From reluctance to revelation: A new path for students to discover economics

Three students sit at a table looking over papers.
Image credit: Karen Osuna ’25
Author  Danna Lorch
Published on 

When Noely Irineu Silva ’27, a student from Brazil, began selecting courses for her first semester at Wellesley, she focused on political science and sociology—fields she considered open-ended and creative. “Nothing involving math, please,” she remembers thinking, cringing as she charted her schedule.

But a personalized invitation from two professors to join ECON 251: Wellesley Initiative for Scholars of Economics (WISE) offered an intriguing plot twist.

Irineu Silva admits she enrolled in WISE to cross a graduation requirement off her to-do list. Yet as a result of having taken the course, she’s now set on majoring in economics and pursuing a career involving economics research.

Co-taught since 2022 by Akila Weerapana, professor of economics, and Casey Rothschild, Norma Wilentz Hess Professor of Economics, WISE is offered to students who would benefit from extra mathematical and quantitative support as well as to first-generation college students.

“There are some pretty disappointing statistics about those who study economics at the higher education level,” Weerapana says. “It has little representation across race and ethnicity lines and is also very segregated socioeconomically. It is more likely to be taught in highly resourced high schools.”

As a result, students who come from less privileged backgrounds may not know about economics as a potential path, or may assume it’s only for people considering a career in finance.

WISE’s innovative course format isn’t lecture-based like other introductory economics classes. Learning basic economic theory is critical, but WISE, as the syllabus explains, ”flips the curriculum” by exposing students to the reasons for pushing through those challenging classes and showing them how an economics degree can help them solve real-world problems.

I realized it’s not as intimidating as it initially seemed. We all came from very different backgrounds and began to raise our hands to ask questions without feeling ashamed about not knowing something.

Elisabeth Sylvestre ’26

Economics faculty, alums in the field, and prominent economists are invited to speak to the class. In fall 2023, Kartini Shastry, associate professor of economics, presented research on early childhood roots of the rise in chronic disease, and Emma Rackstraw ’14, a Ph.D. student at Harvard, spoke about the distortionary effect of reality TV policing shows.

Sessions like these show students some of the many directions an economics background can take them. “Economics is in fact very creative,” Irineu Silva says. “The presenters broke down all my preconceptions.”

WISE is taught in conjunction with ECON 101P or 102P, intensive introductory courses in micro- and macroeconomics. The class meets three times per week, but the close-knit cohort of around 20 students regularly study together at office hours. That's also when they receive 1:1 support from Weerapana and Rothschild whenever needed.

“Akila and I believe being accessible to students and having as close to unlimited office hours as we can manage is what helps [them] succeed,” Rothschild says. “It’s part of our teaching style. That’s supercharged when we’re co-teaching."

Irineu Silva and her cohort broke into study groups that regularly attended office hours. They would sit in the hallway in Pendleton East to work on problem sets, popping into the professors’ offices to ask for clarification about a concept or two.

“At office hours, I can not only encourage a student, but I can also sit with them and see their notes, see what they are struggling with, and point them in the right direction,” Weerapana says.

That support has proven invaluable for Elisabeth Sylvestre ’26, who grew up in Spain, where she took economics classes all four years of high school. Sylvestre knew from day one at Wellesley that she wanted to major in economics. “I chose to take WISE because I wanted to make sure my foundation in economics was solid and wanted to be exposed to research early on,” she says. At first she felt that regressions, a statistical model, seemed out of reach, but she gained confidence after seeing the professors break them down into small, achievable steps during office hours.

“Thanks to WISE, I’ve now actually done a regression before even taking an econometrics course, and I’ve seen all the different components needed to reach the final results with a major research project,” Sylvestre says. She also met her two best friends at Wellesley, who are now her roommates, in the class, and she considers Weerapana and Rothschild her mentors.

Growing up, Sylvestre spent summers with family in a Kenyan village, where she says she noticed “there was no economic activity at night, and you couldn’t go shopping or really leave the house. Due to struggling government infrastructure, there aren’t any streetlamps, and people can’t connect to the electric grid.”

Her goal is to find a way to provide affordable, sustainable access to electricity to those who live in rural communities not only in Kenya, but around the world. “It’s a global economic issue,” Sylvestre says.

WISE gave her the chance to ask guest speakers about their research in a comfortable, collaborative setting. “I realized it’s not as intimidating as it initially seemed,” Sylvestre says. “We all came from very different backgrounds and began to raise our hands to ask questions without feeling ashamed about not knowing something.”

Mariafatima Varias ’27, who took ECON 101P and WISE last semester, plans to major in economics as well. She was particularly inspired by the senior economics majors who presented the initial stages of their thesis projects to the WISE students. “We were able to see what we will be able to do in just a few years, not only further on in our careers,” she says. This semester, the seniors will visit the spring cohort of WISE students to present their final findings.

Rothschild says it’s been deeply inspiring to see each WISE cohort come together as a group and within the broader department.

“This group of students is really smart but might have felt like they didn’t belong in a classroom filled with other smart people before WISE,” he says. “Our program has given them the confidence to ask for support when they don’t understand something or are struggling.”

Now, the group is succeeding together: Weerapana says 19 of the 21 students in the first WISE cohort have taken and passed one or more additional economics courses at Wellesley.