Economics Department Collage

At Home in Economics: A Department’s 100 Years of Impact

Nisha Kimber ’24 refuses to limit future Nisha Kimber. The Maple Grove, Minnesota, native believes in keeping her career options open. And so, halfway through her collegiate career at the University of St. Thomas, Kimber was finding it particularly hard to declare a major.

She found an ingenious solution in the office of Professor Monica Hartmann, chair of the university’s economics department.

“One of the most fantastic things about economics is that it can lead you down so many different paths,” Kimber said. “After chatting with Dr. Hartmann, it felt like I had finally found what I had been looking for.”

Senior Nisha Kimber recently completed an internship with RSM, and plans to work for the consulting company full time after graduating this May. (Brandon Woller '17/University of St. Thomas)

For a century now, the Department of Economics has served as a go-to home for Tommies looking to spread their wings in a multitude of directions. This spring the department will celebrate those graduates, thousands of them, as the department marks the 100th anniversary of its very first graduating class.

A business economics major, Kimber is thankful to have found her academic home, and will walk the commencement stage as part of the department’s 101st graduating class, ushering in a new century of econ alums.

“I had been just kind of floating around, not really knowing where I belonged,” Kimber said. “There’s a certain amount of ambiguity about what economics can be or what it can be used for … and at the end of the day, that was just a really good fit.”

Endless possibilities

A social science that studies the production, distribution and consumption of goods and services, economics is one of the longest-tenured fields to call St. Thomas home. A part of the curriculum since 1900, courses were first offered to equip young men with the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in business at the turn of the 20th century. It wasn’t until 1920 that the School of Commerce was established with economics offered as an official major.

A lot has changed since that first class of graduates earned their diplomas in 1924. Perhaps the biggest change: the students themselves. Current degree offerings still teach the crucial skills valued by the business community, but economics is no longer the exclusive domain of business-minded individuals.

Officers of the St. Thomas Economics Club pose for a photo in 1939. Economics had been established as a four-year degree program in 1920.
Officers of the St. Thomas Economics Club pose for a photo in 1939. Economics had been established as a four-year degree program in 1920. (Photograph from the Robert Smolka Collection)

Nowadays, economics majors pursue an endless variation of career opportunities, from international studies and mathematics to computer science and finance. Faculty are hyper aware of those varied interests, and actively ready their students to think critically about a wide range of real-world issues.

“We want our students to be highly adaptable to the demands of a changing economy,” Hartmann said. “We emphasize critical thinking skills, coupled with technical skills, so that students leave campus with the ultimate toolbox, ready to deploy at their disposal, no matter where they end up.”

That ultimate toolbox is paying off in both career versatility and earnings potential. Recent alumni have pursued careers at the Federal Reserve, General Mills, UnitedHealth Group and Medtronic, just to name a few. And directly after leaving St. Thomas, economics majors have the second-highest average earning starting salary from across the university, at $65,000 a year.

Economics Professor Luz Saavedra points to a whiteboard while teaching an Economics Forecasting class.
Economics Professor Luz Saavedra points to a whiteboard while teaching an economics forecasting course in 2014. Saavedra has been teaching courses and supervising student research at St. Thomas since 2001. (Mark Brown/University of St. Thomas)

Focused on relationships

But the true return on investment likely comes in the relationships formed among students, faculty and alumni. The Economics Department is one proudly built on relationships, and those connections form the heartbeat behind a century of impact.

Headshot of Rachel Artig
Economics alum Rachel Artig ’18 is now a customer success manager at data analytics company Tellius.

Fifteen full-time faculty teach courses that support five undergraduate degrees, and the majority also work one-on-one with students on a variety of research projects. Mathematical economics alum Rachel Artig ’18 will never forget conducting independent research with Professor Luz Saavedra.

“I was in Professor Saavedra’s office all the time – she was always there for me,” Artig said. “To work on that project, running real models, with her support every step of the way, that was a huge milestone in my abilities.”

Artig is now a data storyteller based out of New York City. She returned to campus this fall as part of a department panel exploring data analytics careers and how they use different economics principles.

“Economics gives you an edge no matter what field you pick,” Artig said. “In my experience, it will never close any doors for you. It only opens them.”

The original experts in data

Doors are opening much faster and more often for department alums. And there’s an easy explanation: the so-called data revolution. As businesses and organizations rely more and more on data to make decisions, economists, the original data experts, are in high demand.

