May 19, 2021

Thanks a Million

A group that began as a student social support network has raised more than $1 million to endow a fellowship fund for graduate students at Caltech.

In 1985, several students came together to form the Caltech C Club. The name was a playful nod to the ethos promoted by the Caltech Y and a hint that, although the organization was open to all, it would function in part as an association for Chinese students.

Over the years, more than 800 students, postdoctoral scholars, staff, and faculty members have joined the C Club, making it one of Caltech’s largest and most active organizations. In addition to being a resource for students on campus, the club helps individuals from around the world and across generations keep in touch after graduation.

In 2015, Caltech Associates member and alumnus James Zhu (MS ’91, PhD ’94) came up with an idea to expand the scope of the club’s support by establishing a graduate fellowship fund. As a student, Zhu had been grateful for a fellowship that enabled him to make the most of his Caltech experience, so he decided this would be a good way to give back. He also was inspired by a match offered by trustees Gordon (PhD ’54) and Betty Moore. The match, which provides one additional dollar for every two pledged for fellowships, presented an opportunity to amplify his philanthropy.

Zhu was determined to raise $500,000. This, when combined with the Gordon and Betty Moore Graduate Fellowship Match, would create a fully endowed $750,000 graduate fellowship fund. He pitched the idea to club members Charles Fan (MS ’96, PhD ’01) and Jason Wen (MS ’85), who helped spread the word at parties and on the Chinese social media app WeChat.

Overachievers

Dozens of alumni from around the world contributed to the fund, including David Wei (MS ’04, PhD ’07), Chao Ku (MS ’98, PhD ’99), and Caltech Associates member Yu Cao (MS ’91, PhD ’97). They joined Zhu and Fan as anchor donors, which meant that regardless of how much others contributed, they would ensure that the $500,000 goal would be met.

In typical Techer style, in 2019 club members surpassed their goal, then set—and met—a new target of $750,000. As of March 2021, 84 households had contributed to the fund. With the Moore Match, the fellowship fund now has surpassed the million-dollar mark.

The Caltech C Fellowship provides financial assistance for graduate scholars across the Institute. Zhu and his fellow fund organizers left the decision about who will be eligible to receive the fellowship to the university, but they stated a primary preference for students focused on underfunded disciplines and a secondary preference for first-year graduate students of Chinese heritage.

Nine and Counting

Each C Club Fellowship is awarded to a student, and not tied to a particular lab. This gives fellows increased flexibility and freedom to pursue creative ideas. To date, the fellowship has supported nine graduate students, including PhD candidate Yujia Huang. “My research lies at the intersection of deep learning and neuroscience,” Huang says. “I am currently working to design ‘less artificial’ artificial intelligence.”

Huang has coauthored papers with Anima Anandkumar, Bren Professor of Computing and Mathematical Sciences; Changhuei Yang, Thomas G. Myers Professor of Electrical Engineering, Bioengineering, and Medical Engineering; and Doris Tsao, Professor of Biology, holder of the T&C Chen Center for Systems Neuroscience Leadership Chair, Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator, and director of the T&C Chen Center for Systems Neuroscience.

Raising funds for graduate fellowships has been a high priority for the Break Through: The Caltech Campaign. In addition to supporting promising graduate students, fellowships help Caltech attract accomplished faculty members who want to mentor and engage the best and brightest students in their investigations.

“The C Club Fellowship is the kind of support that keeps Caltech at the forefront of science and technology,” Huang says. “It helped make it possible for me to really dive into the rapidly evolving field of AI.”

To find out how you can contribute to the Caltech C Fellowship fund, please contact Megan Denison at 626-395-1529 or mdenison@caltech.edu.

For more general information about how you can support graduate education at Caltech, email give@caltech.edu or call (626) 395-4863.