Nivetha Karthikeyan’s (BS ’20) time at Caltech was spent following her passions in computer science, social justice, history, and archival research. In the summer of 2020, as a newly minted college graduate entering a strange world of a global pandemic and street demonstrations, Karthikeyan had to make her first career move. Each interest represented a wildly different path.
As the 2020 recipient of the Milton and Rosalind Chang Career Exploration Prize, Karthikeyan now has the luxury to experiment with different interests while performing original research. Her project, “Intersections: Building Solidarity Through Community Archives,” will share historical examples of solidarity between marginalized communities. It will broadly examine how different racial groups throughout history have joined together to support each other and enact change. Thanks to the Chang Prize, which awards up to $65,000 to each recipient, Karthikeyan has the freedom to focus solely on the project for a year, untethered to the priorities of an employer or the demands of graduate school studies.
“The Chang Prize has already changed my path in life,” says Karthikeyan who now lives in New Jersey. “This is an incredible and rare opportunity to take pieces of inspiration from my historical research and share them with the rest of the world.”
Established in 2017, the Chang Prize taps into our secret thoughts and ambitions by asking: If money were not an issue, what would you do to make the world better? If you could delay taking on a 9-to-5 job, what other interests would you pursue?
The Chang Prize turns those answers into reality.
The award was conceived of and supported by Caltech senior trustee and 2002 Distinguished Alumnus Milton Chang (PhD ‘69) and his wife, Rosalind. Semi-retired and living in Northern California, Chang devotes his time to mentoring entrepreneurs. Yet, he remembers feeling disengaged in the early years of his career working in the aerospace industry.
“I struggled because I was not relating to my work,” Chang says. “I believe in self-actualization, and that we have talents that need to be shared with humankind. Yet I had not found my calling in life.”
Two years after graduation, Caltech classmate John Matthews (MS ’63, PhD ’67) invited Chang to join his new company, Newport Corporation. Chang jumped at the chance. There, he could apply his technical knowledge of lasers but also explore business strategy, marketing, and sales. Chang discovered he had a talent for taking companies at their earliest stages and guiding them to success. Over time, he honed this skill and became an accomplished entrepreneur and angel investor who engineered six initial public offerings and seven acquisitions.
“How many of us actually know the optimal career for ourselves?” Chang asks. “Taking the time to test out new fields and explore different talents can be helpful. To do that, you need resources, and I know how tough the world can be.”
Taking the time to test out new fields and explore different talents can be helpful. To do that, you need resources, and I know how tough the world can be.
This is an incredible and rare opportunity to take pieces of inspiration from my historical research and share them with the rest of the world.
Karthikeyan’s “Intersections” was born out of her senior history thesis dedicated to South Asian immigration and technical labor. Her search for primary sources led her to the South Asian American Digital Archive. SAADA and other community archives enable people, bound together by a culture, identity, or social movement, to preserve and share their history outside of mainstream institutions.
As she pored through oral histories, personal letters, and newspaper clippings, Karthikeyan was intrigued by the vignettes of transracial solidarity she came across, and that were often forgotten or unknown by the broader public.
“Those sources showed me that our communities are built on histories of connection and solidarity in the face of oppression,” says Karthikeyan, who began volunteering with SAADA this year as a special projects assistant. “In this time when so many of us are searching for ways to connect and support one another, I think we ought to turn to those histories.”
“Archival research allows us to do that. It contextualizes our current moment in broader narratives from the past, reminds us of ways people have already fought against systems of bigotry, and encourages us to conceive of new possibilities for our shared future.”
For the first phase of her project, Karthikeyan wants to broaden the story Caltech shares of itself with the world. She is interviewing a handful of alumni involved in campus social and political movements across the decades to explore how community and solidarity have been embodied at Caltech throughout its history. Their stories will be published by the Caltech Archives, whose oral history collection includes Nobel laureates and Institute presidents.
As she embarked on her own social justice journey as an undergraduate, Karthikeyan says she would have benefitted from learning about Caltech’s history of activism and meeting with alumni who had walked those paths before. The oral histories, coupled with a panel discussion she is organizing, will make it easier for future students to know they are part of a larger legacy at Caltech. She credits the Chang Prize for making it possible.
“Through the Chang Prize, I am able to build on practices of oral history and community archiving to design my own public humanities project,” Karthikeyan says. “I am so grateful to have the opportunity to branch out and be the recipient of so much generosity.”
Digital story was updated April 30, 2021, and includes revisions not included in printed Techer magazine.
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