Embodying CCCE work in life after Carleton

27 May 2019

One of the first things noted on Carleton’s website is that the college is “a place where students are likelier to cooperate than compete.” This astute observation captures the ideals that Carleton has historically defined itself by — it strives to be a liberal institution that is ahead of the curve on social change and progress, and collaboration is a key part of that.

In order to initiate progressive change in our own communities and others, it is integral to operate through cooperation rather than competition. With the ideal of reciprocity at its core, civic engagement is one of the many directions Carls take their skills in collaboration, both during and after college.

Carleton currently has 338 alumni working in public service, 313 in social service, and 52 alumni currently listed as volunteering for organizations like the Peace Corps. In the sectors related to focus areas of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE), there are 1,484 alumni working in education, 316 in jobs related to the environment, and 2,134 working in health care.

A major way that current students gain an understanding of civic engagement in these fields is through involvement with the CCCE. Frequently, that experience helps point students in the direction of their future career — Vayu Rekdal ’15 was one of those students. Vayu, who started Young Chefs at Carleton, took time out of his busy schedule at Harvard Graduate School to email us about his career and involvement in civic engagement.

What are you getting your Ph.D in, and in what direction do you hope to take your career after that? 

I am currently doing my PhD in the laboratory of Emily Balskus in the department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology. We study the chemistry of microorganisms relevant to human health and disease, focusing mostly on the microbes that live inside the human gastrointestinal tract. My project explores how gut microbes modify the molecules that we ingest, including pharmaceutical drugs and dietary compounds. By identifying the specific bacterial species and enzymes that metabolize these molecules, we hope to develop more individualized approaches to medicine and nutrition.

My PhD has given me a fantastic opportunity to explore how plants that we eat are modified inside the body and the consequences that might have for our health. In my next step, I hope to combine this microscopic understanding of microbes and chemistry with my macroscopic understanding of cooking to better understand how microbes mediate human experiences with food, not just in terms of texture and flavor, but also in terms of nutrition and health. Ultimately, I want to start a research center devoted to education and research at the interface of science and cooking. 

Do you foresee civic engagement in your future in any capacity?

Civic engagement, which started for me at Carleton and the CCCE, is a core part of my mission in life. Following graduation from Carleton I took the Young Chefs Program with me to Boston, where I have been teaching cooking and science classes to kids, as well as running programs to train teachers in our hands-on science and cooking curriculum.

Cooking is a powerful tool for science education. It allows people to use all their senses as they explore complex topics in physics, chemistry, and biology. It also gives people a connection between their identity, their culture, and the natural world. People can bring in their own food traditions and recipes and understand how things are working on a microscopic level.

I think this makes cooking-based science education a powerful tool for broadening access to STEM and making science more inclusive. I hope to continue this for the rest of my career.

Carleton can be hectic even without extracurriculars, why did you take the initiative to start Young Chefs in the first place?

Growing up with a single mother, I had to help out in the kitchen early on in life. What started as a necessity gradually evolved into a passion. Learning how to cook early on gave me a creative outlet and a sense of responsibility. I could take care of myself. It also connected me to my culture and my identify, helping me understand my Cuban-Indian-Norwegian heritage. Ultimately, it led me to science.

As my cooking got more advanced I started to ask what was going on in my mixing bowls, pots, and pans. Science became a tool for understanding food. Food became a tool for understanding science. When I came to Carleton, I wanted to give this same experience to other students from challenging backgrounds like my own.

The Young Chefs program started as a cooking program for middle school boys, but eventually evolved into a cooking and science program for all genders across the Northfield and Faribault school districts. Working with the middle school students and with Carleton volunteers gave a lot of meaning to my time at Carleton. I became connected to the community and to students who shared some of the same struggles I had when I was younger. Carleton would not have been the same without this experience.

How did your involvement with community engagement and the CCCE at Carleton prepare you for post-grad work? Did it help you figure out what you wanted to do with your future?

My work with the CCCE has profoundly influenced my missions and goals in life. Running the program and working with the students showed me the power of using cooking to teach science. Cooking and science has traditionally belonged in high-end restaurants inaccessible to the public. My experience at Carleton highlighted to me that cooking and science can enable so much more than modernist $1000 meals.

We can use cooking and science to empower people with hands-on culinary and scientific skills. I carry this with me wherever I go and will continue working with this for the rest of my life. Needless to say, this realization was made possible by the generous support and guidance from the CCCE.

During the initial development stages of

Young Chefs Vayu wanted to explore ways to make the program more grounded in science. He reached out to the chemistry department, and professor Deborah Gross was more than happy to collaborate. Together they developed the lesson plans that would help students explore cooking and science together. Gross later ran an independent study with Brian McDonald where college students created the materials that are now found on the Young Chefs website, and Vayu was there every term to help.

Vayu’s experience is an exceptional one — community involvement takes many different shapes at Carleton and beyond. Academic Civic Engagement courses are often an initial step for students who wish to work with the Northfield community but may not have time to do so outside of the classroom. These classes provide a basis for scholarly engagement with issues surrounding traditional community service. That mental framework can then be appropriated for future public work.

The Carleton alumni who incorporate service into their careers began at varying levels of engagement in undergrad. For current seniors who have just a few weeks left, or for those juniors already thinking about the future, the alumni network is a key resource for finding paths into the professional world of civic engagement. If you are an alum and are doing civic engagement work, we’d love to hear from you. Feel free to email ccce@carleton.edu to get in touch!