The Caltech house system, in which the majority of undergraduates join one of the traditional houses or the Bechtel Residence, forms the backbone of the student experience on campus. This journey begins with the annual ritual of rotation, which allows first-year students to cycle through events hosted by the residences and get a feel for each house's particular culture.
Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted nearly every aspect of life at the Institute, especially social events that rely on face-to-face interactions such as rotation, which typically would have occurred in the fall. But Caltech students were up to the challenge of adapting the experience for the times. Together with Felicia Hunt, assistant vice president of student affairs and residential experience in the Institute's Office of Residential Experience, the houses created a virtual version of rotation for January 2021, giving the current class of first-year students a way to experience rotation from home.
"There were logistic and then social challenges, like Zoom burnout, which is something everyone has to deal with now," says Adam Abbas, a Caltech junior and the social chair of Blacker House. "So we went back and forth with Felicia on how we schedule rotation and make it not too long."
Some houses scheduled remote versions of their traditional rotation events, while others invented new events from scratch to fit the virtual setting. Blacker hosted a new "untalent show" in which first-year students act as judges and house members find out what they will be asked to perform immediately before the show. Ricketts ran its signature open mic night, Ruddock organized a jazz café–style get-together, and Fleming launched an event called "Fleopardy," a riff on the quiz show Jeopardy!
Kriti Devasenapathy, a Caltech senior and member of Ricketts and Ruddock houses, and Interhouse committee chair, says these one-hour events happened over a weekend to prevent rotating students from feeling overwhelmed. Students also are invited to hour-long receptions during the week. The event's virtual nature this year allowed for Ricketts' open mic night to include both prerecorded numbers, such as from a student who played every instrument on a song, and also live performances. "Honestly, we managed to recreate the atmosphere pretty well because people were able to submit things that maybe wouldn't be as possible live on Zoom," she says.
Devasenapathy says the return of rotation helped to inject new energy into Caltech's social life after months of students being able to meet only remotely. In addition to Zoom, the rotation team came up with some new digital methods and spaces to encourage interaction. Many students talked during rotation over Discord, a secure messaging app many of them prefer, Devasenapathy says. She and other upperclassmen also built out a full digital model of the Caltech campus and its houses in Gather.town, an app that allows people meeting virtually to move through a digital environment and feel a bit more like they are sharing the same space.
Rotation traditionally ends with students ranking the houses they would prefer to join, a decision that will impact students' social lives even if they are not together in person. Although Hunt says no decision has been made about when most students will return to campus, their anticipation of the resumption of a more normal social life has driven renewed interest in rotation.
"Ever since the vaccine came out, people are starting to participate more because there's the promise of coming back to campus in the future," Devasenapathy says. "Given that there's no longer this indefinite hiatus on seeing everybody else, I think people are more and more motivated to interact with each other, especially now that we're having rotation."