Caltech's annual convocation ceremony represents more than just an official welcome to the 231 new undergraduates, 250 graduate students, and 40 postdoctoral scholars who matriculated this fall. It is also a call to discover and explore the manifold opportunities available at Caltech, said President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, holder of the Sonja and William Davidow Presidential Chair and professor of physics. And this invitation to strengthen the community remains true during the difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic, he added. "In this last half-year, Caltech faculty, students, and staff have weathered the coronavirus whirlwind together," Rosenbaum said. "We have learned that, even in separation, community can triumph."
Convocation 2020 was a reminder of this fact. Although the September 21 event occurred virtually because of the ongoing public health situation, speakers including current Caltech students introduced ways for new students to find a home at the Institute and discover means to create community on campus and off, with organizations such as the Caltech Y, the student-founded group that works to enrich student life and challenge students to grow into responsible citizens of the world. Rosenbaum encouraged students to dive into research and also to take advantage of Caltech's music, theater, and art programs, virtually and then on campus when public safety allows, as a step toward a full humanistic education.
"All of you were drawn here by the singular excellence of our STEM research and learning programs," said Kevin Gilmartin, William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English, in his first convocation since becoming Caltech's new vice president for student affairs. "Many, however, were also attracted by other dimensions of our community. What's important, too, is that many of you will discover these now that you're here, and they'll contribute meaningfully to your learning and personal development."
According to Liz Jackman, Caltech Y associate director of student programs, one of the best ways to forge new connections during a time of remote learning is the Y's Rise program. An after-school math and science tutoring initiative, Rise gives Pasadena Unified School District students in 8th through 12th grade who are struggling in math or science the solid foundation they need to thrive in their college-level courses. "The strength of the Rise program is that tutors are matched with a student, and they work with that same student at each session. So it's an opportunity to build really meaningful relationships, and to be a tutor as well as a mentor," she said.
Rise participants typically tutor their students on campus or at a high school in Pasadena, but the program moved online during the pandemic. Despite this unexpected move, Rise grew stronger: nearly twice as many students volunteered compared to before the pandemic, Jackman said, because remote tutoring meant Caltech students could help out from wherever they were, and those students were hungry to do so.
As part of the presentation, chemistry graduate student Cam Buzard spoke of his experience working with Rise for all of his five years at Caltech. During that time, he said, he has seen students become comfortable with mathematical concepts as high schoolers that baffled them when they started with Rise as 8th-grade students. Rising junior Melba Nuzen said Rise has been a highlight of her time at Caltech. While she shares math lessons and techniques with students, she also sharpens her own teaching and communication skills, something that's especially important as students at all levels continue to adapt to an environment of remote learning. Many current students, including Laura Hu, Jillian Reed, and Evan Yeh, appeared by video to detail the wide variety of community service initiatives, outdoor activities, and other projects they participated in as part of the Caltech Y.
"It will be a different year, but it can still be great, and it will still be meaningful," said Athena Castro, executive director of the Caltech Y. "Everyone at Caltech and all of us at the Caltech Y are committed to ensuring that you have an array of opportunities with which to get involved, to help you make the most out of your Caltech experience."
Despite the challenging circumstances that Caltech's incoming students will confront, convocation reminded them how far they can go. As NASA Astronaut Robert Behnken (MS '93, PhD '97) proved, the possibilities are limitless. Behnken greeted students with a message he recorded during his historic trip to the International Space Station this summer aboard SpaceX's Dragon spacecraft when he was one of the first two astronauts to go into orbit aboard a commercial vessel. "As I record this, I'm orbiting 250 miles above the earth's surface," Behnken said in his video message. "When I started at Caltech, like you all are starting your journey today, I didn't realize how far my education could take me. I certainly did not expect all the way into space."