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I had the privilege of attending the American Economic Association Annual Conference on January 6-8. I headed to New Orleans with two main objectives: 1) learn about current research being done at the intersection of economics and education to inform my senior thesis and 2) meet public policy professors at PhD programs I am considering. Although the conference came with a steep learning curve (as evidenced by my bleeding feet on the first day), the time I spent in New Orleans was invaluable.

On the first day, I attended a panel on Economic Education and Teaching of Economics. I was able to listen as ND’s Prof. Eva Dziadula’s co-authors presented an experiment that involved my own econ class, which was a neat full circle moment. I was also able to attend a panel on College Admissions and Enrollment Policies, where Sarah Kroeger of ND’s LEO (Lab for Economic Opportunities) presented results on Supporting College Completion of Single Mothers. Having interned for LEO last summer, it was very cool to see the final product of our work at a conference. After catching up with ND faculty, I attended the AEA Distinguished Lecture by an MIT professor. As I waited for the talk to begin, a German professor sat next to me. We began to talk, and I admired how she chose to meet someone new over sitting alone. She told me about her cluster research on transplant tourism, the German university system, and her own PhD journey. After this conversation, I committed to emulating her behavior. I would sit next to someone new in each lecture and get to know them. I would ask questions about the papers during the Q&A. I would go up to the professors after their talk and introduce myself, follow-up with an email, and schedule calls to learn more about their work.

This commitment changed everything. Although I continued to learn fascinating research about education, policy, and economics, I also made meaningful connections with the faculty who I hope to work with one day. I got invitations to networking events where, even though I got some weird looks for being the only undergrad, I met PhD students and professors who belong to departments at some of the top schools. My conversations with them further cemented my interest in pursuing a PhD in public policy. As I’ve continued to speak with them since the conference, I am learning even more about PhD applications and life.

As for my first objective, I also learned a lot that can inform my senior thesis. All of the researchers emphasized the crucial role that data accessibility plays in their work, so this will be a prominent consideration as I choose my topic. I also realized that I definitely want my thesis to be at the intersection of education policy and economics. Two talks in particular, Ending Exclusionary Discipline in the Early Grades: Effects and Implications presented by Sarah Komisarow of Duke and Bottlenecks for Evidence Adoption presented by Woojin Kim of UC Berkeley, provided compelling insight and left me with several research questions of my own.

I am incredibly grateful for the support and mentorship I received from ND advisors, alumni, professors, students, and faculty in preparation for this conference. My conference experience was irreplaceable and I hope to continue attending conferences as an undergrad now that I’ve been exposed to the powerful opportunities they present.