When Lana Lubecke walked into her first Caltech class in Beckman Auditorium on Monday, September 27, she was among the very first students to return to in-person learning since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020.
"I just woke up, but I'm so excited to be in a class with real people," the first-year undergraduate student from Hawaii said. "Just being able to go back to normal life, normal school…it's such a nice change."
The start of a new academic year is always a time of excitement and anticipation, but it would be hard to deny that this particular start is exceptional in any number of ways, not the least of which is because it is the first time on campus for more than just the Institute's newest students.
The Institute has invited undergraduate students back to campus in phases, starting with a series of in-person research- and enrichment-based programs over the summer. For a majority of the undergraduate students who left Caltech in March of 2020 as a result of the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, however, this month marks their initial return to campus after 18 months. Even more remarkably, two full classes of undergraduates, both the incoming first-year students and all second-year students, are entering classrooms on campus for the first time in their academic careers at Caltech.
"This fall term is sure to have its challenges," Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum wrote to the Caltech community in an academic year welcome letter Monday morning. "We have the unusual situation that half of our undergraduate student body is only now being introduced to campus. Many international students and postdocs were unable to access the U.S. in a timely fashion. Residences, classrooms, offices, and laboratories are subject to social distancing and masking requirements.
"At the same time, I have every confidence that the Caltech community will pull together to surmount any obstacles," Rosenbaum continued. "We will dream big dreams together, and we will create new pathways to scientific discovery and personal growth. Let us take full advantage of the serendipitous encounters and new collaborations that this in-person fall term has to offer."
This fall, the Institute is welcoming onto campus for the first time its 223-member sophomore class alongside 270 first-year undergraduate students, 4 transfer students, 12 exchange students, and 306 graduate students. In all, Caltech brings together 995 undergraduate students and 1,428 graduate students on campus this year; as many as 960 undergraduate students are living on campus.
The Caltech community is returning to in-person learning and activities in a careful and cautious manner. Students are required to wear NIOSH-approved N95 masks in all instructional settings, and instructors, TAs, and employees on campus, who are also required to wear face coverings indoors and in all instructional settings, have been provided access to the same high-quality masks to meet that requirement. Furthermore, the Institute has assessed air circulation and ventilation in all instructional spaces, implemented interventions to improve ventilation where necessary, and set up classrooms in a manner to ensure distancing between all participants. In some instances, classes are being held in outdoor tents set up around campus and in the Institute's auditoriums.
"As we return to our campus rhythms, we remain committed to supporting health and safety of all community members," says Vice President for Student Affairs Kevin Gilmartin, the William R. Kenan, Jr., Professor of English. "This has required a cautious and measured approach to all activities, including convocation and our new student orientation programs, but we are hopeful that in taking this approach we will be better able to ensure a swift relaxation of restrictions and the resumption of many of the activities and interactions we all cherish."
Convocation, the Institute's official welcome to all incoming community members, was held virtually in accordance with the Institute's health and safety measures. The event, hosted on September 20, featured a series of speakers—chemistry professor Ken Farley, the project scientist for the Mars 2020 mission; graduate students Hermani Kalucha and Eva Linghan Schiller; postdoc Nathan Stein (PhD '20); and Katie Stack Morgan (PhD '15), the Mars 2020 mission's deputy project scientist—who shared about their involvement in the exploration of the Red Planet.
"If there's something to be gleaned from my journey, it's that while each of you will have your own unique experience to create here at Caltech," Stack Morgan said during the program, "...your time, like mine, will be filled with opportunities, some that you'll take and some that you'll pass by, lulls where you wonder what you're doing and what it's all for, and times when everything just clicks and you realize that these successes, however small or personal they may be, are why we show up day in, day out, and sometimes at very odd hours and while living on Mars time."
Following convocation, all first- and second-year undergraduates had the opportunity to get to know one another and acquaint themselves with the Institute through a new undergraduate student orientation program called Tech Start-Up, which ran until September 27. Tech Start-Up was a series of live and recorded online programs designed to provide crucial information about campus resources, programs, and regulations to the Institute's newest community members. The orientation began with a welcome webinar and continued with sessions on the Caltech Honor Code, an introduction to Caltech's residential experience, discussions on creating a culture of diversity and on building healthy relationships, information on the Caltech Library as well as career advising, study abroad, Caltech's computing resources, and more. The program also offered opportunities for a morning mindfulness meditation, Q&A option talks with faculty members, a movie night for first- and second-year students, a chocolate tasting, and the start of rotation for students planning to live on campus.
"After months of planning, it has been exciting and deeply satisfying to be able to welcome a new class of first-year students, and then to watch as the entire undergraduate student body returns to campus," Gilmartin says. "We were a diminished community without our students in residence, and I'm very much looking forward to a successful return to classroom learning."
J. Escobar, who gathered with three fellow first-year students—Katherine Xu, George Oré, and Pat Mutia—in a picnic-style breakfast on Beckman Mall Monday morning, said he was relishing the opportunity to meet new friends and connect with peers, and that he was ready to prove his academic talents now that the term had officially begun. All four first-years, who met each other through Caltech's Freshman Summer Research Institute and then orientation activities, expressed their interest in pursuing degrees in different academic areas, from physics to electrical engineering to bioengineering to computational and neural systems.
"It's a big upgrade," Escobar, who came to Caltech from Colombia, said of in-person learning. "After more than a year of being online, actually being with smart, cool people in person is so nice."
Xu quickly jumped in to add: "We are doing well. It's really nice to be here and I can't wait to experience the houses."
The Class of 2025
The class of first-year undergraduates joining the Institute this academic year is a particularly diverse one.
- Forty-two percent come from racially minoritized backgrounds, with 11 percent of the incoming class self-identifying as Black/African American.
- The class is 45 percent female and 55 percent male, based on sex assigned at birth.
- Eleven percent of the class has self-identified as LGBTQIA+/GSRM community members.
- Seventeen percent are first-generation college students, 20 percent are Pell-eligible, and 17 percent are Questbridge students; Questbridge is a national high-school initiative that serves high-achieving, low-income students.
- These first-year undergraduates come from 34 U.S. states and 15 countries across the globe, including China, South Korea, Palestine, Kenya, Malaysia, Vietnam, Poland, and Zimbabwe.