Friends and family mark would-be graduation day of Conn College student killed in 2015
New London — Anique Ashraf would have loved Sunday at Connecticut College.
Ashraf wasn’t one for ceremony or pontificating administrators, his friends said on the day he would have graduated from the school.
But seeing the people he loved, celebrating their accomplishments and cheering them on — that would have been just his thing.
Ashraf, a member of the college’s class of 2017, was hit by a car and killed outside the school’s entrance in December 2015, during his third year there. A passerby saw his body and called police at about 2 a.m., and a month later police arrested James Sposito, who pleaded guilty in April to misconduct with a motor vehicle.
The crash cut short the life of a budding activist and artist, a gay Muslim who came to Connecticut College from his native Pakistan already full of conviction and able to shape-shift between the various versions of himself, those who knew him said.
In the program for Sunday’s ceremony, Ashraf’s name was listed with a small footnote: “Awarded Posthumously.”
His name made its way into the speeches of everyone from the senior class speaker — “Anique, we love you, and we miss you, and wish you could be here amongst us” — to the college’s president, Katherine Bergeron, of whom Ashraf was a vocal critic.
A pot of pink flowers decorated the stage in his honor.
He would have liked the speech novelist Colson Whitehead delivered Sunday, his friends said, a speech that acknowledged how fluid identity can be and how quickly things can change.
"By now you know the self is an ever-changing creature, a nebula of spinning gases, swirling and reforming, seeking a coherent shape,” Whitehead told Ashraf’s classmates.
"A renaissance man," said Sheetal Chhabria, an assistant professor of history and Ashraf’s adviser. “He was an artist, he was a thinker, he was a writer. He was a poet, he was a sketcher. He could sew — he taught me how to sew, actually.”
"He was everywhere,” Chhabria said. “None of those things were by themselves enough to describe him. Somehow, there were more than 24 hours a day in his life. He was just doing everything."
Gay, and an international student, Ashraf never quite fit into one category but did what he could to to blur the lines between them.
"Whenever he was present in either of those circles, he would disrupt both of them," said Aparna Gopalan, who lived with Ashraf the year before he died.
Many on campus recognized Ashraf as an activist, whether they liked him for it or not.
He lead the charge to confront Bergeron after racist graffiti was found in campus bathrooms and was critical of her handling of a high-profile controversy that began with a tenured philosophy professor’s Facebook post that described Palestinians in Gaza to “a rabid pit bull chained in a cage.”
"I think everyone can learn from Anique's courage," said Lamiya Khandaker, a friend from Brooklyn, N.Y. who graduated Sunday. "I don't think any form of authority could really stop Anique from saying what he needed to say."
But he wasn’t a troublemaker for trouble's sake, Chhabria said.
"Many students are frustrated by lots of things, but he was capable of putting words to it, again and again," she said. "You could tell by the end he was exhausted, but yet he never thought 'I'm just going to go off and hide behind a tree.'"
He was generous, too. Gopalan said Ashraf came to welcome her in the parking lot on her first day at Connecticut College, before they had even met. Anyone could ask him to bum a cigarette.
"Still, always, it feels completely shocking whenever I think of him," she said.
"He would have loved this," she said, looking around at the proud parents and professors, the friends taking selfies and winning awards, the funny-shaped hats. "He was a people person. He was excited about graduating."
Ashraf's grandmother, Sarwar Akhtar, sat in the front row at Sunday's graduation, dabbing at her eyes with a handkerchief and accepting hugs from unknown professors and other graduates' parents.
His uncle, Asim Riaz, came with Akhtar from their home in New Jersey to accept his degree.
Ashraf's relationship with his family was complicated at best.
In an application essay posted on the college's website, Ashraf imagined coming out as gay to his conservative Pakistani mother, something he said "she cannot comprehend."
"To distract myself, I fight," he wrote. "I volunteer at an LGBT foundation. I walk the streets, chanting for women's rights. ... I paint, I write, putting all my love, all my despair, all my thoughts onto paper. I cannot state that I am gay, so I fight for everybody else. And in that community, with those activists, I find peace. I find a history, I find lineage. In glitter, I trace my ancestors. I understand, finally, that love is made; relationships are built, not on blood, but on acceptance. Looking at those men and women, bold, brave, bright, I find my family. I realize it is our suffering that brings us together."
Editor's Note: An original version of this story incorrectly identified the time Aparna Gopalan lived with Ashraf.