Outsider's Insider: Caltech from the Perspective of an Exchange Student

Studying abroad at Caltech has been an experience, to say the least. Before coming, I had heard that students do not leave campus at all during term time, and I was confident that that would not be me. It was. Well nearly. This was especially true during my first term when I took arguably the most difficult class with the highest workload I had ever seen. I think that shocked me into an ‘I’m going to struggle with keeping up with the workload here for a whole year’ mindset; however, I am pleased to say that I have not had a class with a similar workload since. It’s been really refreshing to be in classes where everyone is so passionate about their subject and to have the opportunity to speak with people at different stages of life, whether it is undergraduates, undergrads who have previously studied at other universities, graduate students, or professors.

I had never talked to graduate students at my home university, University College London (UCL), let alone taken classes with them. Taking many classes where I was the only undergraduate definitely took some getting used to. This was a drastic change from my previous university education, with more than 250 other undergraduates in my year, where we would all take exactly the same modules (classes) in the same subject (chemistry). The flexibility of selecting and tailoring courses at Caltech is something I much prefer about college life here; I think there’s something really nice in being able to choose your particular topics of interest and to specialise quickly, rather than to take every class in your subject. It fosters a rather unique learning environment where everyone has slightly different pieces of knowledge which helps to create a very collaborative environment.

The small class sizes are something I will cherish about my time here. It has been so wonderful to get to know professors directly during lectures, which is largely uncommon in the UK, and to be able to work on active research at the forefront of science. I have the privilege of working within Brian Stoltz’s lab with a graduate student, Kevin Gonzalez (who have both been and are wonderful mentors!). The opportunity to carry out research during term time and to be able to extend this into the summer is something not offered at such an early stage at UCL. It has given me invaluable insight into the joys and pitfalls of working in research and has helped me enormously with not only growing in practical lab skills but with my future aspirations. 

Some other things that took me a while to get used to was always seeing people I know whenever I walk around campus. I’ve quite enjoyed it, as at home, our universities are so big that there is a very small chance of ever seeing someone you know on the street. Over one year, I had only ever unintentionally bumped into people three times. However, recognising people is unfortunately not my strong suit (sorry if you’ve been the recipient of that!), especially if it’s someone I briefly met at an interhouse…

Interhouse and the house system are such intriguing concepts. I can see similarities between the houses and Oxbridge colleges; except here, I think it’s easier to find people who have similar interests. The excitement around campus during the build-up to the interhouses is exhilarating, and upon going to the parties, I am always blown away by the intricate designs that seem to have been put together in an unhuman amount of time. Before coming, I thought maybe I would experience frat and sorority parties seen in movies, hosted at a three storey house on a random weeknight. The Caltech party scene is just very different from the American party scene portrayed in the media and in the UK.  

One of the things I made sure to do from the start was to join the choir here. I think it’s been one thing that keeps me going during an especially difficult week - it’s like being in another world, where I can shut off my brain, create music, and make friends.

I’ve really enjoyed my time here at Caltech - I’ve made some lovely friends over the past year. Everyone I’ve met so far has been so welcoming, inviting, and accommodating, and I can confidently say that I feel like I have fully integrated into Caltech life. I will be sad when the year is over in a couple of weeks, but for now, I can’t wait to start my SURF over the summer!