Hannah Rosenthal '19
Hannah Rosenthal '19

Rooted in Economics, Branching across Disciplines

See how crossing academic boundaries helped Reed alum Hannah Rosenthal fuse economics with biology and anthropology and prepare for graduate school.

October 6, 2023

As a high school senior, Hannah Rosenthal ‘19 knew that she wanted to work in poverty alleviation. So the Canadian student applied to colleges and universities with strong economics programs. She needed to choose between two great options: a prestigious school in Paris, France, and Reed College in Portland, Oregon. 

Hannah initially felt a tug toward Reed because she wanted to experience its renowned liberal arts program. 

“I realized you can't get the American liberal arts experience anywhere else, at any other time in your life,” she reasoned. “I could go to a graduate school to experience professional or strictly research programs.”

But Hannah also felt drawn to Reed’s small, tight-knit community because she wanted to find a sense of belonging. She had grown up primarily in Asia, living in eight countries before she was 18. So the decision to enroll in Reed as an economics major was about finding a place to call home. As it turned out, she made the perfect choice. From her international student orientation to the initial weeks of classes, she felt an immediate sense of belonging. 

“High school is a mix of feeling excited, terrified, awkward, and out of place,” she said. “But at Reed, I ended up in this space where all of a sudden, things shifted, and it just felt right.”

Hannah also had a serendipitous conversation on a local city bus with a Reed alum who helped shape her journey at the college. 

“In my first week in Portland, a recent graduate struck up a conversation with me on the #19 bus,” she remembered fondly. “She was excited to learn that I was attending Reed and, when asked about her own experience, imparted the advice, ‘What you put into Reed is what you get out of it.’”

Finding Inspiration by Crossing Academic Borders

Like any Reed journey, Hannah’s experience also came with challenges. She struggled in her economics quantitative courses and suffered from feeling like she was the only one who hadn’t figured out how to excel. But when Hannah sought help, she found that the Reed faculty were more than willing to assist her in finding ways for her to succeed. 

During a semester in which Hannah was especially struggling with some of her economics courses, her economics faculty adviser, Prof. Jon Rork, encouraged her to drop them for the semester and focus on courses that she enjoyed. 

“He told me to remember why I was at Reed—I was here to learn, feel challenged, and most of all enjoy,” she said. “Ironically, spending time outside of the department taking biology and anthropology courses made me even more excited about my economics classes because I could now see things with other perspectives.”

Through her biology and anthropology courses, Hannah gained confidence that eased much of the academic pressure she felt in her economics courses. When she was ready to jump back into the economics coursework, she knew she had the support she needed to learn and grow. 

“When I took John Rork’s public sector economics course, a lot of the students from his class used to come to office hours,” Hannah recalled. “Rather than students lining up outside his office, one-by-one, Jon sat on the floor of the Vollum hallway with us, all in a circle, as we worked together through the questions and discussed concepts.

Hannah began to master difficult economics concepts and thrived in her courses. Her junior year, she won a President’s Summer Fellowship that funded her independent research project to study community-led healthcare and aging off the grid on a rural island in Canada.

“It was about how this very isolated community of mostly older people had put together their own healthcare facility to care for themselves as they aged,” she said. “How do you manage this form of independence even as you recognize that you begin to need more care?”

Tackling the Senior Thesis 

Hannah’s summer project helped her feel ready to write and present her senior thesis in economics. She knew she wanted her research project to use econometric analysis as a way to prove to herself that she had the skills and confidence to use quantitative methods that had been so challenging in her first years at Reed. Hannah also wanted her thesis to combine her interest in developmental economics with her newfound passion for environmental issues, which she had developed through taking biology and anthropology courses during those early semesters. 

Knowing this, Hannah’s thesis advisor, Prof. Noelwah Netusil, connected her with a professor at Portland State University who studied community forestry and had conducted a survey of 1,400 households in Nepal. He was glad to share both his knowledge and his dataset. 

“I looked at whether being  part of a community forest impacts your household well-being,” she explained.  “And then I began to wonder—how does that impact equity in your community? What about your beliefs about equity?” 

Her senior thesis, “Growing Equity: Behaviors, Beliefs, and Well-Being in Nepal's Community Forests,” drew not only from her economics courses and research experiences but also from the diverse array of Reed classes she had taken throughout her college years.

“I wanted to study trees because I'd taken all of these biology classes on plant physiology, and it was this perfect intersection of my anthropology side because I was studying how communities work together and what self-governance and collective action looks like, which also played into a Humanities 220 course I'd taken,” she said. 

Hannah emphasized that this fusion of ideas was made possible by Reed’s cross-disciplinary ethos, in which professors loved when students made connections between classes. This teaching philosophy empowers curiosity, resulting in innovative and impactful work.

Developing Intellectual Confidence at Reed and Beyond

Now Hannah is a graduate student at Johns Hopkins studying international relations. Reflecting on her time at Reed, she regards it as pivotal in shaping her identity and sense of belonging. One of the most profound lessons was discovering how to interact with her professors and peers. 

“I spent so much time at Reed feeling like I was around the smartest people. But when you don't let it get to you, and you’ve moved past that imposter syndrome, it makes you okay with asking questions,” she explained. “And now, in grad school, I’ll ask a question, and 50% of people in the room also want to know the answer, so I learned to not be embarrassed about not knowing.” 

Hannah believes that the key to any student’s success at Reed requires putting in the effort to engage with your courses and your peers. When classmates have done the reading and actively contribute in conferences with questions and insights, it creates an atmosphere of mutual growth and collaboration—an environment that is available to any student who wants to learn. 

“I originally thought that Reed was a very particular place for a very particular kind of student, and I think that's true to a certain extent,” she said. “But if you have that drive and that curiosity, and you want to be around other people who have that also, Reed is the place where that's going to be nourished.”

While her academic experience at Reed was above and beyond what she could have imagined, Hannah said the best part of Reed was the community itself. 

“As a kid who moved around every couple of years, the sweetest, most cherished thing at Reed I got was a sense of belonging and friendships,” she said. “My Reed friends are people who always have something cool to share that they just learned, ask the best questions about what I'm up to and how I am, and just remain such kindhearted, thoughtful people.”

Tags: Life Beyond Reed