A Focus on the Margins
Alumna and community volunteer Leigh Engen gives back to strengthen student life and learning.
Leigh Engen (BS ’99) still remembers coming to Caltech for prefrosh weekend. It was where she encountered the “coolest people” she had ever met.
“I met students who were enthusiastic about things I had never heard of, or built something it never occurred to me could have been built,” she recalls. “I went back home and told my parents I’d never met anyone like the people I got to hang out with that weekend.”
Now, as a donor, Engen is dedicated to backing enthusiastic students in ways that can translate to deeper experiences at Caltech and more fulfilling careers after graduation. Through her family’s Twenty-Seven Foundation, she has supported the Center for Teaching, Learning, and Outreach (CTLO), the First-Year Success Research Institute (FSRI, previously known as the Freshman Summer Research Institute), and the Graduate Summer Research Institute (GSRI), as well as diversity, equity, and inclusion efforts in the Division of Geological and Planetary Sciences (GPS).
Dedicated to Service
As an undergraduate in geochemistry, Engen says her academic experience was great, but tough. At the time, she didn’t feel like she had the opportunity to explore much beyond her studies, volleyball, and house activities.
“Caltech is excellent at teaching people things,” Engen says. “But I didn’t feel like I was invited or encouraged to branch out into community service—or to find other ways of being a scientist in the world.”
Upon graduation, she joined AmeriCorps, which led her to get involved with Habitat for Humanity, an international nonprofit organization that helps build and improve homes for people in need. In 2008, she earned a master’s degree in nonprofit management from the University of Georgia. Now, in her native state of Connecticut, Engen chairs her church’s mission committee and volunteers with a drug and alcohol rehabilitation group. In addition, she is a trustee of the Twenty-Seven Foundation, which she helps run.
Engen is also an active volunteer at Caltech, serving on the GPS Chair’s Council since 2017. As a former member of Ruddock House, she was recently part of a committee convened to rename the residence. Rather than memorializing an individual affiliated with the eugenics movement, the house is now named in honor of Grant Delbert Venerable (BS '32), the first Black student to graduate from Caltech.
Prepping Students for Success
Engen is confident that there will always be philanthropists who support Caltech’s cutting-edge research. So, she says: “I’m drawn to opportunities at the margins—opportunities that strengthen student life and learning. One of the things that’s interesting about science at Caltech is that people are asking different sorts of questions. I’m motivated to help make sure different sorts of people are asking those questions and to help people from historically underrepresented populations succeed.”
This is one impetus behind her gifts to CTLO, which integrates university teaching with local public schools. CTLO’s outreach to PreK–12 students uses approaches that foster inclusion, diversity, equity, and accessibility.
“This support enables events and activities that enhance the quality of teaching and learning on campus and expand the ability of students and faculty to participate in outreach activities aimed at inspiring future generations of scientists and engineers,” says Vice Provost Michelle Effros, the George Van Osdol Professor of Electrical Engineering. “Funding has been especially critical over the last few years as the pandemic amplified existing challenges and created new ones. With Leigh's support, the CTLO was able to help faculty and students build connections and accomplish their educational goals.”
Both the FSRI and the GSRI help students from underrepresented and underserved communities thrive at Caltech. For freshmen, the FSRI provides academic support and the opportunity to participate in a five-week research project. The GSRI focuses on helping graduate students build community and make connections that can boost academic and professional success. Both are committed to fostering a sense of belonging on campus.
“For students who by accident of birth or whatever else don’t come in with all the tools to succeed right away, it’s particularly tough,” Engen says. “I want every student who graduates from Caltech to feel like they have accomplished a great thing, and that they deserved to accomplish it. I want them to be as excited when they leave Caltech and go out into the world as they were when they got into Caltech.”
According to Lindsey Malcom-Piqueux, assistant vice president for diversity, equity, inclusion, and assessment, FSRI and GSRI are essential in establishing the foundation for a positive and enriching Caltech experience for incoming students from historically marginalized and/or underserved groups. “With support from Leigh and the Twenty-Seven Foundation, FSRI and GSRI have reached more students and expanded programmatic components that focus on building cohorts, fostering student belonging, and engaging with the broader Pasadena and Los Angeles communities," she says. “Leigh’s giving has made a significant impact on our ability to provide intentional academic and co-curricular experiences as students transition to the Institute, setting the stage for their future success.”
A Personal and Confident Connection
Engen believes there is something special about the geological and planetary sciences that fosters multidisciplinary and collaborative relationships, and her commitment to the division she called home during her time at Caltech remains strong. Through her family’s foundation, she has donated to the Bruce Murray Laboratory for Planetary Visualization, named for one of her late professors.
Engen was also an early supporter of the division’s diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiative, which has grown significantly in the past few years. She says she hopes these efforts will ensure that everyone has equal opportunity to be part of GPS’s exciting stories.
“With every donation we’ve made to Caltech, I’ve always been confident that the Institute was going to make the best use of that money,” Engen says. “I trust Caltech staff and faculty to do things with rigor and to be good stewards of the funds. Caltech has been an excellent partner in our foundation’s philanthropy, and that’s really valuable to me as a donor.”