In summer 2016, a few months after the Caltech- and MIT-operated Laser Interferometer Gravitational-wave Observatory (LIGO) announced the first-ever detection of a gravitational wave signal from that ancient black hole merger, Zhu (MS ’91, PhD ’94) participated in a Caltech Associates President’s Circle trip to the LIGO facility in Hanford, Washington, where he spoke with Caltech Professor of Physics Yanbei Chen (PhD ’03).
Chen told Zhu that the graduate students and postdocs who contributed to LIGO’s success relied on Caltech fellowships. In that moment, Zhu, who was searching for a compelling narrative to attract donors to the fellowship fund he was starting, realized something.
An Inspiring Match
The idea of creating a graduate fellowship first came to Zhu in fall 2015 after he learned about a match funded by trustees Gordon (PhD ’54) and Betty Moore. The match provides one extra dollar for every two pledged to endow Institute-wide fellowships at Caltech. “It occurred to me that it was time for me—a Caltech graduate who has benefited significantly from Caltech, both financially via fellowships and intellectually via graduate programs—to give something back to the school,” Zhu says.
Zhu set a goal of raising $500,000, which, combined with the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match, would result in a fully endowed $750,000 graduate fellowship fund. Recalling his time at Caltech, Zhu knew just the group to target for his fundraising.
The Caltech C
The Caltech C was founded in 1985 with the goal of “promoting friendship and cultural interaction.” While many of its members are of Chinese descent and hail from mainland China and Hong Kong, the club is open to all students.
This open ethos is embodied in the name of the club itself, which is deliberately formulated so that students can interpret it however they wish. “We chose the name Caltech C partly to play off Caltech Y, a very old and well-known Caltech organization,” explains Jason Wen (MS ’85), Caltech C’s first president, “but, even more important, we didn’t want to limit who could join.”
A Grassroots Effort
Over the next several months, Zhu shared his idea with other Caltech C members. Word spread quickly, thanks in large part to the efforts of Wen and Charles Fan (MS ’96, PhD ’01), both of whom are well known and respected in the Caltech C community. “Without Jason and Charles, the fellowship might still be just a concept,” Zhu says.
Fan talked about the fellowship fund at parties he hosted for Caltech C alumni in the Bay Area. “I tried to communicate to the group that it doesn’t matter how much you donate,” Fan says. “Even small donations are good because they demonstrate strength in numbers.”
Zhu and Fan also pitched the fund via a Caltech C group chat on the Chinese social media app WeChat—reaching more than 300 members scattered around the globe. The message resonated with many, and the response was overwhelmingly positive.
“I had been thinking about the best way to give back to Caltech, so when Charles mentioned this idea to me, I just told him ‘I’m in,’” says David Wei (MS ’04, PhD ’07).
For Wei, Caltech and Caltech C are deeply entwined. “Caltech C was essential in my life at Caltech from day one,” he says.
“When I came to Caltech in 2001 as a new international student from China, Caltech C members showed me how to set up a bank account, helped me with my driving test, and even took me grocery shopping. Through the club’s weekend hikes, I explored areas around L.A., like Mount Wilson, Mount Baldy, and Santa Monica. After I was settled, I volunteered to help new students.”
Wei liked the idea of a Caltech C fellowship so much that he became one of five “anchor donors”—members who agreed to contribute however much would be necessary to reach the $500,000 milestone. To date, 77 donors have pledged more than $546,000 to the Caltech C Graduate Fellowship fund. In addition to Wei, Zhu, and Fan, anchor donors included Yu Cao (MS ’91, PhD ’97) and Chao Ku (MS ’98, PhD ’99).
The Caltech C Graduate Fellowship will provide financial assistance for graduate scholars across the Institute, with a primary preference for those focused on underfunded disciplines and a secondary preference for first-year graduate students of Chinese heritage. But Zhu and his fellow fund organizers have left the decision about who will be eligible for the fellowship to the university.
“We’ve stipulated that the funds go to a student doing research in an underfunded discipline, but we trust Caltech to decide what that means,” Fan says. “Some fields have difficulty attracting funding but are nevertheless important, and we trust the school to know which ones those are.”
Looking to the Future
Zhu is amazed at how far his grassroots fundraising effort has come. And as the fund has grown, so, too, has his thinking about what is possible. The fellowship has proven so popular that its organizers now are aiming for a stretch goal of $750,000. Combined with the Moore Match, that would bring the total endowment to $1,125,000.
“If the matching opportunity continues, we could potentially keep adding to the Caltech C Graduate Fellowship and let it grow organically—initially sponsoring one graduate student but possibly more in the future,” Zhu says.
“We want the fund to be passed on, like a torch, to future generations who can continue to contribute and keep it going for a long time to come.”