Ways to Get Involved
While the workload can get hefty sometime, there there are many ways to get involved on and off campus if you correctly manage your time. Students are given an offering of over 125 clubs and organizations on campus (https://websites.caltech.edu/club-association). The provided link in parentheses contains the complete list of clubs and associations at Caltech with their websites (if one exists). If you cannot find the club you want, you can even start your own. While at much larger universities, there may be many more organizations and clubs, Caltech does clubs and organizations that are involved with different aspects of what medical schools are looking for such as community service, social activism and personal fitness.
In fact, all three of these things can be found at the institute affiliated non-profit organization, Caltech Y (https://caltechy.org). The "Y" has fantastic staff members, who can provide students with many resources and easily allow them to find and coordinate volunteer projects on and off campus. I personally have been involved with the Y since my first year of college at Caltech, and thanks to the organization, I have had many opportunities to volunteer, be socially active and to go on hiking and camping trips.
Among the annual events that the Y has been involved in include the regional and state Science Olympiad in Southern California, Make-A-Difference Day volunteering, off-campus tutoring, visitations to nearby retirement homes, trips to popular LA destinations, hiking and backpacking trips to Yosemite and other national parks, Decompression (beginning of finals free food and entertainment event), health fairs, community service fairs and informational series (such as for maintaining good health at Caltech and doing your taxes).
In addition to clubs and organizations, Caltech also has a diverse offering of sports including water polo and fencing. We do not have a golf team or a football team, however. That being said, nearly all of our sport teams do not cut players from the roster. This is in part due to the small pool of athletes to select from and also the lower level of competition at Caltech, where much more emphasis is placed on academics. While some sports teams such as basketball and baseball are notorious for long losing streaks, most athletes that I know very much enjoy being on a legitimate college sports team during their time at Caltech.
Due to Caltech’s small size, it is also fairly easy to get involved in the leadership through the student government. These opportunities are available both within the housing system and also on the scale of the student body. There are many positions that need to be filled each year, so if you really want to be involved in government, then Caltech is definitely an easy place to get these positions. Our informative student association website (https://donut.caltech.edu/) provides more details on these positions.
Of course, research is a way of getting involved. As I described earlier in this post, it is possible to do research both during the school year and during the summer. Generally, most incoming students first find a lab to join as a consequence of applying for a Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF). Now a little bit about this program and other summer options at Caltech pulled from my past blog (Summer Tech 2011):
Opinions on summer research programs available at Caltech|Amgen, SURF, & MURF
SURF (Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship) – The vast majority of Caltech students, who stay on campus over the summer apply for a SURF. According to the SURF website: The SURF program introduces students to research under the guidance of seasoned research mentors at Caltech and JPL. Students experience the process of research as a creative intellectual activity. Basically, for any type of research, you will have to approach a professor on campus and then ask if you can work in his or her lab over the summer. Of course, you should know what the lab does in some detail and what kind of project you are specifically interested in taking part in. A CV or resume may also be required for some mentors, who receive too many SURF students than they can accept, but generally it is easy to find research due to Caltech’s small student body size of 1000 students and a 3:1 student to faculty ratio!
Amgen – If you are interested in doing a biology-related project and may possibly want to pursue an MD-PhD (although certainly not required to do so), then it may be better to apply for an Amgen in addition to a SURF (you can submit applications to both)! You can learn more about the program here! The Amgen program at Caltech provides slightly more income than the SURF program and definitely more social activities as well as mandatory weekly seminars that introduce you to the other types of research of the professors that your peers are working for over the summer. This means that the professors themselves will do the presentations! It’s like taking part in a mini-science conference every week without having to leave campus! Super cool!
I believe the program accepts around 25 (give or take one to two) total students, half of whom are from Caltech and the other half not from Caltech. These are actually pretty good odds considering 1) freshmen and seniors cannot apply (that’s about half the student body) and 2) not everyone is interested in biology, so if you’re interested, definitely apply.
