Fed Gov. to Berkeley econ grads: ‘It’s an exciting time to be an economist’

May 17, 2023

In the afternoon sunshine at the storied Greek Theatre, more than 700 students from UC Berkeley’s Department of Economics gathered this week for their commencement. The momentous occasion marked not just the end of their academic journey, but also the beginning of their new roles in the academic, public and private sectors. Before receiving their degrees, they heard words of encouragement and inspiration from Federal Reserve Governor Lisa Cook, a distinguished Berkeley alumna who received her Ph.D. in economics.

Cook, who was the commencement speaker, is a renowned economist, academic and policy advisor. She returned to the Berkeley campus, where she received her doctorate in 1997.

“It is good to be back in Golden Bear and Berkeley Bowl territory,” Cook told the graduates and their families. “It is a great honor and a profound pleasure to be here to congratulate you, the class of 2023, and to welcome you to the field of economics.”

During her commencement address, she encouraged Berkeley graduates to embrace the immense opportunities and challenges that lie ahead. "You are the future of a profession that has a profound effect on how we understand and shape our world," said Cook, who emphasized the importance of curiosity, a love for data and unique perspectives, especially in uncertain economic times.

“As economists, you share a common mastery of analytical tools that can yield powerful insights about how our society functions. The field of study that binds us gives priority to rigorous use of data and transparent debate,” she said. “But the type of data you seek, the way you formulate questions, and the shades of meaning you tease out from the results – these are drawn from your unique history, lived experience and perspective. Economics needs that.”

Cook also highlighted the significance of an empirical revolution that does not exclude theory. She urged the graduates to refine their understanding of the interplay between different data sets, sectors of the economy and households.

"It is an exciting, extraordinary time to be an economist," she said, invoking the words of the person who inspired her, Dr. Sadie T.M. Alexander, the first African American to receive a Ph.D. in economics in the U.S. "Knock those doors down!"

Cook noted that Berkeley Economics is one of the richest sources of diverse talent and perspectives in the world and credits her professors for providing her with wisdom, guidance and curiosity that helped shape her early career.

Cook's academic journey is a testament to the transformative power of education and the many opportunities in the field of economics. From her undergraduate degrees in philosophy at Spelman College and Oxford University, to her Ph.D. from Berkeley, her career trajectory has been defined by intellectual curiosity, hard work and a commitment to public service.

Before her appointment to the Federal Reserve, Cook served in various roles, including as a professor of economics and international relations at Michigan State University, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and a faculty member at Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government. She also held prominent positions in public service as a senior economist on the Council of Economic Advisers under President Barack Obama, and as a senior adviser on finance and development in the U.S. Department of Treasury's Office of International Affairs.

"Dr. Cook's words truly resonate with our values here at Berkeley. Her journey, from a Berkeley economics Ph.D. student to a member of the Board of Governors of the Federal Reserve, is a testament to the impact and reach of economic scholarship,” said Andrés Rodríguez-Clare, chair of the UC Berkeley Economics Department. “Our graduates are stepping into a world full of challenges, but also full of opportunities for transformation. I echo Dr. Cook's sentiments – go forth, seek hard questions, knock down doors, and I encourage our graduates to take advantage of the tools they have learned at Berkeley.”
Rodríguez-Clare noted that the rigorous training Berkeley economic students go through prepares them well for the next chapter of their lives.

"Our graduates today stand at the beginning of a new journey, ready to step into diverse and impactful professions,” he said. “From finance to public policy, from academia to entrepreneurship, their journey will be unique, but their starting point is the same – Berkeley Economics. They are more than ready to analyze complex problems, apply rigorous thought and create sustainable solutions.”

As the ceremony concluded, newly-minted Berkeley economics graduates held their diplomas in hand, ready to shape the world with the next tools, knowledge and inspiration gained from renowned Berkeley faculty in the halls of Evans and beyond Sather Gate. The legacy of UC Berkeley Economics continues, one graduate at a time.