When Caltech’s Department of Computing + Mathematical Sciences started thinking about how to connect students to alumni, they decided to buck the trend of traditional higher-ed mentoring programs, in which alumni act as generalists for all things post-graduation. Instead, they developed the CMS Mentoring Program, which connects students with mentors who offer more specific guidance. For example, one mentor may help with presentation or interview skills, while another might offer insights into a potential employer.
The program launched in February 2017, and, thanks to an endowment recently funded by Phil Naecker (BS ’76), it now boasts 25 alumni mentors who come to campus several times a year to spend one-on-one time with everyone from undergraduates to postdocs to other alumni.
“Our alumni have incredible networks and know a ton about industry, so to have them come here to offer advice and open their networks is so valuable,” says Claire Ralph, who directs the program as well as Caltech’s Career Development Center. “Alumni can be really great allies to the current student body.”
We asked Adam Slovik (BS ’88), a current mentor in the program, and one of his mentees, Myra Interiano (BS ’17), to share what the experience has taught them.
In my work, I like to be a very hands-on investor, so I roll up my sleeves and sometimes take an operating role. I just love the whole energy and atmosphere of start-ups—and I love mentoring the CEOs, other managers, and staff. So when I heard about the opportunity to mentor at Caltech, I was excited.
One of the things I tell Caltech students over and over—because I needed someone to tell me this—is that you might feel like you are barely keeping up, like everyone else is doing better than you. Maybe you’re getting a B for the first time in your life. I was constantly struggling at Caltech. But then you go into the real world and realize how lucky you were to have had access to the professors you did, as well as your fellow students.
First, I really enjoy it. I enjoy talking to students and hearing about their projects. Second, I want to make Caltech a place that I could unreservedly recommend to my kids and know that if they went there, they would have a great experience. And finally, if I gained access to some of these students as interns or potentially as alums I could hire into my companies, that would be absolutely fantastic.
I got a call about Myra, a recent alum who was working an hourly job somewhere. So we had a Skype call, and, like so many Caltech graduates, she was comparing herself to all the other Caltech graduates. I said, “Listen, I’m going to get you a job at one of my companies—not because I’m so magnanimous, but because any company of mine that has you on its staff is so much more likely to succeed.” I didn’t realize at the time how much impact this would have; I found out later that what I said made her feel more confident.
After graduation, I realized there’s this whole level of knowledge about the job search that I was totally unaware of. My older sister had attended college, but neither of my parents did. I started going to career programming through the Alumni Association and forced myself to talk to people. I asked them about their trajectories and realized there’s no straight line—even once you’ve had a job. That helped me be less hard on myself.
I went to one of the CMS mentoring presentations on technical interviewing given by Caltech alums Phil Naecker and Mason Smith (BS ’09), which was super helpful in demystifying the process and helping me feel better about interviewing. I was reintroduced to Phil at another CMS alumni mentoring event and had a one-on-one session with him where I got more feedback about interviewing and projecting confidence. Since then, the mentoring program has taught me a lot about the possibilities that are out there when one has a Caltech education and is willing to engage with other alums—something I honestly didn’t fully appreciate until I had all of these conversations.
At first, I was scared because I wasn’t sure what to expect. I looked Adam up beforehand, and he’s featured in YouTube videos. I thought he might be a tough person to talk to. But no, he was really supportive, telling me: “Caltech’s a tough place, and you got through it. Tell me what you can do, and let’s see if we can find a place that matches your interests and skills.” I ended up with two job offers from his companies, and the CMS mentoring program helped me figure out how to make a decision. For instance, “Is this the right thing to say when I’m asking for more time to make my decision? And how do I ask for an interview without being pushy, because I need to tell the other company yes or no?” That’s the kind of information I would never have known on my own.
On day one, my supervisor said, “Okay, this is what you need to do; get started.” They give me a lot of autonomy, noting, “You’re really good at working by yourself—we can just tell you what we need, and you go get it done.” That type of problem-solving, where every step isn’t spelled out, is what I learned doing research and problem sets. I like that. I welcome it.
Interested in mentoring Caltech students and alumni? Find yourself in need of career direction and advice?
The online CALTECH ALUMNI ADVISORS NETWORK (CAAN) connects Caltech students and alumni to a broad network of graduates who can offer career insights and advice. From negotiating a salary to crafting a personal statement to plotting a career path, CAAN helps students and alumni find the advice they need.
Join the network at alumniadvisors.caltech.edu.