June 16, 2020

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Recognized numerous times for her teaching ability, senior lecturer Paola Valenti says she strives above all to transfer her own passion for economics to her students.
Recognized numerous times for her teaching ability, senior lecturer Paola Valenti says she strives above all to transfer her own passion for economics to her students.
Paola Valenti
,  a senior lecturer at SIPA who has taught microeconomics to thousands of MIA and MPA students in her eleven years on the faculty, received one of Columbia University’s Presidential Award for Outstanding Teaching at last month’s Commencement ceremony.
 

Each year only five professors University-wide receive the award, which was established in 1996. Valenti is just the third SIPA faculty member to be so honored; SIPA’s Andrea Bubula and Glenn Denning won the award in 2008 and 2014, respectively.

Dean Merit E. Janow praised Valenti and her work in a letter to SIPA faculty:

One of [Valenti’s] greatest pleasures is overcoming students’ resistance and fear of economics and mathematics – and showing them how it can inform their future careers in public policy.”

Janow’s nominating statement says plainly that students “adore” Valenti:

“Each year, SIPA students put on a raucous two-hour variety show, consisting largely of parodies of their professors, administrators and one another. Performances about Valenti are offered almost every year, but the theme is not to make fun of her, but to tease all the students who fall in love with her, who swoon for microeconomics.”

Amanda Hosek MIA ’21, one of her most recent students, praised her as “an excellent instructor [who] strongly encourages questions…. patient, empathetic, and thorough.”

Emily Boytinck MPA-DP ’20, a former student who was Valenti’s teaching assistant last year, says, “Paola is a truly exceptional professor that consistently goes above and beyond for the education of her students…. [She] is among the best teachers I have ever had in my entire academic experience. Paola teaches a class that is probably the most challenging course to teach at SIPA, and does so with empathy and grace.”

The sentiment is shared widely.

“It is my understanding that the guidelines only allow up to three letters of support from current or former students, while the thousands of SIPA students and alumni, who have taken classes with her, are willing to submit their letters of support without any reservation.”wrote Eugene (Hung-Yu) Tseng MPA ’19.

When the news was announced, it garned more than 100 positive responses on SIPA social media — from students, alumni and colleagues.

Valenti’s specialty, in her own words, is applying microeconomic tools to diverse problems. Her doctoral thesis examined literacy and its effect on various household outcomes, and she has developed expertise in applied microeconomics, applied econometrics, and the economics of antitrust and intellectual property.

She began teaching at SIPA in 2009 and was honored as one of the School’s outstanding teachers after her very first year. She received the same award again in 2014 and 2020.

In one sense it’s no surprise, as teaching runs in Valenti’s family—her mother, two grandparents, and three brothers all have been teachers of some kind. She also enjoyed tutoring students in Italy, where she earned economics degrees at institutions in Rome and Turin.

But her efforts during her doctoral studies at Cornell, where she graduated with a PhD in 2002, were less fruitful.

“At Cornell it was not a great experience,” she told SIPA News. “When I first came to the U.S. I could not really speak English, and had to teach after being here for only six days. It was a little traumatic and because of that experience, for a long time I thought teaching was not for me.”

Indeed, after earning her doctorate Valenti worked primarily as a consultant with a focus on antitrust. In 2009 she decided to change careers to have more time with her then young daughter. (Her older child is now 16, and she also has an 8-year-old son.)

She says she thought an academic environment would be better, but was reluctant to apply for an opening at SIPA because her husband, Andrea Bubula, was (and remains) a professor at the School.

“He thought it would be weird,” she says, laughing.

Still, when a position became available unexpectedly, Valenti and Bubula had a change of heart, thinking it would be a good fit for just one year. Then one year turned into another, and another, and 11 years later Valenti has become one of SIPA’s most beloved faculty members.

She teaches Microeconomics for International and Public Affairs each fall, one of the core courses for MIA and MPA students. The fact that she is strict doesn’t seem to reduce the affection that students have for her.

“With 250 students, I want to be fair so there are some rules that everyone has to follow, no exceptions,” Valenti explained.

“One thing that is important to me is to transfer the passion I have for economics. At the end of the semester, when students say they thought they would hate econ but ended up loving it, that to me is the best reward. This is what I aim at, to make them passionate.”

Valenti says she was quite honored that students nominated her for the University award.

“I know it’s very difficult to win, so of course I was very, very happy to be selected,” she said. “To know that my students took the time to nominate me—that’s what moved me the most.”

Now she’s preparing to teach her usual five sections this fall. Because of her teaching practices— she has long distributed videos and notes ahead of time so she can focus on fielding questions during class time—Valenti may be unusually well prepared to make the transition to teaching online. But she takes the challenge seriously.

“I didn’t teach in the spring, so I haven’t done Zoom yet.” she says. “I like to see [students’] faces, I like to ask them questions—the personal interaction helps me see if they’re happy or confused or when the light turns on. So my plan is to try to do a combination of synchronous and asynchronous lesson—and to anticipate the students’ questions by remembering those that my former students had over the last 10 years.”

Valenti’s course load may be unusual but she likes it.

“It’s a very good arrangement—teaching five classes on one topic is definitely not the same as teaching five different classes,” she explained. “I put a lot of energy into each class, and at the end of the day I’m exhausted. In the fall, I don’t do anything else, except running.

“Teaching is like a sponge,” she continued. “It doesn’t matter if I teach one or two or five classes, it takes all my time. I’m always thinking about my students, I’m always thinking about the class [for the length of the semester]. And then basically I have eight months to do other things.”

Outside of SIPA, Valenti continues to do some private consulting and recently contributed to one chapter of a book on antitrust that considered how to measure firms’ market power.

But her passion for teaching—and her regard for her students—remains clear.

“At SIPA we’re giving our students tools to make public policy and trying to foster their passion to change the world,” says Valenti. “This is a very challenging time, and it’s also a time when things are ready for a change—and I have a lot of faith in our students who have the opportunity and the skills and the passion to make that change.”

“At SIPA we are privileged to teach people who are in a position to make changes. It’s another reward I have in my job.”