Jorge and Roman

When Jorge Calderon arrived in Berkeley from Colombia as a freshman in 1978, his future was already prescribed: He planned to get his bachelor’s degree in civil engineering, go on to MIT for a master’s degree, and return promptly to his native country to work with his father creating “prefabricated concrete homes for the masses.” But it was a different era then, and Colombia was an economically volatile and dangerous place.

When the time came for Calderon to return home, his father encouraged him to stay in the U.S. He went on to forge a successful career in investment banking, including senior management positions at Credit Suisse and Deutsche Bank. He’s currently chairman of Promise Financial, with enough resources to think about giving back to the institutions that were fundamental to his professional success.

No Strings Attached

The idea to create a graduate student fellowship at Berkeley came from an unexpected source: Stanford. “A woman from the Stanford development office visited me with a written contract,” he remembers. “They had calculated, based on my current income level, what I should be contributing to the university.” Calderon took that figure and divided it in three – each third directed to one of his three alma maters. In addition to his BS in civil engineering from Cal, he holds a master’s in Engineering from MIT and an MBA from Stanford. For his gift to Berkeley, he ultimately decided to create a fellowship that would benefit students from his native Colombia.

“Berkeley is one of the highest-ranked and most broadly recognized universities in the world,” Calderon says. “It’s my hope that this fellowship will allow high-caliber students to reach their maximum potential and that at some point they’ll contribute to Colombia…”

Today, that country is much safer than when he left it in the seventies, Calderon says. It has a strong education system through the undergraduate years, though many Colombian students still go abroad to get advanced degrees. A national program, Colfuturo, funds graduate students to study internationally, but with a catch: They must return to Colombia or face losing the program’s partial loan forgiveness. He decided to use a matching program to create his own endowed fund – the Colombian Graduate Student Fellowship — that would assist Berkeley students with a strong connection to Colombia who are studying economics, engineering, mathematics, or the physical or life sciences. The fund benefits one graduate student annually, partially covering the costs of tuition and fees.

“Berkeley is one of the highest-ranked and most broadly recognized universities in the world,” Calderon says. “It’s my hope that this fellowship will allow high-caliber students to reach their maximum potential and that at some point they’ll contribute to Colombia, hopefully by returning to that country — but it’s not a requirement.”

An Intergenerational Exchange

This year’s recipient of the fellowship is Román Zárate, a PhD student in economics. The two men met last summer in Bogotá, after Zárate had been awarded the fellowship, and continue to talk regularly about their shared field and the future of Colombia. “Jorge is trying to establish a deeper relationship between Berkeley and my alma mater, the Universidad de los Andes,” Zárate explains. “He’d like to create some mutually beneficial engineering research collaborations and I’ve been helping him with contacts.”

A personal friendship, an international collaboration, and an ongoing legacy to benefit graduate students well into the future – anything is possible at a place like Berkeley. Calderon remembers being astonished at the amazing resources he found on campus. “I had several professors and courses that were literally life-changing,” he says. “When I came out of Berkeley, I was a different person.”


Categories: Headlines, November 2016

About Kirsten Mickelwait

A proud third-generation Cal alumna, Kirsten is a Bay Area-based writer who regularly produces content for colleges and departments across the Berkeley campus. Particular passions are higher education, health care, climate change, and the arts. She fondly remembers her days in Wheeler Hall as an English major.