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Expanding the Economics Landscape

For almost four years at Nichols, Assistant Economics Professor Karol Gil-Vasquez, has brought new dimensions to the college’s economics curriculum, thanks to her background and academic interests.  In particular, Gil-Vasquez has proved a leader at Nichols in looking at economics from an international perspective and an understanding of the role that recent immigrants play in the economic life of the United States.

Gil-Vasquez, who began teaching in the Nichols economics department in 2013, grew up in Mexico City but came to the U.S. for college and graduate school, finishing with a Ph.D. at the University of Missouri-Kansas City.   Besides teaching a steady diet of micro- and macroeconomics to majors and non-majors, alike, this term she is leading the honors seminar Women in the Global Economy.   

This morning, that class clusters around a long oblong table in the academic building.  They are discussing the work and approaches of two of the most powerful women in the economics field—International Monetary Fund Managing Director Christine Lagarde and U.S. Federal Reserve chair Janet Yellen.

While the course focuses on how women contribute to the development of goods and policies, Gil-Vasquez emphasizes that it goes further than that.  “It’s about how women are shaping the economy,” she says.  That message is not lost on her animated students, including a conclusion by one that “women in power seem to have more of a human factor to them and are less egocentric” than their male counterparts.

“She takes the reins over the people on the IMF board,” one male student says of what he’s learned about Lagarde from the previous night’s reading assignment.  “I think that’s pretty cool, showing other women that they can do the same thing because she’s done it.”

“She’s a bulldog,” adds female classmate, Hebron Abadi.  “I really like the fact that women are talking on these leadership roles. A lot of people don’t realize the impact that women have on the economy.”

“When you get women’s perspectives on economics, it opens your eyes,” adds Angel McHugh, who also has taken multiple courses with Gil-Vasquez.

“She cares about our ideas,” Abadi continues, who herself is taking a third course with Gil-Vasquez.  “She definitely tries to challenge her students, and we drive the course.”

The discussion approach matters when it comes to economics, and not just in this advanced course, Gil-Vasquez points out.  “It’s extremely important.  When I taught my first semester here, I started connecting with my students by asking them to read the newspaper and share opinions on what they had read,” she recalls.  

“They appreciate that informal conversation.  Economics is not just about graphs.  It’s about people and decisions made by politicians.”

Gil-Vasquez had impressed colleagues as well.  Hans Despain, who chairs both the Nichols honors program and the economics program and has co-taught a course with her, observes, “She teaches at a high level of academic expectation, while remaining approachable to young and forming mind.  She is extremely friendly with our students and a fabulous professor.”

Along the way Gil-Vasquez has brought a cooler economic logic that crosses political boundaries on two hot-button national issues—the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and immigration, legal and otherwise, from Mexico and central America.  

“She creates a friendly and encouraging environment to learn and understand in an urgent time of macroeconomic debate and confusion,” Despain insists.

“NAFTA has to be renegotiated in order to survive,” Gil-Vasquez opines, adding that there needs to be limits on how companies are allowed to move out of the three countries in the trade pact.

At the same time, she takes a more studied view towards the immigration controversy that continues to deepen around the country.   During her graduate years, she was part of a research team that analyzed the living condition of the Hispanic population in the Kansas City urban area.  She also has published an article entitled “Pluralist Alternative: Mexican Women, Migration, and Regional Development” in the American Journal of Economic and Sociology.

“Immigrants bring hope.  Immigrants bring a lot of energy to work.  They bring entrepreneurship.  They bring a ton of ideas,” she says.  “If the U.S. managed to absorb them, our society as a whole would gain a lot, and not only from the economic perspective.”