May 20, 2010 — It's probably premature to declare any 21-year-old a polymath. But Rahul Gorawara is at least a budding polymath, having earned degrees from the University of Virginia in engineering, public policy and economics in four years by taking roughly double the typical class load, thereby demonstrating one quality common to polymaths – the ability to learn and accomplish far more than most people in a given amount of time.
A Jefferson and Rodman scholar, Gorawara earned his bachelor of science in engineering degree with highest distinction, with a triple major in electrical engineering, computer engineering and economics, in just three years.
He earned a 3.9 grade-point average while passing an average of 28 credits per semester, for a total of 168 credits (120 credits are required for a bachelor's degree) – the highest per-term average and the second-highest number of total credits amassed by any U.Va. undergraduate degree-earning student since 1985 (the first year of electronic records), University Registrar Carol Stanley said.
With his B.S. behind him, Gorawara then spent a fourth year earning a master's degree from the Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, while completing enough accounting and business classes at the McIntire School of Commerce (24 credits total) to allow him to take the certified public accountant exam in his home state of Illinois.
Altogether, Gorawara earned 211 credits during his four years (not including the 62 he received for Advanced Placement classes and tests taken before college).
He did all this while also serving as resident adviser for the past three years, the non-voting student representative on the Board of Visitors, president of the McIntire Investment Institute, a finance columnist for the Cavalier Daily, and a senior editor for domestic policy at U.Va.'s student-run Virginia Policy Review magazine.
A firm believer in Thomas Jefferson's advice, "a strong body makes the mind strong," he works out daily, teaches drop-in group cycling classes at the Aquatic and Fitness Center, and, in his spare time, runs marathons, kickboxes and salsa dances.
He received the Engineering Class of 1986 scholarship and the ComEd Achievements in Science Scholarship, and was a finalist for the both the prestigious Rhodes and Marshall scholarships.
What inspired Gorawara to take so many classes, on topics ranging from computer graphics to industrial organization and public policy analysis, among others? During his first semester he took 18 credits (15 is average) of notoriously demanding engineering classes and found that he had "lots of free time." For the next five semesters, he took more than 30 credits per semester, maxing out in spring 2009 with 35.5 credits – the equivalent of nine intensive science classes with labs, or 12 typical 3-credit classes. It was the fourth-highest single-semester load on record since 1985, Stanley said.
As he explained in his essay for the Rhodes Scholarship: "I have seized opportunities to learn across disciplines with the goal of developing a broader understanding. ... Each class brings together different groups of people to discuss distinct yet fundamentally interconnected concepts. The ability to look at an issue from the perspective of an engineer, an economist, a policy analyst, and an accountant provides for creative thinking."
Excelling in high school math and science (and serving as president of the Illinois Junior Academy of Science) laid a strong foundation for the quantitative focus of economics and engineering, but engineering still "wasn't easy," he said. However, a longstanding interest in computers (in high school he earned money by building custom computers) carried through to his senior engineering project – building a 16-bit computer processor.
He learned a new type of thinking while earning his master's degree in public policy and doing his capstone policy analyses on "Fighting Chronic Disease with Healthy Eating" and "Investor Protection Regulation and Hedge Fund Fraud."
"Often in accounting or engineering, there is one right answer," he said. "In public policy, it's more about analysis and trying to persuade people, which is a different animal. I'm glad I got the chance to learn that."
Gorawara may pursue a public policy career at some point, he said, but for his immediate future he has accepted a position as an analyst at Rivanna Capital, a Charlottesville hedge fund managing $300 million in assets.
He was recruited after two Rivanna Capital analysts saw his presentation, with fellow fourth-year Manuj Jindal, at the Virginia Value Investing Conference in fall 2009. Jindal and Gorawara won second place at the conference's inaugural U.Va. Value Investment Pitch Competition, with a presentation about fundamental problems at a publicly traded company, Pre-Paid Legal Services Inc. The company eventually caught the attention of the Federal Trade Commission, which started its own investigation.
Gorawara has plenty of experience scrutinizing public companies, including the three years he served as a manager of the McIntire Investment Institute, a student-run equity fund with more than $450,000 in assets.
During his time as a manager (from January 2007 through December 2009), the fund faced the extraordinary financial collapses of the Great Recession and still managed to outperform the annualized return of the Standard and Poor's 500 stock index by 6.8 percentage points.
"During these challenging times, Mr. Gorawara and his fellow officers didn’t panic, as many individuals and professional investment managers did," said McIntire Investment Institute faculty adviser Rich DeMong, the Virginia Bankers Professor of Bank Management. The managers' measured response "reflected their belief in the wisdom of their research and logic, while at the same time they adjusted to the new realities of the markets."
Building on his interest in business and economics, this spring Gorawara and fellow fourth-year James Rogers co-taught a course on the "Anatomy of a Financial Crisis." With encouragement from the class's faculty adviser, economics professor and chair Charles Holt, the course materials have been made available online.
"I really have a passion for that field, and I enjoyed being able to share what I know with other students," Gorawara said.
In his Rhodes Scholarship application essay, Gorawara explained how during every phone conversation with his mother, she asks, "What did you eat today?" Her concern with his spinach and mushroom omelet for breakfast and turkey sandwich for lunch comes from her upbringing; she was born to parents with limited formal education in a rural village in Punjab, India, where "many were forced to skip meals" and "the mothers of the fortunate in the village were proud to know their children were well-fed," he wrote.
"My mother's routine questioning serves as a constant reminder of how blessed I am," he said. That awareness, he continued, "has often provided me with the courage to look beyond mainstream thinking in search of unique viewpoints. It has also led to an appreciation for seemingly basic aspects of everyday life coupled with a sense of drive and compassion."