The story of this year’s topper in engineering admissions is one of tears, struggles, dreams and a surprise.

Ranked 37 in the academic stream of engineering admissions, M. Ashok Kumar was waiting for his turn at the counselling centre at Anna University on Friday when he was told by officials that he was the topper. He could not believe it. “I felt extremely happy,” says the boy, who was born on July 4, 1993.

That date of birth, before the use of a random number used during admission, made him the oldest among 17 students who had scored 200 out of 200 in four subjects, and therefore, the topper in engineering. After scoring 198 in computer science, he applied for re-totalling. Another 200 in this subject put him at the top of the list of toppers.

Eighteen years ago, soon after his birth, Ashok lost his father Manivasgam, who was running a textile shop in Boothipuram, a hamlet in Dindigul district. His mother Murugeswari started working at a watch showroom to take care of the new born and his two older brothers aged three and six.

“I had to leave school after Plus 2 to work in a medical shop to support the family,” says Satish Kumar, the eldest, who had accompanied Ashok for the counselling. “My mother now works in a courier office. She can’t travel long distance,” he says. The other brother Raj Kumar, dropped out of tenth, and works as a tailor.

Ashok studied at the Government Kallar High School in Dindigul till his S.S.L.C in which he scored 484 out of 500. His head master Rajan referred him to the correspondents of Thamarai Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Erode district who offered him higher education free of cost considering his zeal to study and his poor background.

Interestingly, Ashok, the engineering topper this year, has studied in Tamil medium all his life. On Friday, he received the admit card from the higher education minister to join Aeronautical Engineering at MIT, Chrompet, the alma mater of former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. “I am inspired by Kalam. I want to be a scientist like him and I want to join the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO),” says Ashok.

The story is not over yet. As his family’s earnings are a measly Rs. 6,000 per month, they have approached a branch of the Indian Overseas Bank in Dindigul for an education loan. “The bank manager promised us a loan if we produce the allotment letter,” says Satish. Being a first generation graduate, Ashok is eligible for the government’s fee waiver.

Ashok was ranked 0.5 in the rank list before V. Divya, who was the first ranker till then. Whenever an applicant’s marks are improved following re-totalling or revaluation, then he or she is slotted between two ranks, such as 2.5 in between candidates ranked two and three, says Prof. Rhymend Uthariaraj, Secretary, TNEA 2011.