The newest members of the Caltech community entered Beckman Auditorium to cheers and thunderous applause. After stopping to soak in the moment and snap a few photos, they took their seats, ready for it all to begin.
On Monday, September 18, Caltech students, staff, and faculty welcomed more than 500 incoming undergraduate and graduate students to campus at the 2023 Convocation ceremony. Hosted by Kevin Gilmartin, Caltech's vice president for student affairs and William R. Kenan Jr. Professor of English, the event initiated new students into Caltech's tight-knit community with fanfare.
"We're thrilled that you chose to join us," said Gilmartin, who is also the Allen V.C. Davis and Lenabelle Davis Leadership Chair of Student Affairs, in his introduction. "You'll no doubt find yourself challenged and changed in meaningful ways during your time here. But it's no less true that we—all of us who live and work at Caltech—will be transformed by you."
Gilmartin then introduced a video message from Caltech President Thomas F. Rosenbaum, who could not attend Convocation in person due to a commitment in Washington, D.C.
Rosenbaum welcomed the new students to Caltech, emphasizing the Institute's legacy of scientific discovery and highlighting opportunities for students to shape their learning experience.
"We need to solve many of the great problems facing our society, and you'll be prepared to do that," said Rosenbaum in the prerecorded message. "Congratulations on taking these first steps in your journey. It'll be a glorious and fulfilling one for all."
Three student representatives also shared remarks during the ceremony. Alex Burr, a fourth-year undergraduate and chair of the undergraduate Academics and Research Committee, spoke to the role of failure and success in the undergraduate experience.
"Even if [what you're trying] doesn't go perfectly the first time around, [I hope] you can take a step back and focus on the joy of discovering something new, whether that be in the lab, in the classroom, or deeper within yourself, with peers who are just as thrilled to learn new science, build some awesome crazy contraption, and figure out how to do the problems on their first set as you are."
Matteo Guareschi and Matt Ratanapanichkich, graduate students and co-chairs of the Graduate Student Council, encouraged new students to make the most of Caltech.
"Caltech attracts incredibly creative and talented researchers from all six divisions and from all over the globe," Ratanapanichkich said. "But even more importantly, in a world that is moving ever toward the blending of fields to birth novel and innovative directions, it is the proximity and diversity of the community that allows for creativity like nowhere else."
"My advice to you is to keep your minds open while you are at Caltech," Guareschi added. "Maybe after a few years have gone by, you will look back and realize that you are not the same person that was sitting in this room today; you will have new interests, new passions, and maybe even a new job, all thanks to the most unlikely moments."
Laurie Leshin (MS '89, PhD '95), director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), Caltech vice president, and the Bren Professor of Geochemistry and Planetary Science, then delivered a keynote address on this year's Convocation theme: the joy of discovery.
Sharing a presentation with photos and videos, she spoke candidly about her journey in science and the significance of passion in STEM.
"People who aren't involved in STEM think of scientists and engineers as people who methodically learn things and get things done without a lot of passion and emotion, right?" said Leshin, a recipient of the 2021 Caltech Distinguished Alumni Award. "What we know, and what you'll discover even more than you already have on your path here, now that you're here to engage in this incredibly passionate community, is that gaining new knowledge is about passion."
Leshin shared an example from a mission she worked on in 2009 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. Astronauts on a spacewalk servicing the Hubble Space Telescope had trouble unscrewing a bolt on the camera equipment being replaced, and the mission was in danger of failing. In a video played onscreen, the NASA Goddard team in mission control was wringing their hands.
"I'll tell you, people in mission control were crying," said Leshin, who experienced the moment firsthand. "These are people who had, for 10 years, worked to build this new camera and get it safely up to Hubble, and they might have had to bring it home. That is when you start to see the passionate commitment that people have."
As the video showed, the astronauts managed to remove the stuck bolt and replace the telescope's camera, prompting the group at mission control to celebrate in relief.
"The concept of teams coming together to go after bigger things than any of us can do alone, that is a beautiful thing that NASA does and that Caltech does," Leshin said.
After sharing a similar video of a team at JPL passionately celebrating the first flight of the Ingenuity Mars Helicopter—the first rotorcraft to be flown on another planet—Leshin addressed the new Caltech students.
"In many ways, each of you is like the Ingenuity Helicopter. You are ready for takeoff, and you've got an amazing team of people backing you and waiting to support you in your success."
She concluded: "I hope you approach your first year here and all the years after with the same kind of joy and passion that we try to do each and every day at NASA, and that your colleagues here at Caltech try to do. We're here to support you."