MURF (Minority Undergraduate Research Fellowship) – This is basically a SURF or Amgen for minority students. There are more social activities for smaller groups much like there are activities for Amgen. It is usually only available for non-Caltech students.
There are websites for all these programs that can simply be found by searching them on Google.
Finally, you can become a teaching assistant as an undergrad at Caltech. This is a valuable experience for those looking to teach sometime in the future, a potential career option for MD/PhDs. Opportunities are limited in number and usually to upperclassmen. Getting a TA opportunity generally involve doing exceptionally well in the class (A or A+) and then asking the professor after the course is over whether they are willing to take undergrad TAs the following year and expressing your interest. Sometimes, there are core classes and mandatory option-specific classes that hire undergrad TAs each year. Usually, an email will be sent out about announcements of opportunity as the year goes on, but it doesn’t hurt to ask upperclassmen, professors or even department staff about these opportunities. I personally had the opportunity to TA Bi1 at Caltech two years in a row. Bonuses to being a TA include being paid as it is a job and also having the opportunity to grade or assign homework to your fellow students.
If TA’ing is too much of a time commitment for you, then tutoring might be a better option. Students can sign up to be tutors in subjects where they hold considerable knowledge through the Dean’s office. If you want to tutor high school subjects, then such opportunities are available as well. The Caltech Y usually offers on-campus high school tutoring opportunities as well as off campus opportunities.
There are several off-campus opportunities available to all students including study abroad opportunities in Europe, domestic and international research opportunities and internships that occur over the summer and domestic and international volunteering trips that usually occur during winter or spring break and also over the summer. The Caltech Y also hosts an annual Washington DC science policy trip that takes place during the first week of winter break.
Study abroad opportunities are coordinated by Caltech’s fellowship advising and study abroad office located at the website: https://fasa.caltech.edu/StudyAbroad.shtml. There are currently six annual study abroad opportunities, five of which are in Europe and one in Australia. Institutions involved are Cambridge University, University College London, Copenhagen University & Danish Technical University, University of Edinburgh, Ecole Polytechnique and University of Melbourne. Studying abroad occurs in conjunction with the Caltech term and therefore, you are required to take an equivalent Caltech course load at the associated universities during your time abroad. Since Caltech’s academic terms do not coincide perfectly with those of foreign universities, students oftentimes have to leave early from break or spend their entire winter or spring break abroad.
There are certainly many reasons for studying abroad in addition to padding your application with activities medical schools want to see. While I have not personally studied abroad, I learned from my conversations with those who did that the experience was invaluable. Studying abroad not only immerses you in a different culture but helps to broaden your horizons by placing you in a group of students from different backgrounds and sometimes with different interests. For instance at Caltech, we primarily associate with students who have a strong interest in science but not necessarily a similar interest in art. When you study abroad, you can be around other groups of people, who may not share the same opinions or interests as you and as a consequence, allow you to understand more about the world.
Most Caltech students, who study abroad, claim to have a very positive experience about their time abroad. The FASA office contains a comprehensive library of these students’ written experiences when they were abroad. These resources can help you decide whether studying abroad is right for you. As you can see in my own case, studying abroad is not necessary to get into medical school, but it may provide you with a small but significant boost when it comes time to apply to medical school.
In addition to the annual science policy trip I mentioned, the Caltech Y also have other off-campus volunteering opportunities that occur through the year, which you can learn more about on its site: https://caltechy.org/programs_services/commservice/workstudy/Agencies/Category/index.php. It always amazes me how few premeds take advantage of the Caltech Y to develop their leadership skills. Of course, the usual reason is that volunteering is a big time commitment that students may not have when they are spending time on classes and doing research during the school year. In these situations, it may be worthwhile for these students to commit to one substantial project that actually takes place over a winter, spring or summer break.
