A Conversation between Communicators: Alan Song Interviews Caleb Huffman

Earlier this month, I had the unique opportunity to sit down and interview graduating UW Communication senior, Caleb Huffman.

Upon first meeting Caleb, I admit that I felt a bit intimidated and a little taken aback that a student, just like myself, had accomplished so much during his academic career. However, after our interview, I left the room feeling inspired, having gained a different outlook on life and the opportunities available to me as a fellow Communication student.

After graduating in June, Caleb will be heading off to China for two years, having been selected as a Yenching Academy Scholar, an honor he shares with only one other UW student this year. As a freshman, Caleb was a Gilman Scholar and studied human migration in both Rome and Amsterdam. As a junior, he was a Husky Presidential Ambassador, and earned a fellowship with the US – China Initiative Student Fellows program in Georgetown, where he attended conferences in D.C. and Beijing. He also served as a delegate of the Forum for American/Chinese Exchange (FACES) at Stanford and Peking University.

Originally from a small town called Onalaska, Caleb loved history and initially wanted to become a history teacher, as it was his favorite subject growing up. And although his love of history hasn’t changed, his college experiences have helped shape this love into a viable path for his professional future.

“I just took opportunities here at the UW and different paths opened up to me,” he explains.

One of these opportunities was taking two social science classes his freshman year, solely because a friend had signed them both up during the Advising and Orientation Session.

“You start with just the classes, and it shapes who you are. I just really liked the professor for those classes. And then, three years later, I found that I truly liked law and international relations,” Caleb reflects.

The freshman Caleb also found that there were different communities on campus, where students seemed to only mingle with those who already occupied group-defined “bubbles.” He particularly noticed a divide between international students and the larger UW community.

“We have these bubbles and communities, and I asked, ‘how can we bridge that?’” Caleb recalls.

This has been the primary question of his college career. His junior year, he joined the Husky Presidential Ambassador Program, a cross-cultural global leadership program that combines a cohort of current UW students, and a cohort of first-year international students from China.

Bridging these social gaps, especially ones between cultures, has always been a driving force for Caleb, both personally and professionally.

Reflecting on his upbringing, Caleb talked at length about his experiences while growing up in South Seattle and then moving to Onalaska, focusing especially on how others perceive these two communities.

“I was born in Renton; the area in which I lived was socio-economically disadvantaged, but incredibly diverse,” Caleb recalls. “In the 3rd grade, I moved to Onalaska, which was very homogenous – it felt like about 90% of the population was white. Although there was a small population of Latinos, there was little-to-no diversity. It was a weird conundrum; I identified with both communities, but what I found was that people said different things about different areas, often based on their own misconceptions.”

This observation lead Caleb back to the question: how can we bridge these gaps?

“Diversity is just something we shy away from,” he states. “But what I realized is that it [diversity] is something that is necessary.”

Now three years after starting university, Caleb finds himself pursuing a path that he, shaped by his experiences at the UW, is meant to explore. After graduation, he will attend Peking University, and study China and its role in the world – the past, the present, and the future.

“Every step of the way, I have felt doubt,” Caleb admits. “And I still have a lot of doubt. Am I cut out to be this type of person? Am I even the right type of person for this role? But I also know that having these questions is okay. I have committed to taking the plunge.”

At this point of the interview, I gaze at Caleb, my eyes wide in an expression of incredulity. Did I really just hear that? Here is an accomplished young man, whose past experiences make him more than credible and the “right type of person” for this opportunity. And yet, he still struggles with doubt?

I ask him, “What do you mean by that?”

“Doubt can be a good thing,” Caleb answers, meeting my eyes. “If doubt says, ‘why are we doing this?’ I think we should entertain it and think deeper. At the end of my sophomore year, I wanted to go to law school and become a lawyer. I had the grades; my chances were good. That summer, a week before taking the LSAT, I woke up and thought, ‘why am I doing this? I don’t want to do this.’ I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but at least I knew it wasn’t that.” His tone is very calm as he continues. “This type of doubt is different than ‘bad doubt;’ the voices that go, ‘I will never be successful’ or ‘I’m not good enough.’ With that kind of doubt, you need to just kick it out, get up, and try again.”

As a college student just having entered the Communication major, I love that answer. Often while at university, I feel that we are constantly surrounded by doubt. Whether it is with your major, your career, or your future; the list goes on. Often times, it feels like everyone around us knows exactly what they’re doing and are supremely confident in their choices; we’re left feeling quite incompetent and alone.

However, the more I speak with other students, including those who seemingly have the world at their fingertips, the more I realize that we are all the same. Doubt and insecurity exist in all of us; we are all just students trying to figure out our futures in a very short amount of time.

As I reflect on Caleb’s words, I next ask what drives him; what makes him get up each and every morning? His answer is not what I expect; it is one of selflessness and hope.

“My belief that ultimately I have no control, that history is destined to the end goal of peace of justice, and there’s nothing to do to stop it,” Caleb answers.

He pauses for a little to let that sink in (and boy, does it sink in).

“But that’s a very long term and very meta perspective,” he adds with a small laugh. “I believe that everything will come together, and it’s not hopeless. What gets me up is that desire to help the world get better and be more peaceful, whether in this lifespan or not.”

Caleb then begins to rhapsodize on his love for running, and occasionally, yoga. He states that he’s a huge advocate for the health, in particular the well-being wheel that all UW freshman are introduced to during their first Advising and Orientation session. We both laugh, thinking back to those days – those simpler days. But we both know those days are in the past, and Caleb is now more than ready to take on the challenge that life presents him; to see a more peaceful world, whether in this lifespan or not.