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A one-hour class set Kayla Wilding on a course for the White House.

Wilding was an 18-year-old from Lawrenceville when she signed up for a freshman seminar taught by the head of the Terry’s economics department, Chris Cornwell.

“Dr. Cornwell introduced us to economic research papers and to research,” Wilding said. “He really got to know us. He advised me to take Intermediate Microeconomics as soon as I could so I could get into the more interesting, upper-level courses earlier. Taking that class as a freshman really helped because I was able to take the advanced classes and learn a lot of applicable material sooner than I would have otherwise.”

Kayla Wilding

Economics major Kayla Wilding put school on hold for a year to intern with the Council of Economic Advisers at the White House.

Wilding parlayed her early work in advanced economics (and a hefty GPA) into a job as a research assistant for Jonathan Williams, another economics professor at Terry, and an internship at the Refugee Women’s Network, where she dipped her toes in the sea of microfinance.

But when the time came to look for a second internship, she decided to go big.

“I’m in the business fraternity here, Delta Sigma Pi, and so a lot of my brothers have gone into other areas; we have a lot of people recruiting us from Deloitte or different places,” Wilding said. “But I was more interested in the academic side of economics. I was looking for other ways to get more involved in that aspect of economics. I saw the White House Council of Economic Advisers offered an internship and applied because it looked interesting. I didn’t think I’d actually get it.”

Just days before her junior year began, Wilding received a call from the White House. They asked for an interview.

About a week later, she had a decision to make: Accept a prestigious internship working for the federal government or stay at UGA and finish out the semester.

Wilding, who is pursuing a dual master’s and bachelor’s degree in economics from Terry, chose to put school on hold for a year. It’s hard to pass up an internship at the CEA.

“There are about 10 interns, usually,” she said. “Broadly, we support the upper-level staff. You are assigned to a senior economist and support the research they do on different policies in their area of expertise. I’d go in early and write a brief memo for the chairman for his cabinet meeting that morning. During the day, I’d do literature reviews or finding and cleaning data, making graphs, using STATA and other programs, and lots of Excel time. We put out the Economic Report of the President each year. So during fall semester we spent a lot of time working on that. Cool fact: they put our names in the back! We also got it signed by the chairman.”

The rush of working on important and useful projects made up for the long hours, she said.

“It was a little surreal to get to work on projects with economists that are prominent in their field,” she said. “We had brown bag lunches, where different people would come and present lectures or research. That was great because you get to hear some of the top economic minds discuss different modeling techniques or the pros and cons of their work and critiquing each other.”

After two semesters at the CEA, Wilding booked a summer internship with the Brookings Institution, a historic think tank based in Washington, D.C.

“Brookings is quite different in the way it functions and what the work is,” she said. “The CEA is very fast-paced, and it’s public sector. Brookings is private sector. I wanted to try out different areas. I needed to find out what I liked and what I didn’t. I thought Brookings would be a good fit because I’ve always liked research. It was a great experience. I heard from a lot of different scholars in the economics and political science fields like Larry Summers, Alan Blinder, and Thomas Mann. It was, again, a little surreal to see them speak to you after you’ve read their books and papers.”

Now, Wilding has re-started her junior year with a year’s worth of real-world experience under her belt. She’s more appreciative of the college hours, she said, but wouldn’t trade her experience for anything.

“It’s funny how it changes. Coming into my freshman year, I was set and knew what I wanted to do — I wanted to work in microfinance and international development.  And I’m still really interested in international development, but how things have changed! It’s hard to figure out where I’ll end up. I’m taking things as they come. I’m doing the AB/MA and hopefully I’ll go on to the Ph.D. This summer I’m going to try to do something different, like economic consulting. I think it’ll be quite intellectually stimulating,” she said.