Duke Financial Economics Center Empowers Students to Find Their Way

Thursday, August 20, 2020
A man lecturing at a black board

Economics Associate Chair and Professor Emma Rasiel Ph.D.'03, now the teaching director of the Duke Financial Economics (DFE) Center and the Eads Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Energy, and Duke alumnus John Caccavale ’81, P’11, now the executive director of DFE, collaborated on a bold idea: building the premier center for financial education at Duke. They planned to do so by focusing on teaching, mentoring and programming for undergraduate students.

After years spent at trading desks in New York and having a great deal of success on Wall Street, Caccavale was ready to come back to Duke to help make this possible. He returned to work closely with Rasiel on the newly created DFE. They and other Duke economics faculty at the center began the important work of putting together an educational strategy to increase opportunities for Duke students interested in learning about careers in finance in order to make those opportunities more meaningful in the long-term. Part of the challenge in getting the center off the ground and running was the complexity of building out a new program in a space that was hypercompetitive.

First, they had to give students a direct line of sight into cutting-edge careers in finance — which included several types of roles they could pursue after graduation. On the curriculum side, it meant fleshing out courses like ECON 256 Practical Financial Markets, which students take in the fall of their sophomore year before internships traditionally begin. It also involved significant investments in co-curricular and study-away programs, such as the signature Duke in New York program through Duke's Global Education Office for Undergraduates, where students spend time in the Financial District of Lower Manhattan and get to know the ins-and-outs of financial firms firsthand.

The Duke Financial Economics Center is funded significantly by philanthropy from generous donors.

— Emma Rasiel, teaching director of the Duke Financial Economics Center

Second, it required partnering with the Duke Alumni Association and tapping into the deep Duke alumni network to expand opportunities for students to work with and learn from alumni. This allowed DFE to connect Duke students to finance firms where Duke was already a household name and had an incredibly strong presence due to internal alumni champions. In some cases, Duke students were up against long established pipelines of competing candidates from other schools. But time and time again, Duke students continued to impress and win firms over with their expansive thinking and critical problem-solving.

In the decade since, DFE has only continued to strengthen its reputation in the world of finance and is now a national leader in financial education. It educates over 600 students annually from across more than 25 different majors and propels these students to meaningful roles at corporate partners on Wall Street, and in finance careers in Chicago and London. It also helps connect them to roles outside of finance, where a financial education is highly advantageous. For several years, Duke has been the number one ranked school for the most students converted at firms, which has been incredibly rewarding for everyone involved. This success would not be possible without the generosity of Duke’s donors.

“The Duke Financial Economics Center is funded significantly by philanthropy from generous donors,” says Rasiel.

The philanthropic funding has enabled Caccavale, Rasiel and their colleagues to grow education at DFE in more ways than one. DFE has expanded from a handful of electives to 20 each year. There are interdisciplinary collaborations with the Pratt School of Engineering in a new Master of Engineering in FinTech program; at Duke Law School with a financial markets boot camp; and there’s even a new course in environmental, social and governance investing taught by Chris Wedding, an associate professor with the Nicholas School of the Environment, this fall. The cross-cutting education DFE offers is made possible by the hiring of two professors of practice, among countless other faculty teaching finance classes on a variety of topics to keep students embedded at the very heart of the financial industry. DFE’s faculty also includes prominent economic researchers such as Tim Bollerslev, the Juanita and Clifton Kreps Distinguished Professor of Economics, who in 2018 won the Carlsberg Foundation Research Prize for his innovative work in the field of financial econometrics. Together, the faculty at DFE cover a lot of ground.

“This ongoing generosity has enabled us to hire and retain faculty and staff to teach a wide range of courses and run our many extra-curricular programs. But beyond their financial support, the key factor in the success of DFE is the active engagement from alumni and parents in every aspect of what we do,” says Rasiel.

As a convener, the program connects students with over 300 alumni in different mentoring capacities each year. What’s especially heartwarming is when young alumni who have gone through the program reconnect with DFE to help the next cohort of students seeking financial careers. From visiting lectures, to lunch-and-learns and coffee chats, to hosting student visits to firms and study-away programs, to partnering with the Duke Career Center, DFE and its faculty are actively mentoring and guiding students through the recruitment process for their very first jobs after Duke — and well beyond.

Another stellar highlight is the Dzialga Women in Finance Initiative, which was made possible by the Kirsten Alexander Dzialga ’93 Fund. It seeks to empower women interested in finance with mentoring, faculty advising, and more opportunities for networking with Duke alumni.

7 students pose next to a stock exchange bell
Undergraduates participating in DFE's Duke In Chicago program.

“A significant part of DFE’s mission is simply to facilitate meaningful connections between our amazing students and hundreds of alumni across the U.S. and internationally,” Rasiel says. “All of the evidence points to this network being a huge component in our students’ success in obtaining internships, and converting those summer experiences into full time offers.”

With the extraordinary level of dedication and involvement from alumni such as Stephen Potter ’79, P’14, co-chair of the Trinity College Board of Visitors, and so many countless others, DFE will continue to succeed for the next decade and many years to come. Potter’s participation made the expansion of DFE and its Duke in Chicago program possible, showcasing how alumni support accelerates excellence for Duke and its students.

“Duke is immensely fortunate to have such a dedicated and involved alumni base; we are deeply grateful for their support,” Rasiel says.