Star Student: Econ Major with Roots in the Performing Arts
Iliana Taormina ’18 was always considered the bright star of her family; great things were expected of her from a young age. Her parents, both “artists at heart,” guided her toward an artistic path, sending her to the Philadelphia High School for the Creative and Performing Arts, where she trained as a classical singer. As high school graduation approached and she considered her next steps, Taormina found that her parents could not offer guidance on college because neither had experienced it. She would have to forge her own future.
Like many first-gen students, Taormina saw college as way to achieve financial security and to contribute monetarily to her family. According to a 2012 study out of Northwestern University, 69% of first-gen college students cited helping their families financially as a main goal for going to college, as opposed to only 39% of non-first-gen college students. “Growing up, I never felt deprived, but I saw my mom struggle to provide us with a comfortable life,” Taormina said. She often worried about the strain that college would put on the household's budget, but her biggest motivation for going to college was to pay her mother back for the encouragement she gave and the sacrifices made. In 2014, Taormina enrolled at Pace. “She’s the entire reason I’m here; she’s never made it feel like I couldn’t pursue my education.”
Many first-generation students face what has been described as “breakaway guilt,” when their decision to pursue higher education results in and leaving their families behind. With her mother and extended family in Philadelphia, and father in his home country of Italy, Taormina’s move to New York meant leaving her family behind.
As tough as it was living 100 miles from her mom, she struggled even more with breaking away from the path her parents had imagined for her. Taormina decided to pursue the study of economics at Pace. The choice was right for her, but it came as a shock to her mother. “She wanted me to love the arts as much as she did, but I found I wasn’t as passionate about it as I thought I should be,” she said.
Taking on the challenge
The study of economics came with its own set of challenges to overcome. Coming from a performing arts background, “I was not equipped for the field,” she said, “There was a significant learning curve for me.” While many of her classmates were exposed to calculus, statistics, and economics in high school, her experience didn’t extend past pre-calculus. But like many first-gen college students, Taormina saw every new challenge as an opportunity. “It wasn’t easy, but my work ethic and ability to learn quickly have been key to my success.” Not only did she master complex economic concepts like game-theory, she went on to tutor her classmates in the material.
When offered the opportunity to work as a teaching assistant to Clinical Assistant Professor of Economics Mark Weinstock in his Applied Game Theory courses, she jumped at the chance. The pair’s combined passion led to an exciting student-faculty research venture. Their project, “A Bayesian Game-Theoretic Analysis of the Inclusion of the Hearsay Rule in Law,” examined the influence of hearsay evidence on trial verdicts. Their research aimed to determine the optimal point at which hearsay evidence should be presented during a trial, applying game theory in a new and unique way.
Now entering her senior year, Taormina has successfully parlayed her education, research experience, and fortitude into a lucrative career prospect. She recently completed a paid internship at JPMorgan Chase as a corporate analyst, and accepted an offer for part-time employment as she completes her degree. A full-time position awaits her upon graduation. “This career path will give me a strong foundation for the future,” she says.
In the long term, Taormina dreams of running her own strategic consulting business, creatively applying game-theoretic tools to real-world problems. After facing the challenges of being a first-generation student, and with the support of her family, Taormina feels ready to take on anything. “They always expected great things from me,” she said, “and I fully intend to deliver on that.”