Between pulling all-nighters and being rather hard on himself throughout his college career, Chemistry major Gianluca Bencomo acknowledges that a few people have “changed the trajectory of [his] life,” including himself and his mentors, both within and outside of Whittier College. He made a very strong, personal connection with Dr. Richard Borne, the professor he worked with at Harvard. He met Dr. Borne back in 2019, when Bencomo started what was supposed to be a 10-week Fellowship at Harvard Medical School, but turned into a research project that the two are still working on today. Dr. Borne and Bencomo have been close ever since, finding they had a lot in common — from swimming at a young age, to going to small schools, to having a similar personality type. At this point, they are friends and coworkers, rather than mentor and mentee.

 

Included in the list of staff members that have helped him from Whittier College is Bencomo’s research advisor, Dr. Erica Fraddenger, who mentored most of his fellowship and internship choices, as well as his career path. STEM Fellowship and Internships Coordinator Elizabeth Sanchez is another advisor of Bencomo’s, who often looked over his applications. Bencomo spent hours in Professor of Chemistry Christina Bauer’s office; she had one of the most significant impacts on him as a person, Bencomo said. Without the four mentioned mentors, “my hard work would not be enough to have the opportunities that have been available to me,” said Bencomo, and though he is not generally a fan of authority, he “listen[s] to everything they say like it’s the word of God.”

 

During his senior year, these staff members were more helpful than ever. COVID-19 has thrown a wrench into a lot of things, including Bencomo’s senior project. The initial plan was to spend a couple of weeks designing a project, and to do an experiment the next semester, but, as students are not able to be on campus with their professors, this is not plausible right now. Luckily, though, Bencomo’s project is centered a little more around computer science than chemistry, which a number of his professors were not thrilled about at first, but might be much happier about now. (It beats having to read a ton of papers and write something about them, which is what a lot of STEM majors will likely have to do with COVID-19 limitations.) He still plans on doing this computational project he has planned out; his advisor, Dr. Bauer, is excited about the idea, and had been before the pandemic, when Bencomo started to talk about and build upon it.

 

In juxtaposition to all of the hard work mentioned so far, Bencomo said he was a horrible student in high school. He was a troublemaker; he rarely went to class, and he didn’t pay much attention when he was there; he never did his homework — but these were all things that changed when he decided to enroll in Whittier College. As the school is extremely small, with not much of a party scene, Bencomo found it the perfect place to reform his bad habits as a student. When leaving for WC, he told his parents that he was going to get a 4.0. “They laughed in my face. That was the last thing they did before I drove off,” he said. Even Bencomo didn’t believe he would do as well as he did throughout his college career, and he is very grateful to WC for giving him the opportunity to become a better student.

 

WC, though, is not “the perfect place in every sense,” Bencomo believes. He praises the school in terms of career and education, but he believes he has a unique personality that does not exactly allow for the best chemistry between him and the average college student (though he does have a great friend group at WC). He is a go-getter, and someone with a lot of spontaneity. In fact, over quarantine, he got sick of living with his parents, so he took the money he had saved up and moved to San Diego with a friend. Living near the University of San Diego is more fitting for Bencomo — compared to the generally quiet and studious nature of Whittier College, USD is more lively, or more balanced, at least, between the party-goers and the nerds. Bencomo appreciates the balance of USD compared to that among the student population at WC.

 

In addition to this complete reform as a student, Bencomo is an all-rounder; he does a lot of different things. This includes, but is not at all limited to: playing both guitar and piano, surfing for about an hour or two around sunset every day, taking a film camera with him on adventures to shoot some things, learning how to draw to prepare himself to begin oil painting, and snowboarding up in Canada every year that he can. Bencomo also loves to read, and left a few book recommendations for us: The Baron and the Trees by Italo Calvino (the main character of which Bencomo relates to: stubborn, with a dislike of authority), Heart of Darkness by Joseph Conrad (which is “such a loaded story . . . if you miss a sentence, you miss something [pertaining to] what the whole story is about”), and Meditations by Marcus Aurelius, which Bencomo cites as “a good how-to guide on how to live, and how to live properly.”

Bencomo getting ready to hit the waves

Bencomo already has a number of after-graduation plans set in place, depending on whether or not he takes a gap year. If he does not take a gap year, he will begin to pursue his PhD. Bencomo believes that it will be interesting to study in the United Kingdom (citing this idea as a bit “romantic, in a sense”) thanks to its nature as a more socialist country, compared to the U.S., and the subtle cultural differences between the countries. He is also thrilled to travel, and would like to travel through Europe, which studying in the UK will allow him to do. So far, he is planning to apply to two schools: Oxford and Cambridge, and he has already applied to a number of schools in the U.S., including Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and more.

 

No matter what — gap year or not — Bencomo is determined to swim the English Channel. He has been swimming all his life, and he believes training for the 28-mile (10 – 12 hour) swim is a good way to test himself. He knows he will not enjoy it while he is going it — and, granted, this will depend on the COVID-19 situation, but he is determined to have that bragging right. He knows how good he will feel about accomplishing the swim after he has completed it.

 

If he does take a gap year, Bencomo wants to spend six months in a computer science lab, ideally working with robotics and machine-learning. For the rest of this six months, he wants to travel. He has been romanticizing the idea of sailing the Atlantic with his best friend, Gabe, and he has been teaching himself to sail in the San Francisco Bay with the sailboat he bought back in May. He would be mostly prepared for this trip; he just needs to learn circumnavigation and coastal sailing, and then he will be good to go.

 

For the other three months, Bencomo would like to spend his time in a Buddhist Monastery in the Himalayas; there are hundreds of miles of hikeable trails up there, with scenic views and tiny monasteries, with only a few monks, along the trails. While Bencomo is not particularly religious, he believes he will gain a lot of knowledge that he would not be able to obtain anywhere else by immersing himself in the practices and culture of the Buddhist Monasteries. He is well aware that three months would not be enough time to fully grasp their way of living, but he knows that this is something not a lot of people get to see, or do, or understand; any time he can spend there will be enough for him to learn — whether that means taking a vow of silence, shaving his head, or something else. He wants to explore as much of the world as possible. In fact, this is something he thinks everyone should do.

When asked to provide current WC students with some advice, Bencomo was not keen on saying anything basic. “I think the worst advice is ‘study hard.’ Everyone says study hard. . . . Most people would say pick something you love, and study really hard in college, but I think that’s the wrong advice for most people.” He took a bit of a philosophical approach to his advice: “The unfortunate truth of life is that we all die at the end, and the only way to die well is to live well, and the only way to live well is to grasp an understanding of our mortality.” To do this, Bencomo said, you have to create a sense of balance in your life. This includes not falling behind in your work, exposing yourself to as much of the world as you possibly can, not wasting any time on things you do not enjoy unless you have to, and to have fun, above all else. “If it’s not worth doing, don’t do it,” Bencomo reiterated. He tied up his advice by contrasting experience with studying; being wrapped up in a textbook is not the way to learn. Books are born of experience, after all, Bencomo believes, so “as long as you’re living life, you’re reading indirectly.”

Feature image: Courtesy of Gianluca Bencomo

Author

  • Brianna Wilson is an English major who has been with the Quaker Campus since her first year at Whittier College. In-between work and school, Brianna loves journaling, working out, and watching YouTube videos (mostly from the gaming community).

Brianna Wilson is an English major who has been with the Quaker Campus since her first year at Whittier College. In-between work and school, Brianna loves journaling, working out, and watching YouTube videos (mostly from the gaming community).

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