Musings on a Small School

Musings on a Small School

Whenever I tell someone that Caltech has an undergraduate population of less than one thousand people, their first reaction is disbelief. “Really?” they exclaim. “You must know everyone! How can you get a real college experience with so few undergrads?”

To the first point : yes and no. I’d be remiss to say that news doesn’t travel fast at a small school, but there is something wonderful about walking around campus and waving to people you know (which, just in case it wasn’t clear, is not every single person I walk by). It makes campus feel cozy and familiar. Caltech may have a small undergrad population, but with an equal student population of graduate students, visiting students, professors, and Pasadena locals all mixed in, you can almost forget your whole campus is contained within a 1.5 mile loop.

To the second point : this question always puzzled me. What I think they mean is, “How can you meet and befriend diverse people from different backgrounds with such a small pool of undergrads?” And I think the answer really speaks to the admissions committee at Caltech for working to bring together a unique class of students.

It’s worth noting that the smaller class reduces acceptances from the same or neighboring high schools, a phenomenon in larger colleges which I’ve noticed can prevent people from mingling outside their familiar high school circles. At Caltech, everyone is new, and just about everyone is new to each other. My closest friends span from all along the East coast to SoCal natives to Midwesterners to Canadians. We have different academic, athletic, and extra curricular interests—I can cheer for my MechE peers as they compete in a robotics competition, watch a women’s soccer game and learn about offsides, or attempt ballroom dance with my competition-level dancer friend. I’ve eaten authentic Turkish delight, Latin American pupusas, and home-made Indian sweets from people in my house (Lloyd house!). I was persuaded by upperclassmen to change my major from Biology to Bioengineering and to learn how to skateboard to class on my Pennyboard. On an academic note, I’ve spent weekly office hours with the course professor himself in a group of just five people and found myself 3D printing and laser cutting materials to develop a new COVID-19 paper test after one cold email to the principal investigator (PI) of the lab. If it isn’t abundantly clear, I haven’t found Caltech’s small size limiting to my college experience. If anything, a small class affords a large student to faculty ratio that has given me opportunities to talk and work intimately with professors I couldn’t have found elsewhere.

What I end up responding to those worried about Caltech’s small size is something along these lines: I have only ever attended Caltech, so I can’t speak to what attending a larger college is like. But in the end, as an upperclassman friend of mine wisely put, you can only ever have around 5 close friends, give or take, at any sized college. This college of <1000 undergrads just made it easier for me to find those people.