Before Tilak Patel could start a career caring for others’ physical health, he needed to tend to his own mental and spiritual well-being. So, he deferred admission to Mercer University’s School of Medicine to help build the largest Hindu temple in the United States.
“I felt like I was burnt out from school, and it was nice to have that change of pace in my life. Being able to do something different and my faith really drew me closer to taking that year off,” said Patel, who earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia in 2022.
For one year, Patel, 22, volunteered as a forklift operator on the stone-cutting team for the construction of the BAPS Swaminarayan Akshardham temple in Robbinsville, New Jersey. He was part of 12,500 volunteers from across the U.S. who participated in the construction since it began in 2011. The temple was finished this year.
“You slowly started seeing everything come together over time,” Patel said. “You’d see scaffolding go up, and you’d see it come down, and it would be revealed as complete. I found it really cool that I saw it from nowhere close to being done and then in a year finishing what work they’d done for the past 10 or so years.”
As a volunteer, Patel drove a forklift transporting stones from the inventory yard to where they would be measured and cut, and then he delivered them to their destination for placement. He learned how to operate a large diamond cutting wire saw and handheld cutting devices.
“I learned many different skills that I wouldn’t have expected that I’d ever learn in my life, which is really cool,” Patel said. “We were just ordinary people who had no prior experience in construction, but we were trained to use the equipment, and we got certified.”
Nearly 2 million cubic feet of stone, including limestone, marble, granite and sandstone sourced from around the world, were used in the temple’s construction.
“During my time there, I cut every single layer that needed to be cut on the temple, so I worked on the main spires, I worked on the outside of the temple, some parts inside, wherever needed to be cut,” Patel said. “I touched nearly every part of the exterior of the temple.”
He said his sense of community grew as he worked alongside and performed religious rituals with others who practiced Hinduism.
Every morning, the volunteers together would do a ritual called arti, a form of prayer offered in greeting and thanksgiving to God. On Mondays during lunch, they broke into small groups called goshti, Patel said.
“In these goshtis, we would discuss how to make the most of our experience while incorporating religion and the having the right mindset while doing volunteer work,” he said.
Patel practices Swaminarayan Hinduism. Growing up, he regularly went to the temple in his hometown of Lilburn.
“It was always a part of my life, but I think more recently I’ve understood why it’s so important and how I actually find happiness through practicing religion,” he said.
The experience also taught him life skills he will use in medical school, such as time management, discipline and teamwork, he said.
In the fall, Patel started his first year of medical school on Mercer’s Savannah campus. The University supported his decision to defer admission.
“Once students begin their medical education, they often do not take a real break until they retire from medicine. When Tilak had this opportunity, I gave him my enthusiastic support allowing him to defer his admission for a year,” said Dr. Alice House, senior associate dean of admissions and student affairs for the School of Medicine. “This allowed him to participate in something that will have an enduring effect on so many people for many years. The admissions team is proud of Tilak, and we look forward to him doing many more wonderful things.”
Patel said he hopes to one day be a surgeon.
“Mentally and spiritually, I’ve definitely progressed,” Patel said. “And I can truly say I’m happy now.”