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Professor Alberto Alesina was one of a kind. In the past few days, countless economists have mourned his untimely passing in light of his pioneering contributions to the field of political economy. Not one of them has failed to mention what a wonderful and warm person he was.
Both of us had the luck of knowing Professor Alesina as a mentor whose ability to encourage, inspire, include, and bring joy to the field of economics made our four years at Harvard extraordinary. Despite the College’s overt commitment to student life, mentorship can sometimes be difficult to find at a decentralized, research-intensive institution like Harvard. Professor Alesina’s commitment to and belief in the scholarly potential of students, regardless of their background or past experience, was both remarkable and invaluable.
That Professor Alesina was unique became clear to us from the first lecture of his undergraduate class, Economics 1018: “Cultural Economics.” Clad in a stylish velvet blazer and red round glasses, he taught us about topics ranging from empirical tests of Max Weber’s hypotheses to how historical societies’ use of the plough influenced contemporary gender roles. His studies, which drew inspiration from cultural anthropology, political science, and sociology, fundamentally expanded our perception of what economics could be.
He stood out among all professors we have encountered in his ability to engage with and include students in exhilarating discussions. He constantly asked questions, encouraging us to come up with potential explanations for the results of studies before giving us the authors’ own. “Has anyone seen ‘Good Bye, Lenin!’?” he would ask, referring to the German tragicomedy about the fall of the Berlin Wall, before presenting research on the lasting effects of communism on people’s preferences for state intervention. He introduced a unit on the intergenerational persistence of culture by relating it to the early 2000s romantic comedy “Bend it Like Beckham.”
Crucially, Professor Alesina had unparalleled respect for his students’ ideas. For him, an undergraduate’s ideas were as valuable as those of a tenured professor visiting his lectures, and he would not hesitate to stop the latter to make sure that the former could voice a question.
After a presentation in a class one of us took with him, he emailed “great job tonight !!! well done! you and emile were a phenomenal team.” Coming from him, such words of encouragement –– common and incredibly kind –– always seemed effortless.
We both went on to write senior theses under Professor Alesina’s guidance. While we could always rely on his vast knowledge of the issues that interested us, he let us explore questions on our own terms, giving us breathing space to come to our own conclusions. He devoted a lot of effort to including us, two undergraduates, in academic discussion and making the Economics Department feel like a place where we had a voice and belonged. We could always look forward to an (otherwise unexpected) email announcing which exciting new scholar visiting Harvard we should talk to. After one of us got a post-graduate job in a field unrelated to economics, he would make a point of asking about “when the plans to apply to graduate school would come” as a gentle reminder not to let go of that aspiration. That the other will be pursuing a Ph.D. next year would have been impossible without this kind of support.
He enthusiastically agreed to do an independent study with one of us, effectively adding another full class to his schedule that semester. We met every week to discuss the newest papers on the topic of media economics, except for the rare occasions when he was skiing, which was his other great passion. At the end of our reading group of two, he remarked on how much he had learned — a testament to his enduring, exceptionally humble curiosity.
Ultimately, Professor Alesina was a most thoughtful and supportive mentor. Minor hiccups, such as a bad exam grade, did not concern him, or abate his support for our future as researchers. When either of our plans for the future seemed insecure, he offered an opportunity to continue pursuing research, without any reservations. He also generously shared stories about his own personal difficulties, including his first year in the United States as a graduate student. He managed to do all this with his renowned flair and gentle, self-deprecating sense of humor. “I too was a research assistant once — for Adam Smith on ‘The Wealth of Nations,’” he once jokingly remarked.
“Never eat carbonara in the U.S., but also not even in most places in Italy,” was his mischievous recommendation in typical Italian fashion. Asked about important articles on a particular topic, he once said “just read all the papers I wrote.” He was entirely justified in saying so — his mark on economics is as diverse as it is immense.
But our debt to him is more than intellectual. As we find ourselves at the crossroads of college and “the real world,” Professor Alesina’s absence has made what should have been a new beginning feel like a standstill. Without his unwavering support, we likely would not have wanted to pursue our passion for economics. It is difficult to envision the discipline without him. His is a tragic loss to everyone who has known him, and to all who will not have that honor.
Petra Laura Oreskovic ’20 and Fay Asimakopoulos ’20 are graduates of Harvard College.
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