Choosing Caltech: A Frosh Retrospective

I spent my first night at Caltech deciphering runes.

Earlier that day I had been exploring the SAC and happened across an alcove with black runes painted inside. I was informed it was called the Sacrifice Room, and that the runes originated from a stack some years back. But the student I was talking to didn’t know what the runes said, so, determined to find out, I recruited two other curious prefrosh. We spent the evening huddled around iPads and scribbled notes, trying to decode the message.

I remember wondering to myself: at what other university could I find mysterious runes painted on a wall and two other people willing to spend their first day deciphering them? In my acceptance letter, Caltech promised to be a place where I would be surrounded by curious, brilliant people. A place where I could go to change the world. Would Caltech continue to live up to its promises? Or was this all just prefrosh hype, doomed to fizzle out once the term begins?

First term went by in a flurry. I pulled pranks, started a club, and designed scavenger hunts, all while being an active member of two hovses and taking frosh core. I was busy, truly busy, for the first time in my life. And I loved it.

I was fortunate enough to form a group of close friends early on into my time here: people who were not only fun to hang out with, but who challenged my worldview and pushed me to become better both socially and academically. I firmly believe the best friends are the kind that you can get up at 7am with to bake a surprise birthday cake and stay up ‘til 4am with debating philosophy. I attribute many of my positive experiences here to the friends I’ve made – and though people I might be compatible with exist everywhere, I also credit Caltech for creating an environment that facilitated forming these bonds.

When deciding whether to attend Caltech, one of my biggest worries was the infamous academic workload. Like many people here, I had spent my time in high school largely occupied by schoolwork and other academic activities. It was tedious and stressful, and I wasn’t eager for a repeat. But to my relief, Caltech turned out to be nothing like high school 2.0.

Everyone has their gripes about the design of this core class or the other, and I’m no exception – but I’ll always commend the way Caltech’s core was designed to force me to stop procrastinating, seek help proactively, and learn to learn, and how the collaborative culture turned even the most grueling assignments into an opportunity to hang out with friends. My favorite core class was Math 1a. It was my first proof-based math course, and it nearly convinced me to pick up a math double major. Each problem was a puzzle to solve. As frustrating and challenging as it sometimes was, those late-night eureka moments and enthusiastic hi-fives were well worth the journey to get there.

After first term, I started getting into stride. Encouraged by my friends, I became more academically adventurous, pushing myself out of my comfort zone to take exciting-but-difficult courses. I also prioritized getting involved in interesting events: ski trip, MIT Mystery Hunt, Blackathon, to name a few. (I’m still sad about having to miss an important Dabney event that conflicted with MITMH – next year, for sure!). Despite being busier than I ever was before, though, I still had free time to rest or pursue random hobbies. Before Caltech I often lost hours to mindless procrastination while getting far less done. Whether it was my experience at Caltech or just maturing, throughout the course of the year I became much better at managing my time.

I’m approaching the end of my first academic year now, though I’ll still be a frosh for a few months. This summer, I’ll be doing a SURF project working with a technology I’ve always been fascinated by: brain-machine interfaces. I’ll also be reading sci-fi, playing DnD, pranking friends, hosting study groups, relearning how to play piano, and cooking a lot. I’m looking forward to a relatively relaxing summer – and to the exciting classes I have planned out for next year and beyond.

Caltech is where I learned how to deal with not understanding something, and to not give up until I do. Caltech is where you can find mysterious runes on a wall and people interested in deciphering them. Caltech is where I can get into an argument with two friends over an inane prisoner’s-dilemma-style thought experiment about vegan aliens, and, finding our debate inconclusive, email a game theory professor to settle the score… and get an enthusiastic response. (Take PS 172! This article is sponsored by Professor Omer Tamuz, who is very cool).

Whether or not Caltech will really allow me to change the world remains to be seen. But so far, it’s lived up to its lofty promises. I couldn’t be happier about choosing Caltech.

“Nika (left) and Jaylen (right), building a trebuchet for Blackerthon. ʎɐpoʇ ǝɹǝɥ llɐ noʎ pǝɹǝɥʇɐƃ ǝʌɐɥ I ʎɥʍ ƃuᴉɹǝpuoʍ ǝq ʎɐɯ no⅄.”