Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why I Love the Caltech Y

I recently was invited to give a talk at my alma mater, Caltech. The talk was hosted by the Caltech Y, as well as by the local chapter of NetImpact and the alumni association, as part of their Social Activism Speaker Series (SASS). I was particularly thrilled that Martin Luther King was an earlier speaker hosted by the Y in the area of social activism! Not that I'll ever be in that league! It's just an honor to be in a talk series where the brochure features MLK.

One of the board members from the Y, Gunilla Hastrup, heard me waxing eloquent about why I loved the Y as a student and why I still do. And, I agreed to write up why I am so enthusiastic.

The Y used to be part of the YMCA but severed the formal connection long ago. It doesn't have a pool or a gym, but it does provide Caltech students, staff and faculty with a vibrant link to the outside world. Caltech is such an intense place; it's helpful to get some perspective. As a student, I loved Decompression, which was and is still held during every Finals Week, where you can relax (decompress) after taking one of your finals or to carbo-load before more studying or taking the next final (because of Caltech's Honor System, which was heavily weighted to take home timed tests, I ended up taking most of my finals from 11 pm to 2 am). The Y also organized hikes and other recreational activities. I was particularly fond of the talk series, where important policy makers and leaders would come to Caltech and talk to 15 or 20 people at the Y and drink Mountain Chablis! I remember sitting in a small group with the former director of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Most of all, the Caltech Y was my starting point for social involvement. I joined the ExComm, which was the student programming committee, which worked with the actual Board of Directors to chart the course for the Y during the year. It was my first volunteer board service, and little did I guess at the time that I was destined to be a social sector leader and sit on nonprofit boards! Like many college students, I knew I wanted to be engaged in society, and the Y offered multiple avenues for exploring that interest.

The morning after my talk (which went over well), I had another example of where the Y is going. The leadership of the Y (including the ED, Athena Castro) was interested in exploring how to get Caltech students and faculty more involved in social and humanitarian science and technology work. They had just take a group of students to Washington DC to meet Caltech alums working in science policy, but they want to go further. So, I sat down at breakfast with a group of campus leaders. The professor I sat next to was retired, but I remembered him. Fred Shair had been my faculty interviewing back in 1976 when Caltech interviewed most serious prospective students with faculty who would fly out to your town and talk to you. It was great, and a reminder of what makes Caltech great as one of the only top universities that is tiny numerically. I got to know quite a number of faculty personally, and it made a world of difference to me in my education and frankly, my formation from a youth to an engineer eager to make a positive mark on the world.

So, that's why I love the Caltech Y: it makes an incredible difference to a group of intensely bright and powerful technologists, exposing them to the larger context of the society, which ultimately an institution like Caltech exists to serve.

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