Before I move on, I do want to mention that weekly and monthly volunteering opportunities are certainly available for those who have the time and interest. In the past, the Caltech Y has sent groups of students to the Union Station to cook food for the homeless once or twice a month. There have also been opportunities to teach science enrichment sessions at local schools in collaboration with the Caltech Classroom Connection and Caltech Innoworks. The Y has also sent groups on a weekly basis to tutor at Hathaway Sycamore.
Off-campus projects that take place over break include volunteering within the U.S. but away from Caltech, volunteering abroad and trips to developing countries. All of these trips are usually coordinated through the Caltech Y and are variable depending on the year. I say this because all projects that come out of the Caltech Y are inspired and coordinated by students themselves. This means that if you want to lead a trip to Costa Rica, then you can get the Caltech Y to make your plans into reality. The Caltech Y is there to not only provide opportunities for involvement but also to train students to become future leaders.
One way to do this is to have students coordinate off-campus volunteering opportunities to places like India or Costa Rica. The planning and involvement is certainly big in that you will have to deal with funding, transportation, timing, advertising for the trip and other logistics but the outcome is something that looks much more impressive than merely regularly volunteering. Even though time may be limited for premeds, you can, for instance, start preparing for these trips super early in your freshmen year and lead it a year or two later. This allows you a long time to prepare for the trip and allows you to pace yourself, so you don’t get bogged down with work.
In addition to the numerous volunteering opportunities you can get from the Caltech Y (if you put in the time), there are also other opportunities that allow you to leave campus or go abroad. One of these is to apply for a fellowship from the FASA office to travel abroad. The two that are available every year are the Bishop Fellowship and the San Pietro Travel Prize. Notice that these two prizes do not require any time of community service as part of the trip. It is purely for traveling.
Another is research. While it is usually convenient to do research right on campus in the summer, it is also possible to participate in research opportunities at other college campuses across the United States or even abroad. In fact, many colleges have some kind of SURF program that any student in any college can apply for. The easiest way to look for these opportunities is to perform web searches as most of these research opportunities have their own informational websites or web page. Research does not even have to be limited to universities either in or outside the United States.
You can also elect to do research for companies and national labs, just to name a few. Again, a quick search for these opportunities online might yield results. Alternatively, Caltech will periodically announce these opportunities through its summer research programs office. Upperclassmen are also a great resource for these types of opportunities once you get on campus. Depending on your major, these opportunities may fall under either the category of research program or internship although this is just a difference in wording that usually don’t imply much difference. For those who like programming or financial matters, internships for these opportunities are also available and they may not be bad since some successful premeds do participate in these types of summer experiences and they also count for job experience.
Funding isn’t an issue for off-campus or on-campus paid opportunities since when you are accepted for the job, the money usually follows suit. The one exception is a small number of instances when either the research lab or the summer research program office isn’t able to cover the full cost of your $6000 stipend for SURF over the summer. You will still get the job, but you may only get half the pay unless you can find a different funding source. For study abroad, funding comes from your tuition and room and board costs. These costs may or may not cover the full cost of studying abroad based on the cost of living in the country that you’re studying. In most circumstances, however, this is not an issue.
Funding does become a possibly significant issue for some volunteering projects, especially those that are initiated by you and those that go abroad. The Caltech Y has a list of potential funding sources that you can go seek. The well-known ones include ASCIT, Master of Student Houses, President’s Diversity Initiative Fund, The Diversity Program Fund, The Moore-Hufstedler Fund, GSC, Campus Life, Alumni Association and Student Affairs. However, for one student, it may be easier to obtain funding from a number of different scholarships. Internally, there is the Caltech Y ACT award, which awards students $4500 to do a community service trip over the summer. You can learn about other Y-affiliated scholarships through the Caltech Y office. Externally, there is the Strauss Scholarship, which awards students a significant amount of money to put a project idea into motion for an entire year with the expectation that the project will continue from that point onwards. This type of funding is more difficult to obtain but is certainly possible for the truly ambitious and for those, who have big ideas and enough time to pursue them.