikram started a successful business together: IC Ecocabs, a bicycle taxi company that creates a sustainable alternative to taking a cab. The duo use pedal power—bicycles grafted to a little two-wheel carriage to take two to three people anywhere they want to go in a 10-block area of downtown. People can pay whatever they can afford.

Veena also was active in starting the UI Undergraduate Geography Association, of which she is the president. An offshoot project of the association was Iowa Community Integrated Geography Organization (ICIGO). The goal of ICIGO is to provide nonprofit organizations or schools groups with maps or other special resources that help them to better fulfill their missions.

Vikram produced two radio shows on KRUI, and Kiran has been active in several political and academic organizations. Jennifer works at the Domestic Violence Intervention Program and has completed several practicums in the community including at Goodwill Services and Access to Independence, an organization that helps those with disabilities. Elizabeth has worked in several different capacities at UI, most recently as a gallery assistant for the UI Museum of Art.

Veena was one of 60 students nationwide to receive a prestigious and highly competitive Truman Scholarship.

Transforming times
Each family member can point to a transforming experience or epiphany while at UI. For Elizabeth, who started out in linguistics, it was when she realized that art could be more than an isolated aesthetic experience.

“I had always made art, but had become convinced that it was not socially relevant, that you locked yourself in a studio and made something that would just be sold with little to no impact on what needed to be addressed in the world,” Elizabeth says. “After taking classes in the intermedia program, I realized the full potential that contemporary artists have for blending theory and media to actively engage with social problems on a local and global scale.”

Vikram and Veena found that moment in creating IC Ecocabs. “The important part for us is to provide something that helps display a sustainable life and how it can be fun and viable and also be part of the community,” Vikram says.

“This is something that I never would have been able to do without my brother and without being in Iowa City,” Veena adds. “It was that perfect supportive environment and having that network of support. We each do a lot more than we would be able to do otherwise.”

No matter how busy they were, however, the family made time for dinner together every other week.

Kiran says the best parts of those meals—in addition to their shared love of good food—were the discussions and debates.

“My two favorite examples of debates from family dinners are landlords using undergraduate status in tenant selections and the potential impact of age restrictions in the NBA,” Kiran recalls. “We share a common set of family values, but we each have a different perspective on the world and different interests. When we debate things as a family, it allows us all to see the world in new ways.”

Diverging destinations
After a celebratory bash of some sort, the family members will each go his or her own way. Veena will move to San Jose, Calif., where she’ll teach students in kindergarten or first grade through Teach for America.

“This ties into my interests in community development because teachers have an amazing insight into what’s happening in the lives of their students in the community,” Veena says, adding her passions are community development and food systems issues.

Jennifer says she loves Iowa City and hopes to stay here, using her education as a counselor working with survivors of domestic abuse who have substance and mental health issues. She also says she loves Iowa politics and relishes the opportunities to meet politicians face-to-face.

Kiran will finish her degree and looks forward to exploring career options.

Vikram and Elizabeth plan to move east, possibly to New York City, where Vikram would like to pursue a career in radio, and Elizabeth plans to continue working with other artists.

Still, Elizabeth has regrets about leaving Iowa City with its world-famous Iowa Writers’ Workshop, the highly regarded visual arts programs, its vibrant music scene, and having the opportunity to hear world-famous writers at Prairie Lights. “It’s amazing that such a small city is home to such a great diversity of talent and intellect from around the world, and because you live in such close proximity to one another you end up meeting and sharing ideas with one another more readily than you might in a larger city.”

Vikram says Iowa City is a great place to grow. “It’s a very supportive place, and there are a lot of things that you can do in Iowa City that you can’t necessarily do in another area.”

Mom’s favorite memory of this shared time in Iowa City?

“I loved walking down the street and running into my children,” Jennifer says.

Always a Hawkeye
Though this family works in vastly different fields and some of them will be moving to different parts of the country, there will always be things they share—the desire to make a difference and to follow their bliss.

It’s a philosophy that they shared as a family, and The University of Iowa was the perfect environment to allow them to live this philosophy to the fullest.

“I’m very proud of my family,” Vikram says, “and what I’m most looking forward to on my graduation is seeing my other family members graduate.”

And they all agree that they’ll forever consider themselves part of a larger family—that of the Hawkeyes.