Junior Seeks to Effect Change Through Economics

June 04, 2013 • Chris Milazzo

Notre Dame economics major Stephen Zerfas teaching English in rural China Notre Dame economics major Stephen Zerfas teaching English in rural China.

Notre Dame junior Stephen Zerfas has a motto that he likes to share only somewhat jokingly: “If you wanted to make a difference in the world 400 years ago, you did it through religion,” he says. “200 years ago, you did it through government; today, you do it through business.

“Clearly, you do not need to work in business to make a difference today,” Zerfas says, “but the statement does reflect my belief that there is great potential at the intersection of the efficiency of the private sector and the often more noble and substantial aims of the public sector.”

The search for that sweet spot, he says, is what led him to pursue an economics major and the Philosophy, Politics, and Economics (PPE) minor in the College of Arts and Letters.

Plans to Make Change

Economics major Stephen Zerfas visits a marketplace in Taiwan Stephen Zerfas enjoys a side trip to Taiwan during his spring 2013 semester in Hong Kong.

Zerfas says he chose Notre Dame—and his course of study in Arts and Letters—because he wanted an environment that would challenge him both academically and personally.

“I’ve never found a subject that consistently challenges me to work at the limits of my critical thinking abilities quite like economics,” he says. “I love how both math equations and everyday logic are equally viable ways to solve problems. Economics, it seems to me, is a bit unique in the way it rewards a mix of quantitative and qualitative logic.

“Equally as challenging, PPE expects nothing short of excellent communication from me while allowing me to explore a broad range of relevant subjects,” he says.

Zerfas also says he appreciates the flexibility students have in Arts and Letters to explore a variety of other disciplines.

“I study economics in an attempt to acquire the tools I will need to make change, while I take my electives in other subjects such as philosophy, psychology, theology, and gender studies in an attempt to identify where I might be able to effect change,” he says.

“My time outside the classroom,” Zerfas adds, “is largely focused on putting it all to the test.”

In Search of Experience

Stephen Zerfas, center, performed a traditional Chinese flag dance for foreign dignitaries visiting Chinese University of Hong Kong Stephen Zerfas, center, performed a traditional Chinese flag dance for foreign dignitaries visiting Chinese University of Hong Kong

So far, Zerfas has spent a summer living and teaching in a homeless shelter and another summer working for GE Healthcare’s financial management program. He then spent his spring 2013 semester at the Chinese University of Hong Kong (CUHK).

The chance to immerse himself in a culture so radically different from his own was too good to pass up. As he notes in his blog, while there he dined at a professor’s home, engaged in late night talks with locals, explored the countryside, traveled to many other countries, and even performed on stage, doing “Snake Kung Fu” (a form of martial arts) for the Vice Chancellor of CUHK and a traditional Chinese dance for foreign dignitaries visiting the university.

All the while, he says, he has tried to use his liberal arts education. “I sometimes find I can bring additional contributions and a clearer form of communication to class,” he says.

His experience studying overseas has fed back into his understanding of economics. “America’s actions have enormous implications around the globe, and whether or not it the public perceives it that way, it should mean America has enormous responsibility.”

Dive in and Explore

Stephen Zerfas took time to explore several Asian countries--including Vietnam--while studying abroad in Hong Kong Vietnam was one of several Asian countries Stephen Zerfas visited while studying abroad in Hong Kong.

To prepare for his senior thesis, Zerfas is traveling to Spain in the summer of 2013 to study Spanish and conduct research on cross-cultural variations in entrepreneurship. His work is funded in part by a grant from the Undergraduate Research Opportunity Program in the Institute for Scholarship in the Liberal Arts.

Reflecting on his time as an Arts and Letters major, Zerfas recommends that students considering a liberal arts degree ask themselves what they are passionate about—and then pursue it.

“You excel when and where you are passionate,” he says. “Employers want smart, dedicated, critical thinkers … many companies that recruit on campus even set out time specifically to recruit talent from the liberal arts.

“All this means that even if you’re unsure, you should dive in and explore the liberal arts,” he advises. “It’s likely, in my opinion, you’ll find something you enjoy.”

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