A compelling desire to learn, the propensity to form rigorous questions and a clear focus on his goal to teach economics were all cited by Jordan Woltjer’s professors when nominating him for the University of Washington Bothell’s 2021 President’s Medal. Woltjer, who will graduate this month with a major in Law, Economics & Public Policy and a double minor in Economics and Mathematics, will be recognized with the award at this year’s virtual commencement on June 13.
The President’s Medalist is selected from among graduating seniors with the most distinguished academic record, taking into consideration courses taken, honors and awards, research and publications, as well as future plans.
Woltjer will begin his graduate studies at Duke University in the fall.
A research hole to fill
Woltjer plans to specialize in the economics of education. In preparation, he worked as a research assistant to Dr. Keith Nitta, associate professor in the School of Interdisciplinary Arts & Sciences, to study teacher unions in Japan. He reviewed existing English language literature on Japanese educational politics and policy. In his research, he discovered there was a lack of contemporary research on Nikkyoso, Japan’s largest and oldest teachers’ union, and no English language research on Zenkyo, the smaller union that split from Nikkyoso in 1989.
“Jordan highlighted this hole in the research for me,” Nitta said. “He framed a novel and interesting research question by working through a series of questions raised by his literature review, which led to our decision to focus on teacher unions in general and Zenkyo in particular.”
The research and subsequent 40-page manuscript they co-authored are leading Woltjer and Nitta to Tokyo later this year to collect documents and interview key individuals at Zenkyo, Nikkyoso, the Ministry of Education and the Japanese Communist Party. Traveling to a foreign country to collect data is expensive, and Woltjer has applied for a variety of grants to support the project.
“Skill in finding and securing research funding is critical for a Ph.D. student and faculty member,” Nitta said. “Jordan is getting practice early in his career.”
Learning by teaching
Woltjer’s skill in securing funding is paying off. Among the grants he has applied for, he was awarded the distinguished Mary Gates Research Scholarship not once but twice — first in autumn 2020 for his work with Nitta and then again in winter 2021 for independent research on teachers’ unions and wages, guided by Dr. Xiahua Wei, assistant professor in the School of Business, after taking her Econometrics class. Jordan regarded this class as “a pivotal moment” in his academic development, where he made his first attempt at applying econometric tools to tackle empirical questions that interested him, which evolved into his award-winning study.
“Jordan always carefully prepared for each of our meetings and shared with me in advance the details of his questions, context and progress,” Wei said. “Beyond his work, his politeness, respect for my time and professional meticulousness were exemplary and made it an enjoyable experience to mentor him.”
Woltjer’s professionalism and quality of work resulted in Wei offering him a teaching assistant position in her Managerial Economics and Intro to Econometrics courses.
The data science, analytics and computational approaches to economic research in the Econometrics class inspired Woltjer to develop his computational acumen, and he registered for two classes in the Department of Mathematics at the UW in Seattle. “Jordan’s strong desire for learning, growth mindset and the level of preparation that he has been doing to achieve his goal, combined with his enthusiasm about taking math and statistics courses, are impressive,” Wei said.
“I believe the extensive training and outstanding performance in these quantitative courses will provide a strong foundation for his pursuit of his M.S. in Economics and Computer Science at Duke and, eventually, his doctorate.”
An unrivaled adventure
Chancellor Wolf Yeigh noted the glowing recommendations for Woltjer to be named the President’s Medalist. “Several of our faculty said that Jordan stands out among the many outstanding students they have taught at UW Bothell,” Yeigh said. “That’s a remarkable accolade. And to receive the Mary Gates Research Scholarship twice? That’s a first for our students.
“With his drive, keen intellect and unwavering commitment,” he said, “I have no doubt Jordan will make an excellent professor, and I applaud his own professors for their support of his goals.”
Woltjer spent two quarters applying to graduate school. In addition to Duke, he was accepted at Cornell University, University of Oregon, Texas A&M, University of Texas Austin, Tufts University, Vanderbilt University and Washington State University. At Duke, he will receive a 50% tuition waiver along with a Duke Economic Masters Scholar award. In addition, he has already been offered a research assistant position in Duke’s Department of Economics.
“I owe a debt of gratitude to UW Bothell for all my achievements,” Woltjer said. “My education has been an unrivaled adventure, and it opened amazing growth opportunities, including an internship with the city of Kenmore in urban planning.
“Deep in my heart, I’m aware of and thankful for the doors UW Bothell opened,” he said. “I will be forever grateful for the cultivation of my potential by key professors and the roadmap to advanced education and career opportunities they enabled me to pursue.”