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  • Caltech senior Lori Dajose (BS '15) holds up her Caltech coin from the new penny press.
    Credit: Lance Hayashida/Caltech
05/11/2015 14:10:22

Pennies for Ditch Day

Just inside the Caltech Store stands a manually operated penny press. If not for its distinctive orange color scheme and the Millikan Library panorama across its lower half, it might have come from any tourist-trap gift shop. But it is here for a very specific reason: to fund a single Caltech tradition that dates back nearly a century—Ditch Day.

One morning each spring, the majority of the senior class disappears from campus, leaving behind materials and instructions for a day of challenge-filled adventures for the underclass students. Some activities, like unlocking a custom-made puzzle box, demand uninterrupted concentration; others, like laser tag, are more physical. But nearly all of them are funded by the seniors themselves.

"Every year, our seniors have been putting up their own money to create all these awesome challenges for the underclassmen," says class of 2014 copresident Samantha "Pixie" Piszkiewicz (BS '14). "They're footing the bill for things like bounce houses, high-tech remote-controlled robots, even skydiving. It can get expensive."

When her class chose to donate the penny press as their senior class gift, they added a stipulation that addresses the problem directly: profits from the press can only be used to help offset Ditch Day costs. In its first year of operation, the press has provided more than $2,000 of Ditch Day assistance to the class of 2015.

Piszkiewicz and class copresident Jesse Salomon (BS '14) shepherded the project through, although Piszkiewicz gives credit where it is due. "The idea originated with Nerissa Hoglen [BS '13], but her class didn't have time to tackle all the approvals and fund-raising," Salomon says. "After considering a few other suggestions, our senior reps unanimously decided to adopt it."

The concept evidently appealed to the Caltech community, with contributions coming in from seniors, staffers, faculty, alumni, other donors, dozens of underclass students, and even one prefrosh. Perry Radford of the Caltech Fund, who coordinates philanthropy among recent alumni and students, says she understands why: "A penny press provides an engaging way to generate ongoing funds, in a way that a bench or a plaque just can't."

Manufactured by the Penny Machine Company of Boulder, Colorado, the press became operational shortly after last year's commencement. Fifty-one cents—two quarters and a penny—plus a bit of torque on the foot-long crank produces a souvenir medallion with one of four images: Beckman Auditorium, the Caltech Athletics logo featuring Bucky Beaver, the Institute's wordmark (a stylized rendition of the word Caltech), or the Curiosity rover with JPL's logo.

"The people of Facilities have been superhero partners since the design and installation phases," says Jannah Maresh, director of the Caltech Fund, which is still accepting donations for the press. "So have the staff of the Caltech Store. For one thing, they've learned to keep plenty of spare change in the till."

Written by Dave Zobel