I Never Discovered Who They Were

I never found out their names, although I did try years later — the names of the admission committee that decided to admit me to Northeastern. That was in the days before applications were simply scanned and reviewed by an algorithm for qualifications. 

As Elton John would sing, I was a farm boy, I was green, from a rural part of the state of Massachusetts from a very blue-collar family. Both my parents worked in a factory — neither went to college. I attended a newly established high school. My only ticket was a scholarship to a work-study program that allowed me to finance my education. I also received a student loan that I paid back later with pride given the conservative financial principles of my family. 

My first semester in college was the classic “discovery” period that sociologists love to debate. Yet, 30 years later, that period gave me a sense of appreciation as my children went off to college. My father cried when I went to college. I did not when I sent my kids off — I knew it would be a great adventure.

My high school math and English courses stood me in good stead at Northeastern. Spanish was difficult. That might surprise you given that I am 100% Portuguese, but the Spanish verbs were quite a challenge, and the broken Portuguese/English of my grandparents that I learned growing up added to my confusion. 

There is no doubt, at least to me, that work-study proved to be even better than I hoped. I landed a great position at the Boston Municipal Research Bureau which exposed me to public finance and allowed me to engage in published research for their newsletter. 

Another incredible bit of fortune came from my guidance counselor who suggested I try economics as a major given my math skills. I never looked back. The economics department was an enormous revelation. As a work-study, I assisted several professors in their work, and that challenged me but also expanded my practical experience of applied economics. While it may appear common now, for me, I was working with several Jewish professors and a wonderful department executive assistant, also Jewish. Growing up in my small farm town there were no Jewish people I knew. Yet, here at Northeastern, their friendship and mentoring were essential in my lifetime. Thanks to Professor Horowitz, Professor Goldstein and Ms. Goldstein. I will also thank Professor Caligaris, who sparked my interest in money and banking. 

I never believed then, nor do I believe now, that the mid-to-late 1960s were anything as chaotic as commentators portray today. Yes, living in Boston, with such easy commutes to several universities, the intellectual opportunities were immense — and the distractions just as great. Yet, from my perch on the Fens and Bay State Road, the focus on my studies and a very limited budget, precluded distractions. I do miss all the quirky bookstores. The intellectual opportunities widened my scope of interests, and I do appreciate a number of courses I took outside economics. The Vietnam War and then later Earth Day were ongoing and culturally challenging, but for me the focus remained on getting the grades and paying the bills. 

Post-graduation left little time for celebration as off to the U.S. Army I went — it was another period of discipline and focus — of getting done whatever needed to be done. 

What did I take away? First, a small set of friends who, amazingly, remain friends and are intellectually interesting in their own way. Second, that focus on education, economics, which carried me on to a Ph.D. in economics, a 40-year-plus career in economics, numerous awards, a thousand-plus research notes and four books. Quite a confirmation of a decision by an admissions committee I never got to know. 

(John Silvia graduated from Northeastern University in 1971 with a degree in liberal arts)