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  • Dean of Undergraduate Students John Dabiri (MS '03, PhD '05) does push-ups with senior Bridget Connor as a fundraiser for the 2015 senior class gift.
    Credit: Coutesy of the Caltech Fund
  • Master of Student Houses Erik Snowberg does push-ups with students along the Olive Walk as part of a fundraiser for the 2015 senior class gift.
    Credit: Coutesy of the Caltech Fund
  • Caltech undergraduate dean John Dabiri posing with the final results from the push-up challenge.
    Credit: Coutesy of the Caltech Fund
06/08/2015 11:52:53

Seniors Give to Support Caltech

Each year as Commencement day approaches, Caltech's senior class traditionally makes a single combined gift to the Institute. But the class of 2015 has given that plan an unusual twist. In lieu of one joint contribution, each senior has been asked to "give back to the area of campus that has meant the most to you—whether it's your house, scholarships, athletics, student life," or any other facet of the undergraduate experience.

The idea is being championed by senior class copresidents Aditya Bhattaru and David Flicker, along with the senior representatives of all eight student houses. And to sweeten the deal, faculty alumni Tom Soifer (BS '68) and Kip Thorne (BS '62) have agreed to match each donation, dollar for dollar, up to a maximum of $20.15 per senior (commemorating the year) and $4,000 overall.

Individually earmarking multiple contributions makes for a less traditional legacy than something monolithic, like a bench or a scholarship or an avocado grove, but it is no less welcome. "Senior class gifts aren't about things," says Perry Radford, Caltech's assistant director of annual giving programs—young alumni and student philanthropy. "They're about culture, about awareness, about getting people engaged."

Evidently, the seniors think so too: by the end of May the campaign had raised more than $3,000, with nearly a third of the class participating. Radford says she is gratified by the wide variety of targets the students have designated. "They're giving to Student Life programs, to music, to athletics and SURF and the endowments of their undergraduate houses."

But the recipient most often named is the Art Chateau. A converted house in the northeast corner of campus, it hosts facilities for painting, drawing, ceramics, and other visual arts—none of which require a mouse or a keyboard. Its silk-screening equipment, used by student clubs throughout the year to make T-shirts, is in high demand in the weeks leading up to Ditch Day.

The Caltech Parents page on Facebook recently highlighted one of the fund-raiser's more entertaining events. Dean of Undergraduate Students John Dabiri (MS '03, PhD '05), Master of Student Houses Erik Snowberg, and men's basketball head coach Oliver "Doc" Eslinger spent an April day performing charity calisthenics: $2 a push-up. With 26 students donating a total of nearly $800, the three obliged with 377 push-ups. When Dabiri and Snowberg pledged to match, out of their own pockets, the donation of any student who joined in the workout, 15 of the 26 students accepted their challenge, pumping out an extra 256 push-ups and earning an additional $533.55 in matching funds.

Such activities, says Radford, send a powerful message. "Students' relationships with the Caltech Fund begin at the start of freshman year, and the entire time these seniors have been on campus, philanthropy has been happening all around them. But now that they're actually making their own donations—the first time for many of them—they're seeing how generosity breeds generosity."

She credits last year's seniors with inspiring this year's class. "The Caltech penny press of 2014 demonstrated how exciting a senior gift campaign can be. But more importantly, the class of 2014 taught the class of 2015 that philanthropy can be fun."

Written by Dave Zobel