By sticking together, mother and her two daughters overcome, advance and shine

Despite hardship, Panther Creek High School senior receives a National Merit scholarship

Panther Creek High School senior Akhila Koripella discusses the role that her mother has played in her success as a student.
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Panther Creek High School senior Akhila Koripella discusses the role that her mother has played in her success as a student.

The bright pink and blue of Nirmala Koripella’s clothes stood out from the crowd, different from the typical muted colors worn by others in the Panther Creek High School gym on Friday morning.

Nirmala was wedged in the sea of proud family and friends, sitting alone. Her only family was down below, waiting to be recognized for their success at the school’s senior assembly. Students piled in, proudly displaying their future college logos on their chests.

Nirmala’s youngest daughter, Akhila, shuffled in with her classmates, and glanced up into the crowd. She locked eyes with the bright pink and blue clothes, and let out a smile.

On the other side of the room, the last piece of the Koripella puzzle, older daughter Ananya, sat ready to address the gym.

The Koripella women, all each other’s biggest fans, had worked years for a day like these. A day when their vision boards, posters full of their biggest hopes and dreams, came to life.

Much to overcome

Akhila was there to accept close to $200,000 as a National Merit Scholarship finalist. Ananya was there as an East Carolina University EC Scholar to present a student with the same award she had received four years earlier. Nirmala was there to witness the result of years of being a single mother.

The three had overcome disease, divorce and abandonment to get here.

In 2008, Nirmala decided to divorce her husband, knowing that she would be abandoned by many in her culture.

“In America there is no stigma, being a single parent is common,” Nirmala said. “But in Indian communities, it’s almost like you have a disease.”

Panther Creek High School senior Akhila Koripella, center, reacts to good news during a ceremony held for seniors at the Cary high school on Friday, May 31, 2019. Koripella had just accepted a National Merit scholarship to the University of Texas. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

The divorce rate in India is less than 1%, according to an article posted by India Today in 2018. The site lists the United States’ divorce rate as 46 percent.

Soon after Nirmala’s decision, she said, their entire family and most of their friends shunned the Koripella women. Ever since, it’s been just the three of them.

“Every day the thought is if anything were to happen to me what would happen to these girls,” Nirmala said.

Working together

A few months before the award ceremony, the Koripellas had been huddled around a pile of paper and Twix wrappers.

Akihla had decided to make a life-sized paper replica of a human torso, complete with removable organs, as part of a scholarship application.

And once one of the Koripella women decides to take on a task, the other two are automatically there for support.

Ananya trekked home from East Carolina University, where she was a junior, bringing a bag of Twix that was almost as big as the project. They spent the weekend eating chocolate, hardly sleeping and carefully folding paper.

Panther Creek High School senior Akhila Koripella, right, checks out her photo taken with Joshua McNamara, center, after he presented her with a National Merit scholarship to the University of Texas during a ceremony held for seniors at the Cary high school on Friday, May 31, 2019. Family friend and photographer Palani Mohan, left, was there to document the day for the family. Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

With her family’s help, the usually month-long project only took Akihla about a week to complete.

The Koripellas take on all of life the same way they took on the paper torso: intently, passionately and together.

From pain, growth

When Akihla was 16, she was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome, a disease causing her ligaments to easily tear at any time.

Ananya and Nirmala were there for Akihla in every sense, driving her to doctors appointments, paying for her blood tests and reassuring her that the pain she felt was real.

Akihla’s disease causes her constant pain, and makes just walking difficult. Growing up, she couldn’t participate in most sports or physical activities.

But now, Akihla sees how the illness has helped her deal with adversity.

“Looking back on it, it made me have more of a growth mindset,” Akihla said. “It’s not, ‘Oh, look what I’m limited from, but look at what I can do despite the limitations.”

Nirmala Rao Koripella has worked on vision boards with her daughters since they were small to discuss daily goals and “come up with precise plans and timelines to achieve them.” Juli Leonard jleonard@newsobserver.com

Akihla’s positive spirit is matched in her mother and sister.

“My mom has made me a better person, my sister has made me a better person,” Ananya said. “Everything that we have been through has really taught me to be independent and to really value your family.”

Akihla will graduate with the Panther Creek High School Class of 2019 on June 12. In the fall, she will be moving to Dallas to attend the University of Texas at Dallas.

“You can do this, everyone can do this,” Nirmala said. “I want parents and students to know that.”

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