In keeping with Caltech's long tradition of student self-governance, student leaders are elected by their peers to guide almost every aspect of student life at Caltech. It is no small task, as student leaders can help form an essential bridge between the Caltech administration and the student body, but it can be extraordinarily rewarding.
We asked three student leaders to reflect on their experiences over the past year—Zach Rivkin, president of the Associated Students of the California Institute of Technology (ASCIT); Connor Coley, chair of the Interhouse Committee (IHC); and Michael Post, chair of the Graduate Student Council (GSC).
Here's what they had to say:
Zach Rivkin, a student of mathematics from New York City, served as ASCIT president during the 2013-14 academic year. Rivkin says he was somewhat reserved when he arrived at Caltech but was amazed by his orientation counselor, a student who had a knack for inspiring people and getting them to participate. He wondered if he could ever be like that. During his sophomore year, Rivkin took a first step in that direction when he decided to run for president of Avery House.
"I really wanted to help people in the house and thought I would be the best for the job, but I also wanted to force myself to go out and meet people—to sort of be in the public realm," Rivkin says. "I wanted to be someone who could get the house to come together—to make Avery more of a family."
Rivkin won that election and says he had fun as a leader, and he got to know a lot more people. Importantly, he says, "I got an ice cream machine for the house—that's what I always brag about."
This year, as ASCIT president, Rivkin championed the issue of mental health and was successful in getting the Counseling Center to start offering evening consultation hours for students.
"Leadership experiences give you this opportunity to sort of speak out and learn to be comfortable in public either with public speaking or just communicating with people in power positions above you," says Rivkin. "You get to see, by trial and error, what makes a good leader and what doesn't."
Rivkin says that he particularly enjoyed helping the new class of candidates navigate the election process this year. "When election time came, they were all better candidates than when they started running," he says. "Cat Jamshidi ended up winning ASCIT president, and I think she will do a fantastic job."
Rivkin was selected to receive the 2014 Doris Everhart Service Award, given annually "to an undergraduate who has actively supported and willingly worked for organizations that enrich not only student life, but also the campus and/or community as a whole, and who has, in addition, exhibited care and concern for the welfare of students on a personal basis."
Following commencement, Rivkin is headed to New York City and a position on the equity strategies team at Goldman Sachs. "I'll basically be programming computer models to try to predict how the stock market is going to go," he says. "I think it will be a great opportunity for me to take advantage of the lessons I've learned at Caltech. I'll be around similar people, and I think I'll know how to bring the team together."
The IHC chair for the 2013-14 academic year was Connor Coley, who studies chemical engineering. Coley, who hails from Ohio, first got involved with student leadership while serving on the executive committee of Ruddock House but wanted to move up to the IHC because "the Interhouse Committee does things on a much more campuswide scale, and I wanted to be able to contribute on that level, help out with the process of rotation, and assist all of the houses in their relationships with the administration."
Rotation, for those not acquainted with this particular Caltech ritual, is the process through which pre-frosh—first-year students not yet associated with a house—are assigned to their living quarters. Caltech has eight houses: Avery, Blacker, Dabney, Fleming, Lloyd, Page, Ricketts, and Ruddock. In their first week on campus, students have dinner at each of the houses and go to various events sponsored by the individual houses. At the end of the week, pre-frosh submit ratings for each house on a scale of one to 20. As Coley explains, "If they have a clear favorite, they might rate that house one, while they rate their next preference a five or a 10."
This is where rotation gets interesting. One might imagine that having reduced pre-frosh preferences to numbers, the IHC would simply power up a laptop and run those numbers through an elegantly written algorithm, guaranteeing matches that conform to student preferences as much as possible while accurately divvying up students into the number of rooms available in each house. But, says Coley, "rotation is a very personal process. In the final meeting there are five upperclass students from each house, plus the IHC chair and secretary, and the Master of Student Houses (a faculty member). Together we sort 250 or so pre-frosh into houses based not only on their ratings, but also on where we believe they will be most comfortable."
Rotation is also, according to Coley, a successful process: "We get a very high number of people into their first choice houses and we have fantastic satisfaction rates after the fact. Even if somebody doesn't end up in their first-choice house, they usually agree that they ended up in the 'right' house for them."
Rotation is the largest job of the year for the IHC chair. "It was the most stressful week of my Caltech experience, but in a good way," Coley remarks. But the chair of the IHC has other duties that continue throughout the year, says Coley, principally "acting as a liaison between the house presidents and the Dean's Office and Student Affairs to make sure that everybody is on good terms and things are running smoothly in the houses," and appointing undergrad representatives to various Caltech committees.
Before becoming chair of the IHC, Coley was the chair of the student investment fund for two years. Coley describes this as "a stock portfolio of about half a million dollars" that is "sort of a self-directed miniature investment group. We get to practice making trades with money that isn't our own, within some limits. And then every year we also take out some of the money we've made and give it to student clubs on campus."
Coley is the winner of the 2014 Frederic W. Hinrichs, Jr. Memorial Award for "the senior who throughout his or her undergraduate years made the greatest contribution to the student body and whose qualities of character, leadership, and responsibility have been outstanding."
Next year Coley will be attending graduate school in chemical engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
In the past year, chemistry and chemical engineering graduate student Michael Post has spent his days studying nicotine receptors in Dennis Dougherty's lab (Dougherty is the George Grant Hoag Professor of Chemistry) and every other spare moment supporting committees and organizing events as chair of the Caltech GSC. "It's kind of a big job; I oversaw the whole Graduate Student Council, so I spent most of my time just making sure everything was running smoothly and that everyone had the resources that they needed," he says.
Post initiated a number of firsts during his yearlong tenure as chair, including the official introduction of new positions in the board, such as the sustainability chair and health and wellness chair. He also led the council during the first-ever graduate student development workshop, which was designed to help graduate students recognize the importance of "soft skills"—like personality differences in the lab and the impact of nonverbal communication in daily life. The workshop also included a session on project management "and how to take large, fluffy, ethereal ideas—such as graduate theses—and turn them into doable everyday tasks," he says.
In addition to working closely with undergraduate leaders and graduate students from different departments, he says that a main highlight of his role was the opportunity for a behind-the-scenes view of science education. "Seeing how faculty interact in a nonscientific setting has been eye-opening," Post says. "Most graduate students only interact with their advisers and professors who teach their classes, but in this role I've had a lot of conversations about advising styles and the philosophy of what a graduate education should be"—helpful tips for his intended career path in academia, he says.
Although Post will continue his involvement with the GSC next year, serving as a chemistry representative and on the social committee, he says he's looking forward to the extra free time after his term as chair has ended. "I play softball with my lab, and I also play the trombone, so I think I'm going to audition for the wind ensemble or the orchestra now," he says. "When I served as chair, I really pushed the idea that work-life balance is important for graduate students. The GSC is a nice way to encourage doing some nonscience things in a productive way."