Turning a spark into a fire

“Mount Holyoke offered the flexibility to pursue independent projects. Mount Holyoke allowed me to take away those boxes of who I ‘should’ be and how I ‘should’ define myself.”

Charlotte Cai ’24 embodies the potential of a liberal arts education: Over the course of her college career, she segued from psychology research to investment management. Additionally, she participated in the Williams-Mystic Coastal and Ocean Studies exchange program and conducted independent study work. Cai hopes to pursue social-impact investing after graduation.

“Mount Holyoke offered the flexibility to pursue independent projects. Everyone I met has been incredible, offering support through interests that may seem unconnected at first glance,” she said. “Mount Holyoke allowed me to take away those boxes of who I ‘should’ be and how I ‘should’ define myself.”

Cai almost didn’t come to South Hadley at all. Initially, she planned to attend a different college as an academic-athletic recruit in swimming. However, when she visited that campus, it just didn’t feel right — it was similar to her high-pressure high school. At Mount Holyoke, Cai sensed that a sustainable balance between academics and outside interests could exist in harmony. She was right.

“What was really important to me about Mount Holyoke was that people are kind here. This is the first place I’ve been where people are not stepping over each other to get ahead. I felt like people here care about something outside of their own career ambitions. I’m very grateful to have gone to this school,” she said.

As an incoming student, Cai received the Mount Holyoke Leadership Award, which recognizes first years whose academic accomplishments are paired with demonstrated records of leadership engagement. This reflects promise for continued enterprise, innovation or influence on a local or global scale.

Cai then studied at the Williams-Mystic Coastal and Ocean Studies Program during her junior year, where she wrote a policy brief on FEMA’s natural disaster response in marginalized communities. This led her to a conversation with the elder chief of the Grand Caillou/Dulac Band of Biloxi-Chitimacha-Choctaw, an Indigenous tribe in coastal Louisiana. She then proposed an independent study focusing on STEM youth programming within the tribe. Her independent work was championed by Environmental Studies Associate Professors Tim Farnham and Olivia Aguilar.

“Professors here are very open and supportive. If you show initiative and give them a spark, they’ll turn it into a fire. Tim Farnham and Olivia Aguilar took a chance on me. I don’t have an environmental studies background, but they were very open to letting me explore what could be done, which required a lot of flexibility and nuance,” she said.

It also offered valuable visibility on campus.

“This opened doors to presenting at the Miller Worley Summit on Women’s Leadership in Climate Justice, even though I didn’t previously consider myself a STEM major. I began rethinking limitations I subconsciously had: Who can be an environmentalist? Does an environmentalist look a certain way? Who belongs? How do we center vulnerable communities in ecosystems?” she said.

This work led to involvement with Growing Vines, a BIPOC-centered collective researching and imagining environmental justice and food sovereignty. Cai co-organized teach-ins, trips to racial-justice-oriented community farms, campus collaborations with cultural houses and cross-campus events with Smith College’s BIPOC co-op house.

In recognition of her efforts, Cai received the Kelly Sottile Community Service Award, which honors students who demonstrate a high level of personal commitment to the community beyond the campus. After graduation, she plans to pursue a career in socially responsible investing.

“This is one pathway to develop the skill set and the fastest training for the kinds of quantitative skills that are necessary in the sphere of public service to work more effectively and to have a greater scope of impact,” she said. “What’s exciting about social impact investing in the future is relationships: How can we support one another for our mutual benefit?”

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The Office of Marketing and Communications spreads the word about Mount Holyoke College’s distinctive strengths and newsworthy accomplishments.

Christian Feuerstein
  • Director of Public Affairs and Media Relations