Akshay Swaminathan grew up in Wood Ridge, NJ, and in his first year of high school at the Bergen County Academies, he discovered an online community of polyglots—people who spoke 10, 15, even 20 languages and posted videos about their learning. Inspired by what he saw, he began independently studying Spanish and reached proficiency in six months. Akshay’s success with Spanish motivated him to study several other languages, including French, Mandarin, Italian, Portuguese, and Hindi. Like the polyglots who inspired him, Akshay created his own YouTube channel where he shares his ideas about how to learn languages as quickly and effectively as possible.
At Harvard College, Akshay discovered joy in using his languages to connect with and serve people from different backgrounds. He became involved in Phillip Brooks House Association’s Chinatown ESL program, where he taught English to recent Chinese immigrants. He also traveled to Bolivia as a volunteer with Refresh Bolivia—a global health nonprofit—where he taught workshops on maternal health, sexual health, and sanitation to indigenous communities in Cochabamba. Moved by the complex societal factors that shape wellbeing, Akshay changed his major from Molecular Biology to Statistics and Global Health, and he’s spent the remainder of his time in college learning about creating sustainable social impact at the population level.
Akshay is currently the executive director of Refresh Bolivia, and in the past four years has led some 400 volunteers on 7 service trips to Cochabamba, Bolivia. Under his leadership, Refresh Bolivia has built 15 ecological bathrooms and 2 community water tanks, taught more than 100 workshops on health and hygiene, and raised over $100,000 to serve underprivileged communities in Cochabamba. To better connect with community members, Akshay learned Quechua, and wrote a book to help other foreigners learn it. In collaboration with local government and the nonprofit Fundación Nuqanchik, Refresh Bolivia recently built a primary health center that opened in September 2018.
Akshay has also served as director of PBHA’s Chinatown ESL program, applying his experience with language acquisition to write five ESL textbooks and create audio materials that have been used in the US and China. The student teacher training protocol he developed has been applied to several other ESL programs at Harvard. Getting to know his ESL students, some of whom are over 80 years old, has been one of the highlights of his time in college.
Akshay’s research interests include applying causal inference and machine learning to problems in maternal health, child malnutrition, and mental health. He plans to become a physician who leads global health initiatives in under-resourced areas. In his free time he enjoys playing South Indian Classical music, working out, and watching TV shows about food.