Learning While Leading (+)

Caltech’s student leaders have full plates. In addition to splitting their time among responsibilities in academics, research, athletics, internships, social causes, and many other activities, they have also been elected to serve as representatives of and advocates for their peers.

However, these students say the juggling act can be a gratifying challenge. We recently spoke with (from left to right): Sunita Darbe, Connor Rosen, and Catherine Jamshidi about their experiences in student leadership, their goals for their organizations, and their time-management strategies.

What are your main leadership responsibilities?

Darbe: As chair of the Graduate Student Council (GSC), my job is to be the face of the graduate student body when interacting with all of the other parts of Caltech—for example, in working with the undergrads and with all of the various administrative offices and staff offices. I also try to keep an eye on what graduate students are bringing up and try to make sure that those concerns are heard by the appropriate people.

Rosen: I’m the chair of the Interhouse Committee (IHC), and the ASCIT vice president for nonacademic affairs. I deal mainly with housing, dining, issues related to how housing placements happen, and any other issues related to where people are living. IHC is also involved in the policies related to those issues, so I also serve as the intermediary between the administration and the students on these policies.

Jamshidi: As ASCIT (Associated Students of the California Institute of Technology) president, my first job is to oversee the ASCIT board of directors, which is the student government of the undergraduates. I try to be in touch with what’s going on around campus, what the student body is currently concerned about, and how I can bring those concerns to the relevant administrators or members of the faculty board.

Since you are all student leaders, can you tell us what year you are and what you’re studying?

Jamshidi: I’m a junior, studying computer science and business, economics, and management.

Rosen: I’m a senior majoring in chemistry. I do work on protein degradation in the biology lab of professor Alex Varshavsky.

Darbe: I’m a fourth year graduate student in materials science. I work with Harry Atwater on optics for ultrahigh-efficiency solar cells.

What were your goals when you began your term at the end of the last school year?

Darbe: Obviously the technical training at Caltech is awesome, bar none. But we also want to make sure that some of the nontechnical skills—ones that are important for professional development, but don’t necessarily come through the graduate curriculum—are supported by GSC efforts. This year another one of our goals is to support and recruit a diverse student body, and we’ve been very pleased to see support for this at all levels in the administration.

Jamshidi: My main goal is to learn about and address what the students care about. I also went into my term expecting to be able to give good direction to the individuals on the board of directors, helping them figure out what they need to be doing in their roles.

Rosen: A lot of what the IHC works on are yearly needs that relate to the way the house system functions. The biggest of these is rotation, which is the process by which first years are assigned to a house. When I came in as IHC chair, I set goals for how efficient and effective I wanted the process to be. In the end, I wanted the students to be pleased with both with the process itself and with the outcomes. Rotation was all over and done at the beginning of the school year, and it went very well—I think we improved on the things we wanted to improve on from previous years.

How did you get involved in this leadership role, and what made you want to be a leader?

Rosen: I ended up in student government almost by accident. I love the houses, and I was very involved in my house socially, and when someone said that our house needed a president, I said, “I want to do it.” As president of my house, I served on the Interhouse committee for a year before becoming chair. I like being involved because I care about the people, I care about the house, and I want to be here to help students solve their problems, so they can go back to focusing on everything else that life—and Caltech’s coursework—is throwing at them.

Jamshidi: I started in student government during the third term of my freshman year. For the first two terms I was here I saw the upperclassmen who were involved, and they seemed to know everything—I wanted to be like them. And my involvement was also partially driven by boredom. I play volleyball during the fall term, and then during winter I had my first break from volleyball in a long time and I was like, “I have so much free time! What do I do now?” So I became the ASCIT secretary and I really enjoyed it.

Darbe: I was involved in GSC last year, in the capacity of organizing a professional development conference. When I see something happening and I have opinions about it, I don’t like to let things sit. I like to do something about it. And fortunately, because of its small size, Caltech is an easy place to make things happen.

It sounds like these roles are time-consuming. How do you fit in time for all of the other things in your lives, like classes, research, athletics, and so on?

Jamshidi: I balance it by staying extremely organized. I schedule everything that I do, pretty much always. And if I notice that I’m spending more time on homework, I’ll reschedule everything. I don’t know how else I’d be able to do it.

Darbe: I can only do this role by virtue of it being a one-year commitment. It’s a lot of time, but it’s really rewarding, and it’s really cool to see the academic institution from the other side—to sort of peek behind the curtain.

Rosen: I’ve always made my position in the IHC a priority. I took this on because I felt it was important, and I had a lot of things I wanted to get done in the position—things that I cared about accomplishing. It is a priority, not only in terms of when I am in class, but also when I sign up for classes. If I know I could be spending 60 hours a week on IHC commitments during a particular term, I’m not going to sign up for 60 hours of classes. For example, during rotation there was one day where I woke up at 8 a.m., went to bed at 1 a.m. the next morning, and only had a lunch break in between.

How will these leadership skills be applicable to your after-graduation plans?

Darbe: I’m interested in being a research scientist. It’s not yet clear to me where the most exciting opportunity is going to be, but I think that a lot of these GSC skills are going to be very helpful. Being able to corral people, and motivate people, and run an effective meeting. And, among other things, learning how not to promise too much. So many of these skills will be very, very useful, in years to come.

Rosen: I’m applying to biology programs for graduate school right now; I definitely know that I want to stay in research. Just as Sunita said, these roles allow us to peek behind the academic curtain, and if I end up being a professor, I’ll be on the inside. To know how an institution like Caltech runs at more than just the teaching level will be useful.

Jamshidi: I think the people skills I’ve gained as a leader will help in the future. My classes have prepared me with scientific and technical knowledge, and my leadership role has helped me develop skills like being able to work with lots of different people and learn how they’re thinking. Those are important skills.

What do you think is unique about being a leader at Caltech?

Jamshidi: Caltech is so small that I feel like everyone knows me. At a larger school, people wouldn’t know who I am or what I do. Often, administrators will email me random questions like, “Who do I talk to about XYZ?” and I’ll redirect them. That interaction wouldn’t happen at a larger school.

Rosen: It also goes the other way. Because Caltech is so small, we are able to have weekly and biweekly meetings with the vice president for student affairs. That just doesn’t happen at other places. Also, I know that my job doesn’t exist elsewhere because the house system is unique. That has its pros and its cons. I love the house system; it’s great to be a part of. But when I’m trying to troubleshoot something, I can’t ask, for example, “What did they do at MIT when something similar to this happened?” because there’s no comparison to be drawn.


-Jessica Stoller-Conrad