The Value of a Good Question

Caltech young alumni trustee Mason Smith (BS ’09) knows the value of a good question.

In April, Mason Smith (BS ’09), head of software engineering at TGS Management Company, joined the Caltech Board of Trustees as a young alumni trustee. Smith, who double majored in mathematics and computer science, says that one of the things he took away from Caltech was the importance not just of knowing or finding the answers to crucial questions but of knowing which questions to ask in the first place.

What Do I Really Like?

When Smith first came to Caltech, he had a wide range of academic interests. But, he recalls, “I was quickly disabused of the idea of pursuing physics or chemistry when I met people who were much, much better—and much more devoted—than I was.”

And yet, as Smith readily admits, he also met people who outstripped him in math and computer science as well. “So why did I stick with those?” he asks. “Sometimes, if you’re paying attention, what you truly enjoy shakes out of everything, because those are the things you want to do, regardless of how you stack up against everyone else.”

Why Am I Here?

Early on at Caltech, Smith found himself overextended with coursework and extracurricular activities. He realized that, although he had come to Caltech for the rigorous academic experience, connecting with people had become an unanticipated highlight of his Caltech career. And so, rather than give up his most meaningful student-life activities, he eased up on classes. (“Eased up” is a relative term, of course: Smith graduated in four years with a double major in computer science and math. “But I didn’t triple major,” he points out with a grin.)

That decision paid off. Smith was elected vice president of Page House during his first year at Caltech and served as house president during his third. For his sophomore year, he took a break from house leadership and joined Caltech’s Board of Control, a committee of undergraduates charged with investigating academic violations of the Honor Code. “It really is part of Caltech’s culture to do the right thing,” Smith says.

He paused to reflect on that same question after leaving Caltech and moving on to grad school. “I had always known that I wanted to go to grad school,” he says. “But once I got there, I wondered why. The question wasn’t whether or not it was too hard; I went to Caltech, so I knew I could handle it. The question was: ‘What was I getting out of it?’” After a year, Smith left graduate school to become a software engineer. He says he has never regretted the decision.

When Is Better Than Now?

Smith made his first gift to endow a scholarship at Caltech while he was in his 20s. He points to the ethical philosopher Peter Singer as a major inspiration for his philanthropy. “I was convinced by his argument that I should make an impact now because there are people who will benefit,” Smith says. “Why wait? Every little bit helps.”

Smith had come to Caltech in 2005 with a merit-based scholarship. In the years since, many competitive universities, including Caltech, have largely discontinued merit scholarships in order to preserve funding for families with the greatest financial need. Caltech remains among approximately 6 percent of private U.S. institutions whose need-blind admissions decisions are based solely on prospective students’ accomplishments and promise. Moreover, Caltech is committed to covering each domestic student’s demonstrated unmet financial need.

“For me, choosing to give to Caltech is a no-brainer. When you are part of a community, it’s what you do: you give back.”
- Mason Smith

Smith knew that gifts from alumni and other friends bolster Caltech’s ability to provide this assistance and that raising funds for scholarships is a top priority for Break Through: The Caltech Campaign. And so it has become a high priority for Smith as well: he has contributed generously to both endowed and current-use scholarships at Caltech.

In addition to scholarships, Smith has supported the Freshman Summer Research Institute (FSRI), an orientation and academic support program offered by the Caltech Center for Inclusion and Diversity. “A small school isn’t for everyone,” Smith says. “It’s for people who want opportunities to get involved and make a difference—and I want to help make sure that all students feel like this is the place where they can do that.”

Now, Smith is also serving his alma mater through his just-begun five-year term as a young alumni trustee on the Caltech Board of Trustees.

“For me, choosing to give to Caltech is a no-brainer,” he says. “When you’re part of a community, it’s what you do: you give back.”

For more information about how you can support Caltech undergraduates and take advantage of a matching program for scholarship donors, please contact Nicole Weaver-Goller, senior director of development, (562) 754-7903 or nweaver-goller@caltech.edu.

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