The Other Half of Campus

The Other Half of Campus

I was talking to a prefrosh on the phone the other day as part of our phone calling campaign for admitted students, and she asked if there was a lot of interaction between undergrads and grad students. I remember last year, when I was a prefrosh, someone asked the same question in a Techerchat. Answers from upperclassmen varied from “No, you're kept in separate cages on opposite ends of campus,” to “What is a grad student?”

Until this term, I don’t think I ever met a grad student that wasn’t a TA for one of my classes, or one of the house RAs. That’s beginning to change. I’m going to do research in the Shapiro lab this summer through the SURF program, so I’ve been meeting with potential mentors, most of which are grad students. Though the lab is technically in the Chemical Engineering department, the research is rooted in basic molecular biochemistry, and is very biologically-applicable, so the members of the lab have backgrounds in almost every combination of Biology, Chemistry, Physics, and Engineering. They’re pretty awesome. Super approachable, very knowledgeable, and all working on really exciting projects!

Soon after meeting with several of the grad students in the lab, I ended up going to dinner with some Korean grad students that I had never met before. They were recipients of a Korean scholarship for grad school in America, and since my dad also received the scholarship back in the day, I ended up tagging along to a dinner hosted by the head of the program. Though Caltech has the smallest number of grad students funded by this program in the SoCal area, we ended up being the most represented group at the dinner! There was one grad student from UCLA, one from UCSD, and one from UC Berkeley who was in the area.

I went with two grad students from Caltech, traveling via taxi for one-and-a-half hours to get to Mastro’s Steakhouse in Beverly Hills. The return trip was much better (no traffic), and the food was top-notch, so it was totally worth it. My personal favorite was the appetizer. I ordered the Ahi Tuna Tartare (I had to edit these pictures because the lighting was so bad):

I split half of it with a grad student, who gave me half of his Seared Ahi Tuna:

I officially love ahi tuna. The seared tuna was so flavorful, and the guacamole and crunchy layers fit so well with the tuna in the tartare! Truly exquisite. Back to the topic. I got to talk a lot with the tuna-sharing grad student. He’s in the Chemistry department, so we knew a lot of the same people, from professors to rotation students to TAs.

The dinner group also discussed the different levels of fashion awareness at our respective colleges. The grad student from UCLA described how everyone wore dress shoes and stylish garb on campus, while the grad student from Berkeley joked about someone who advised him to start turning his clothes inside out when he ran out of clean clothes to wear. Caltech’s more in the “What is fashion?” category, which is fine by me. Shorts, shirt, and sneakers every day! As the night wrapped up, we ordered dessert. I got the house signature Butter Cake, which was overwhelming to say the least. Delicious, but a little too much:

When we parted, I realized what the upperclassman meant when he said that grad students and undergrads were “kept in separate cages on the opposite ends of campus.” We were dropped off on California Boulevard and went in exact opposite directions, heading for Wilson and Hill -- the two extreme ends of campus. It only takes seven minutes or so to walk across campus (one lap around campus is 1.5 miles), but Caltech messes with your sense of distance, so I guess we do live in separate worlds.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve met quite a few Caltech grad students through various means. It’s interesting hearing about Caltech from a grad student’s perspective. For one, most of them have no idea about the house system. When I was meeting with a grad student, I saw one of my housemates, and exclaimed that he lived in my alley. The grad student looked at me weirdly and asked, “You live in an alley?” On the way to dinner, I enjoyed hearing the grad students’ misconceptions about the houses (“Are people sorted based on their GPAs?”), and student life (“You must be so sad, studying all the time”). They also talked about the very smart undergrads in their classes, their opinions on the different food options on campus, and their lab experiences. Another grad student I met in the lab gave me really good advice about undergraduate majors and research. Looking back on it, the grad students I’ve met along the way have really made my week! It’s been a lot of fun, and I look forward to interacting with them more in the future, somewhere in between our “separate cages.”