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Connecting from a Distance: The New Prefrosh Experience

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, April 20-22 was meant to be Caltech’s Prefrosh Experience, the signature event of the admissions season, during which some 250 admitted students and their families would have come to campus for three days of activities, including tours and classroom visits. “We would put a lot of effort into those three days,” says Nikki Chun, Caltech’s director of undergraduate admissions, “because we know that an in-person campus experience is a significant influence on whether or not a […]

Nobel laureate Frances Arnold, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry, discusses her career during a video chat with more than 175 prospective students. Credit: Caltech

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, April 20-22 was meant to be Caltech’s Prefrosh Experience, the signature event of the admissions season, during which some 250 admitted students and their families would have come to campus for three days of activities, including tours and classroom visits.

“We would put a lot of effort into those three days,” says Nikki Chun, Caltech’s director of undergraduate admissions, “because we know that an in-person campus experience is a significant influence on whether or not a student chooses Caltech for the fall.”

COVID-19 changed all that, says Chun, but it also opened up new opportunities for innovation and outreach. Instead of a short campus visit, this year’s Prefrosh Experience offers ongoing video chat rooms to connect current students and their prefrosh peers as well as chances to participate in group Zoom meetings with faculty members.

“Even though we’ve had to find different ways to organize the experience, the objective has remained the same: to showcase to prefrosh and their family members all that Caltech has to offer so they can make an informed decision.”

On April 10, more than 175 prospective students logged into an informal hour-long Q&A with Nobel laureate Frances Arnold, the Linus Pauling Professor of Chemical Engineering, Bioengineering and Biochemistry.

Dressed casually in a blue “Arnold Lab” T-shirt, Arnold fielded questions about her work, her career, women in science, and about the Institute itself.

“Caltech is highly interactive. It’s very small so you can get to know a lot of people here, and we respect each other. And that includes the students,” Arnold told the prefrosh videoconference participants. “You can just go and knock on someone’s door and sit down and talk to them. This is much, much harder to do at a great big school.”

She added, “If you love science, Caltech is heaven. It really is heaven. It’s a lot of work, but anything great is worth working for.”

Karla Arriaga, assistant director of admissions, says other outreach efforts include Facebook groups and Discord chats to link prospective students with current students in an informal and collegial atmosphere. Faculty in each division have also been hosting 45-minute group video chats to discuss their disciplines and the various options available. While high-tech methods of outreach can be effective, admissions staff tailor their communications to what works best for prefrosh and their families, sometimes reaching out via phone calls, or, occasionally, letters.

So far, she says, the virtual offerings are “working better than we hoped. The size of our admitted student population gives our office the advantage to personalize each and every one of our interactions with prefrosh, from our admitted student portal to individual Zoom meetings. We have found that students have been highly engaged in participating in virtual events and have begun creating online communities using different social media platforms.”

Chun adds, “While we do wish we could do all of this in person, even online it’s easy to convey the beauty of our community and how natural it is. Whether in person or at a distance, it’s palpable.”