Document Actions

You are here: Home Online Magazine promote & commit That time of my life was …

That time of my life was extraordinary

Interview with Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg, Professor of Economics at Yale University and former Chief Economist at the World Bank

Freiburg, Feb 13, 2024

Pinelopi “Penny” Koujianou Goldberg is Professor of Economics at Yale University and was Chief Economist at the World Bank. Her research there included income distribution and poverty reduction. Her most recent work focuses on the resurgence of protectionism in the USA, trade, poverty and inequality as well as discrimination against women in developing countries. Goldberg studied economics at the University of Freiburg from 1981 to 1986. During this time, she lived in the student housing complex “StuSi” and in Eschholzstraße.

Prof. Dr Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg during her speech at the
Dies Universitatis 2023 at the University of Freiburg. Photo: Jürgen Gocke

Ms Goldberg, why did you decide to study at the University of Freiburg?

Penny Goldberg: It all started with my decision to study in Germany. For people who grow up in a small country like Greece, it is important to know a foreign language and to be exposed to a different culture. So my two sisters and I all ended up at the German high school in Athens, where half of the subjects were taught in German and the other half in Greek. My parents actually had nothing to do with Germany and didn’t speak German themselves. But they were engineers and admired German technology. In addition, my father admired German culture and regarded Germany as the land of great philosophers, composers and, more recently, great engineers. After school, I got a scholarship. All I had to do was choose a German university. Freiburg had a very good reputation for economics and was associated with the name Friedrich von Hayek. I also knew that Freiburg was a very beautiful city and I wanted to live and study in a beautiful place. Last but not least, my parents had friends there. So the decision became clear pretty quickly.

So my advice is: take advantage of the diversity to which you are exposed at a university!

What advice would you give students today?

That's a good question. I really benefited from getting to know other cultures in Freiburg. Although Germany and Greece are both in Europe, there were still big differences between the countries, especially back then. My fellow students also came from different parts of Germany, so I was able to learn about the differences between southern Germany and northern Germany for example. My friends were studying history, medicine or economics, they had different socio-economic backgrounds and very different interests. Finally, there were also people from other countries, even if there were only very few at that time. These experiences were incredibly valuable to me. So my advice is: take advantage of the diversity to which you are exposed at a university! This doesn't mean that you necessarily have to accept other views, but it is valuable to engage with them and have an open mind, especially in this day and age. I would also like to emphasise a second point: I was a good student back then, and most of the people in my study group were too. But when we met, we didn’t just talk about class material. We also talked about the world and explored our own questions. We read the great works of people such as Adam Smith, Karl Marx, Keynes ... We weren’t overly fixated on the textbook for the coming year, getting good grades or even a good job later. In the US at least, students today are often very stressed about their future careers, and I completely understand that. But on the other hand, these years are a unique time where you can actually pursue your own interests and there are relatively few demands on your time. That’s why I often tell my students not to stress too much about grades, but to enjoy the process of learning. That seems pretty obvious, but it’s anything but practiced in this day and age.

How did your time in Freiburg influence your career?

I received a very good education in Freiburg. At that time, economics in Germany looked very different from economics in the US. So most people wouldn't have thought that studying in Germany would be good preparation for studying in the United States. But I have to say that with my education in Freiburg, I was admitted to many top universities in the US. Once I was there, I had an easy time in graduate courses. Professionally, I benefited from having a broader view of the world, from knowing other ways of thinking. There are many good people in my field, but I was always good at seeing the big picture. I think this is also due to the way I grew up - and the way I was educated in Freiburg. It's difficult to be successful in economics if you're not interested in how politics and society work, and do not have a more general liberal arts education. My theatre group in Freiburg was particularly important in that regard. We didn't put on plays ourselves, but we travelled around the country and Switzerland to see some of the best avant-garde theatre. The group was primarily aimed at foreign students so that they could familiarise ourselves with German-speaking culture. From Freiburg, for example, we travelled by train to Zurich or Basel. Before we went to the theatre, we sometimes visited interesting exhibitions, and after the theatre we had dinner in the city and didn't come back until late at night. Sometimes we also went on longer excursions, for example we travelled to Cologne for two or three days. That was really great, also because we got to know a lot of other people. Most of them were students from other European countries, but some came from the US and Germany. I am still grateful to this day that I did those things.

“That time of my life was extraordinary because I had the luxury of eating dinner until midnight or one in the morning and then hopping on my bike to ride back home.”

What was your favourite place to study in Freiburg?

Oh, definitely the library, although it wasn’t as nice back then as it is today. Sometimes I studied alone, but we also met as a study group. Afterwards, we would go to the cafeteria or cook something together.

When you think back to “Penny the student,” what is your best memory?

I think it was our theatre group. But I have a lot of really nice memories of this time, such as putting on dinner parties with my friends. We would cook together and talk until late into the night. That time of my life was extraordinary because I had the luxury of eating dinner until midnight or one in the morning and then hopping on my bike to ride back home.

Which contacts did you find to be most valuable?

In terms of my development, I would say most definitely my family in Greece, my classmates and my study group in Freiburg. As I’ve already said, we had long conversations that went far beyond the subject matter. In Germany, alumni networks are usually not as strong as in the United States, which is why I didn’t have any contact with my fellow students from Germany until recently. Recently, however, we all met up again and we now have more time than we did after our studies. Professionally, I was able to make the most valuable contacts when I accepted university positions, first at Princeton, then at Yale and also a bit at Columbia. There is a relatively small, but strong, network of economists living in the United States. Professionally, these contacts have proven to be the most valuable, but when it comes to who has shaped my thinking, I would definitely mention the time before that, and definitely all my professors from Freiburg to Stanford.

“I therefore hope above all that Freiburg maintains and further expands its outstanding quality in teaching and research.”

How do you view the University of Freiburg in the year 2030? What kind of future do you envision for it?

I see universities as institutions of learning. I therefore hope above all that Freiburg maintains and further expands its outstanding quality in teaching and research. The University already has a worldwide reputation in the natural sciences, especially in biology, and the social sciences are also becoming increasingly strong. It would be great to maintain and further develop the existing strengths. At the same time, I think Freiburg can benefit from its unique location. Although it is a small city that is not so easy to reach by plane, it is located right between three countries, which makes it international and attractive for many students. I would also like University of Freiburg, like all universities, to be a place where innovations and new ideas are developed, promoted and tried out - but where the values that form the foundation of our society, such as the freedom, including freedom of expression, democracy, tolerance, respect for others, and inclusion, are upheld. I think it is more important than ever for universities to be beacons that demonstrate what a civil society is all about.

Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg’s book recommendations
Claudia Goldin: Career and Family, Princeton University Press, 2021.
Melissa Kearney: The Two-Parent Privilege: How Americans Stopped Getting Married and Started Falling Behind, University of Chicago Press, 2023.
Pinelopi Goldberg (with Greg Larson): The Unequal Effects of Globalization, MIT Press, 2023.

Pinelopi Koujianou Goldberg’s favorite places in New York City
Central Park and Metropolitan Museum of Art – “What's in short supply in New York City is green space. That’s why I really like Central Park. Over my lifetime, I have spent a lot of time there. When I first came to New York, later with my kids, now with my dog. I like walking through the park and then going to the Metropolitan Museum of Art to visit just one gallery at a time – otherwise one might easily be overwhelmed by the size of the museum. And after that I usually walk back home through the park.

The interview was conducted by Sonja Jost

Alumni Freiburg
Sonja Jost
+49 761 203 9653

Visit the website of Alumni Freiburg