Data competitions serve as one way economics students can practice their new skills. The St. Thomas Economics Team placed second in the 2021 College Fed Challenge. Mentored by economics professors Hong Wu, PhD, and Andrea Sorensen, PhD, the team spent months developing their analysis. (Liam James Doyle/University of St. Thomas)

“Before data analytics was even a field, we were training our students in that,” Hartmann said. “Data is what economists have always been researching and specializing in, the only difference is now there are more outlets for our students to use their skills.”

Faculty ensure students have plenty of time to practice using real-life data throughout their St. Thomas careers. And often, those opportunities help the community at large.

For years, economics courses have participated in the Sustainable Communities Partnership, a program that pairs St. Thomas students with outside organizations that could use their expertise. Econ majors have dived into data from cities like Delano and Elk River, analyzing everything from the energy efficiency of public buildings to the costs of solid waste collection. Their suggestions have likely saved the cities millions of dollars.

“We try to send out into the world graduates who are very thoughtful about how they live their lives,” faculty member Agapitos Papagapitos said. “There’s this notion of living your life for the common good. It’s a relatively new slogan, but we’ve been teaching our students about it for a long, long time.”

Economics: a lifelong journey

Parker Gundersen ’01 relies on skills learned in his St. Thomas economics courses to make decisions as CEO of End Clothing. "I became a data storyteller," Gundersen said. "I use data to tell stories, to help persuade my board and those I want to partner and go into business with."

Parker Gundersen ’01 graduated with his business economics major long before data became a buzzword. The Duluth native recently became the CEO of London-based End Clothing, a contemporary fashion retailer specializing in high-end streetwear. To this day, he still relies on what he learned in his very first economics course at St. Thomas, macroeconomics.

“That’s the cool thing about this degree. Even 20 years later, you’re still remembering those basic principles, and they’re applicable at any level of your career,” Gundersen said.

Also etched into his memory more than two decades after graduation: gathering as a department. Each fall, Gundersen joined his classmates to stare down a dozen or so crockpots of beans and sauce at the annual Economics Chili Fest. The event pits faculty members against each other, with students voting for their favorite dish.

“I keep St. Thomas close to my heart,” Gundersen said. “Being part of a tight-knit group, learning from faculty one-on-one and getting to know them, I stay in touch as much as possible.”

A department tradition for decades now, Chili Fest is still going strong. This fall, alumni were called in to help celebrate the department’s 100 years of impact.

Department of Economics 100 Year Aniversary Chili Competition, November 10th, 2023, at University of St. Thomas
The Department of Economics held its annual Chili Fest on Nov. 10, 2023. In honor of the department's 100th graduating class, this year alumni were invited to compete alongside faculty for the title of Best Chili. (Sainath Kallur '24/University of St. Thomas)

Right in the middle of the action – senior Nisha Kimber – who spent the evening getting to know her Tommie predecessors, and in turn, imagining a bright future.

“It gave me an idea of what’s truly possible with my major,” Kimber said. “And it also showed me that I’m joining something bigger, a network of Tommies.”

100th celebrations are far from over. Alumni are invited to the department’s Spring Dinner and 100th Commemoration on Wednesday, April 17, in the Anderson Student Center. Registration is coming soon.

Photos: Department of Economics Through the Years

Professor Theodor Brauer stands at the podium instructing an economics class at the College of St. Thomas, 1939.
Officers of the St. Thomas Economics Club pose for a photo in 1939. Economics had been established as a four-year degree program in 1920.
Mohammed (Mo) Selim
Group from the Economics Challenge program, including (l to r) Mo Selim, Iris Lewis (St. Paul Companies), Sister Marie Herbert Seiter, and Bob Gangnagel (3M) - from the teacher internship program.
Left to right are Bob Gerhardt, Sister Marie Herbert, Dan Fairchild, and Mo Selim from the Economics Challenge program.
Economics professor Susan Alexander teaches an undergraduate economics class May 10, 2006 in McNeely Hall (MCN).
Faculty counts the votes and determines the winner while the economics department has their annual Chili Fest on Friday, Nov. 16, 2018
Professor Matthew Kim teaches an economics class January 23, 2014 in O'Shaughnessy Educational Center.
Professor Agapitos Papagapitos teaches an Economics class in O’Shaughnessy Education Center on the St. Paul campus on November 21, 2023, in St. Paul.
Department of Economics Chili Fest competitors
Department of Economics Chili Fest held on Nov. 10, 2023
Demos Hadjiyanis celebrates 100th birthday
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