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The Caltech Y—100 Years Young

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The Caltech Y Turns 100
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The Caltech Y—100 Years Young
Caltech students hiking in the Sierras
Credit: Caltech Y

The Caltech Y's annual autumn hike in the Sierras offers a spectacular start to the academic year. Like all of the Y's activities, the hike is planned and led by and for the students themselves.

The Caltech "little t"
Credit: Caltech Y

The Caltech Y began publishing an unofficial freshman handbook, called the little t, in the 1920s. (The name is a nod to Caltech's yearbook, the Big T.)

Frosh Camp in the early 1950s
Credit: Caltech Y

The off-campus orientation weekend known as Frosh Camp was established early in the Y's history. Here, Wes Hershey, the Y's executive director, addresses an incoming class in the early 1950s.

The Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. visits Caltech in 1958
Credit: Caltech Y

The Leaders of America Series was established in 1951 to bring in thought-provoking speakers such as Martin Luther King Jr., seen here in Caltech's Winnett Lounge in 1958. Such speakers promoted awareness of global issues and challenged the Caltech community to create ways to address them.

Senator Eugene McCarthy at Caltech in 1968
Credit: Caltech Y

Senator Eugene McCarthy (D-Minnesota) visited Caltech during his presidential bid in 1968. McCarthy opposed the war in Vietnam, and his strong showing in the early primaries forced President Lyndon B. Johnson to withdraw from the race. 

Archbishop Desmond Tutu at Caltech in 1990
Credit: Caltech Y

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, visited Caltech in 1990 as part of the Social Activism Speaker Series, the contemporary version of Leaders of America. 

Caltech student volunteers at a Habitat for Humanity project.
Credit: Caltech Y

The Y established the Alternative Spring Break community service program in 1996. Here Caltech students volunteer on a Habitat for Humanity project in San Francisco.

Caltech Y students volunteering in Costa Rica on Alternative Spring Break
Credit: Caltech Y

The annual International Service Learning Immersion Program to Costa Rica was launched in 2005 as part of Alternative Spring Break.

Caltech undergraduates on the Caltech Y's annual Science Policy Trip to Washington, DC
Credit: Caltech Y

Established in 2006, the Caltech Y's annual Washington, D.C., Science Policy Trip takes place over the winter break and explores the intersection of public policy, science, and technology. As part of the program, students meet with D.C.-area alumni who have entered that arena.

Faculty and students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.
Credit: Caltech Y

The Y also leads an annual cultural and educational exchange trip to India, where students participate in workshops with faculty and students at the Indian Institute of Technology, Gandhinagar.

Caltech undergraduates tutor local students in math and science.
Credit: Caltech Y

The Rise program matches Caltech students with Pasadena-area middle- and high-schoolers for math and science tutoring

WorldFest at Caltech
Credit: Caltech Y

Organized in collaboration with Caltech's International Offices and various student clubs and associations, World Fest celebrates the Caltech community's cultural diversity


Founded in the 1915–16 academic year as a branch of the international Young Men's Christian Association, today's Caltech Y is a coed, nonsectarian, student-led freestanding organization dedicated to bringing students out of their academic cocoons so that they emerge as engaged citizens of the world.

"Caltech graduates are capable of having a global impact," says Y staff member Greg Fletcher, the student activities and community service director. "We're hoping to challenge them to make a difference."

The Y has emphasized community service since its founding, providing snacks to soldiers drilling on campus during the First World War. Today, volunteer opportunities include Rise, a math and science tutoring program; Make-a-Difference Day, devoted to cleaning local beaches, visiting the elderly, planting trees, and the like; and Alternative Spring Break, which is the same idea writ large. The Y also brings the outside world to campus, hosting events such as The Ghetto and the City conference in 1968 as well as such notable speakers as Walter Reuther, who unionized Detroit in the 1930s; Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas; and Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the Beach Boys and the Beatles and the founder of transcendental meditation. The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. "came for two days in 1958," says Caltech Y director Athena Castro, "and spent full days in the student houses having dinners, giving talks."

"Community service" also includes the Caltech community. In the 1920s and '30s, the Y created student-support programs—including new-student orientation, counseling services, off-campus room-and-board listings, student loans, and assistance for foreign students—that have long since become part of the Office of Student Affairs. But the Y continually reinvents itself to stay relevant, and new programs arise such as the Studenski Award. Endowed in 1974 in memory of a young alumnus who died in an accident on a cross-country road trip, the grant provides the time and money for a journey of self-discovery. As a result, some Studenski alumni have found their bliss in such nontraditional—for Techers—careers as singing opera at the Met or making award-winning feature-length films.

The Y's programs are structured around what Castro calls the "five pillars" of leadership, adventure, service, civic engagement, and perspective. "Leadership and perspective are the bookends," she says. "That's what we want our students to gain." 

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The Caltech Y Turns 100